Why Equipment Maintenance Matters from a Safety Standpoint

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Preventative Maintenance: Experts offer tips on best maintenance practices and outline the problems that can arise if you don’t take proper maintenance seriously.


When it comes to safety, many people think about machine guarding or lockout/tagout procedures. But one area that often gets overlooked is the importance of preventative maintenance.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t specifically keep data on the number and types of accidents that are believed to have been caused by improperly maintained equipment. An OSHA spokesperson commented, “Following proper maintenance and repair procedures contributes significantly to the safety of the maintenance crew and machine operators. Employers are required to provide workers assigned to these jobs with appropriate training so that they can identify potential trouble spots and make corrections before an incident occurs.”

Employers and workers should also regularly inspect machinery for damage, the spokesperson said.

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Leslie Stockel, a certified safety professional, shares some insights based on her 27 years of experience in safety consulting. Stockel currently works as a part-time safety consultant for Environmental & Safety Support Group (ESSG) based in Edmond, Oklahoma. ESSG has been a leader since 1993 that helps companies across all industries to evaluate and maximize their strengths while improving weaknesses in their safety, environmental and chemical management programs.

Stockel is also a clinical assistant professor in the Fire Protection & Safety Engineering Technology Program at Oklahoma State University, and has mill experience, having worked for a large multi-national wood products corporation at one time.

“The general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t use a piece of equipment that is malfunctioning, not operating as specified by the manufacturer or that’s been modified in a way that wasn’t recommended by the manufacturer,” she said.

Fortunately, most companies, even mom and pops, have some kind of organized program to track their equipment maintenance, she said. This can range from pen and paper charts to sophisticated software applications and programs that track everything for you.

The method that you use isn’t really important. What’s important is that performing routine maintenance and repairs puts you in control of the situation, which is the opposite of what happens when you let maintenance go.

“A failure to maintain equipment means that at some point it reaches the breaking point, and then you have an unexpected and uncontrolled situation, and that’s when injuries occur,” Stockel explained.

A machine will often break down at its weakest point, she said, giving the example of a hose that ruptures and sprays out high-pressure gas or liquid. High-pressure-vessels and pipes can also corrode over time and are also susceptible to bursting; metal will rust and pumps will fail over time, as well.

“If you don’t do preventative maintenance on equipment, it’s going to fail. Everything fails eventually,” Stockel said. The “potential for harm” occurs when there is a person who interacts with the machinery on a regular basis who is near it when it fails.

Equipment Lifespan and Safety

“The best course of action is to do preventative maintenance and also to know what the life cycle of the equipment is,” Stockel said. “If you have a saw that has a 20-year lifespan and you’re on Year 25, you’re going to have a problem.”

She recalled a fatal accident at a southern mill in the early 2000s that OSHA reported. The accident involved a debarker that was so old that the mill could no longer find replacement parts for it and even the manufacturer said that it couldn’t be fixed, yet the mill was trying to keep it running. A worker was killed while welding on the machine, when it was not totally locked out.

Even if a manufacturer says their equipment will last forever, when you get down to the engineering specifications, equipment does have a lifespan, Stockel explained.

Compliance vs. Maintenance Focus

When ESSG goes in to assess a company’s needs, it looks at equipment from a compliance standpoint, rather than a maintenance standpoint for the most part, said Stockel, Some standards set by OSHA do specifically cover equipment maintenance. For example, guards on saws and other rotating equipment must be kept in good working order. Fire hazards must be minimized by proper maintenance of electrical components of machinery and so on. In most cases, equipment maintenance is up to each business.

What tends to happen with guards at sawmills is that people will remove them for maintenance and not put them back, or an operator may remove the guard on purpose because it is hindering productivity in some way. “The person removing it is not bad; they are just trying to get their work done,” she said.

What they may not understand is that they are causing serious risks to themselves and to others who work with the machinery, as well as more potential harm to productivity than good.

“Machines with missing or damaged safeguards should be put out of service to prevent worker injury,” the OSHA spokesperson said. “If safeguards must be removed to repair machines or provide routine maintenance, lockout/tagout procedures must be implemented.”

Likewise, if maintenance or repair workers are exposed to electrical hazards or moving machine parts, all power sources must be shut off and locked out before work begins, according to OSHA.

The Correlation between Safety and Production

“When ESSG goes to a site, we also do some predictions based on illnesses, injuries and accidents,” Stockel said. “Generally what we’ve found is when a company pays really close attention to the health and safety of their workplace for their employees and their equipment, it has a positive effect on their productivity and their operations. They tend to have less downtime and are more efficient.”

Accidents, on the other hand, result in expensive repairs and equipment downtime, expensive worker’s compensation claims, hefty OSHA fines if the company is found to have violations, not to mention the pain and suffering of the employee or employees involved, and the emotional trauma to their families and co-workers.

“When someone is in an accident, it affects everyone around them,” Stockel said. “There are also reputation costs. Sometimes you can’t even bid on a job if your incident rates are too high. Or if you have a community reputation of being an unsafe workplace, it’s hard to find workers. It’s sort of a downward spiral in all aspects of your business.”

“Sawmills have a lot of moving, rotating, hazardous equipment, and safety is a challenge. It’s also a very intensive business from a labor standpoint,” Stockel explained. “Yet there are companies out there that have figured out how to operate safely and keep their accidents and injuries down to a very minimum number or even zero. It boils down to leadership and whether they believe that accidents are preventable. And when you look back at accidents, yes, they are all 100% preventable.”

“Personally, my experience has been that when you have a leader of a company that says, ‘I’m not going to tolerate accidents. I’ll shut down this piece of equipment before I risk someone getting hurt,’ that attitude tends to trickle down to everyone.”

The biggest challenge from a productivity standpoint is when a company has new leadership that’s safety conscious, but workers aren’t used to that kind of mentality, she explained. Production can slow down and costs can increase for a bit, as new safety measures are put in place, but in the long-run, increased safety should result in increased production and lower costs.

Besides consulting services, ESSG also provides online health and safety training through its SafetyU and online Safety Data Sheets and chemical management screening software. To learn more, please visit www.essg.com.

OSHA’s On-site Consultation Program also offers free and confidential safety and occupational health advice to small and medium-sized businesses nationwide. Consultants help employers identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing injury and illness prevention programs. On-site consultation services are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations.