Metalworking and precision engineering

Time, competition, escalating costs and other factors can put the pressure on metalworking and precision engineering, but it doesn’t mean safety can be given the back seat.
 
Besides the risk management considerations required to protect every business and its people, there are some that require special attention or are unique to the metalworking and precision engineering sector.

There are risk topics not detailed here that affect all businesses, including fire risk assessment, health and safety policy and people management.

We also recommend that you take the time to read our advice about business continuity. Issues like machinery/plant breakdown and supply chain failure can be very damaging for companies involved in metalworking and precision engineerng.

More than ever businesses are becoming increasingly reliant on technological connectivity, and for metalworking and precision engineering companies this can mean the sensitive details of financial transactions, customer data, research and development work are kept on connected devices and cloud-based storage.

Not only this, as the development of automated machinery increases, so does the opportunities for cyber criminals to attack those too, causing costly disruptions. Amongst other measures like changing passwords regularly and we recommend getting penetration tests (pentests) carried out on a regular basis and whenever changes to the infrastructure are made. This method works by 'attacking' the system so that security weaknesses can be identified.

Metalworking and precision engineering businesses are likely to obtain and hold confidential information on clients and other third parties. If not handled and/or disposed of correctly, it can leave you and your clients vulnerable to theft, fraud and other risks. Computers in workshops and are not only at cyber risk, but physical theft can result in data losses too.

Businesses have a responsibility of obtaining, processing and controlling data in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Due to the potential fines that may be involved in any GDPR breaches, it is important to have robust  systems in place to ensure sensitive information doesn't get into the wrong hands. Examples being, keeping confidential information only for as long as is absolutely necessary, and shredding confidential papers before recycling/disposing of them and/or utilising a workplace services provider for disposal of confidential papers and data. 

Electricity poses risks of fire and to health and safety. Electrical installations and equipment used incorrectly, not maintained, or damaged can spark a fire or electrocute workers. Unlike other hazards, electricity cannot be seen or heard and it’s too late by the time you feel it to escape. Electrocution can kill, and where shocks aren’t fatal they may cause severe and permanent injuries.

Regular reviews of the wiring and protective devices within your premises can help reduce the risk of fires and shocks. Wiring and protective devices may not match up to current standards and as your business expands and electrical installations and equipment advance there is a risk that they will become overloaded.

Inspections by competent electricians or electrical contractors must also be carried out at appropriate intervals so that issues can be found and the danger removed.

In the event of a fire at your premises, you want the fire to be detected and controlled as quickly as possible, with the minimum amount of damage to your stock, machines and buildings. Fire alarms and fire detection systems are often designed just for human safety, so they won’t always be best arranged to cater for production related fires as well. A fire risk assessment will determine whether the means of detecting and controlling a fire at your premises are adequate. 

Fire control is just as important as detection as measures can prevent a fire from spreading, destroying machinery and premises and it may even extinguish it, allowing firefighters access and saving lives and businesses.

When designed and installed by an appropriate professional, a fire suppression system can protect the building as a whole or individual areas with high hazard machinery. The water damage from a sprinkler system should be considerably less than fire damage and will save lives.

On top of a suppression system, with complex machinery in the premises, workers need to be suitably trained in using firefighting equipment.

In the metalworking and precision engineering industry, things can change all the time, for example, a slightly different or alternative product or material is ordered or a process is altered. It is therefore necessary to perform risk assessments on the potential exposure to hazardous substances.

Acids, chemicals, oils, fumes (such as welding or from surface treatment), different metals and dusts are all examples of hazardous substances that can cause illness and disease, including cancer, asthma and dermatitis.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations prohibits the use of hazardous substances at work unless the risks from such substances have been assessed and exposure prevented or adequately controlled.

Intellectual property (IP) is defined as "something that you create using your mind", and there are various types of protection for it. With increased competition in the metalworking and precision engineering industry, innovation and research and development acts as an incentive to survive, but protecting inventions and innovation is vital.

Copyright, patents, designs and trademarks are all types of intellectual property protection. Your IP is likely to be a valuable asset and so it is worth looking into which IP rights are automatic and which you need to apply for. It’s important to keep any work secret and protected until you’ve had a chance to register them and you may require a non-disclosure agreement with those you discuss it with before registration.

Don’t forget the risk that can come from your own employees and ensure that they are fully aware of the potential cyber and intruder threats that could leave your business vulnerable to intellectual property theft and how to avoid becoming a victim.

Although IP rights generally belong to the employer, it is a good idea to include separate clauses in an employees’ contract to avoid confusing arising. 

Equipment, vehicles and installations like cranes, forklift trucks and goods and passenger lifts can be used to avoid manual handling tasks, but injuries, property damage and even fatalities can occur if that equipment isn't suitable for the task or if it's used incorrectly.

It is important to understand what the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) cover and your duties under them. Any lifting operation should be carefully risk assessed and only carried out in safe environments, using equipment that is subject to a maintenance and inspection regime and by individuals with appropriate training.

Metalworking and precision engineering companies that have a significant investment in CNC machines and other computerised equipment can find themselves badly affected by a thunderstorm. It is important to understand that your building does not have to be struck by lightning. The strike can be some distance away and your equipment can still be affected, such as, telecommunication systems.

Power surges can, however, occur for reasons other than lightning strikes, so installing suitable surge protection devices for all your computers and other sensitive electrical / electronic equipment is often a good investment. It's not possible to foresee and defend against all threats to your IT systems - accidents happen, for instance - so all data essential to the running of your business needs to be backed up. Ideally, you should have more than one server and back-ups should be kept in different locations so that in the event one of your premises is damaged or destroyed (i.e. by fire or flood) you will still have the data that your business relies on. You might also want to consider using a trusted cloud service to back up your data (in addition to physical back-ups), but make sure to check the security precautions your chosen provider uses..

Many work-related injuries and fatalities occur when an employee intervenes in the operation of a machine. There are various reasons why an employee may need to intervene, such as if a part has jammed or is misaligned, or the machine needs cleaning, servicing, or a tool or mould needs changing.

If problems with machines are planned for, a formal written Safe System of Work (SSOW) is drawn up, and employees are properly trained, then various interventions can be prevented. Sadly, in many workplaces the opposite is true. There is no planning or assessment, no SSOW or adequate training, supervision is inadequate and consequently, too many avoidable serious injuries occur.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER), impose a number of duties on employers, including the duty to ensure that the equipment is (for health and safety purposes) suitable and safe for use. PUWER sets out the order in which certain types of protective measures have to be put into place, where it is practicable to do so. First on the list is the provision of guards to prevent access to dangerous parts of machines, including those that move, might eject materials, could draw in, trap and/or crush parts of the body, have sharp edges or have the potential to cause burns, scalds or electric shocks.

Injuries due to manual handling, such as back pain, cuts, bruising and sprains, can come about from movements involved in a motion as simple as shifting a heavy box across a desk or lifting an awkward item from a checkout belt. Consequently, even employees who primarily work in customer services, as well as those on the shop floor and in warehouses, should be provided with training to ensure they know how to prevent injuries during manual handling. This training should happen when their employment starts, during induction training, and be reinforced by refresher training on a regular basis.

During training sessions, employees must be made aware of what appropriate equipment is available, and how to use it, so that, as much as possible, they can avoid manual handling tasks. This point tops the hierarchy of measures outlined by the Manual Handling Operations Regulations (MHOR) which imposes a duty to control the risk on employers.

Metalworking and precision engineering workshops are usually very noisy environments, especially if effective measures are not being taken to minimise the noise levels from machines and processes. A prolonged exposure to a noise, regardless of whether it measures below the Exposure Action Values (EAV) can cause workers to become distracted and irritable and this can lead to hypertension and sleep disturbance, just as tinnitus might.

Health and safety duty holders can keep the levels and amount of noise down in the work environment through a variety of measures, including a 'buy quiet' purchasing policy, installation of products that can reduce noise (e.g. mats on hard floors) and regular maintenance of equipment prone to making disruptive noise, such as roll cages. A noise assessment should be carried out at least every two years and whenever there are changes in the working environment that make the current one redundant. Based on the results of the assessment, personal protective equipment and health surveillance should be provided to workers identified as being at risk.

Being aware of what potential pollutants you have onsite and making appropriate arrangements can go a long way to reducing the chance of a pollution incident. Undertake a risk assessment to identify what might lead to a leak or spillage of a hazardous material, or pollutant e.g. from a process, fuel oils, goods in storage, or waste materials awaiting disposal.

Environmental pollution law is complex, wide ranging and not totally consistent across the whole of the UK, so it is often advisable to seek professional advice or get a full environmental and ecological impact assessment or audit done for each premise that you manage.

Consider how you would limit the spread if any leak or spill, particularly from entering drains, water courses, etc., and safely dispose of the contained and recovered materials. 

There are various reasons why industrial processes can increase the risk of a fire or explosion. The properties of the materials used and what is involved in the process itself (e.g. a heated/hot process) can pose an increased fire risk, as can equipment failure, human intervention, ignition of combustible dusts, such as powder coatings, flammable vapours from paints and varnishes, sprayed and dip coatings and waste materials and by-products of the process.

With the right level of planning and precautionary actions, many process related fires or explosions can be prevented. Every employer should complete a Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) risk assessment and make sure all parties involved know their responsibilities and duties.

Some metals can increase the risk of fire because they are reactive and easily ignited. It is very important to understand the properties of these metals and how your processes may affect them and so increase the risk of fire.

With some reactive metals, the fire and explosion hazard can greatly depend on what form the metal is in and/or how the metal is being processed, converted or machined. Examples of common metals which fall into this category are magnesium, titanium and aluminium.

Some metals are more easily ignited when they are in a finely divided form, so they can be ignited by a low energy ignition source or a small amount of heat, be it from a machine or process, and even from explosive atmospheres when their dust mixes with the air.

Metal dusts can spontaneously ignite – even iron dust in the air can create an explosive atmosphere, as a number of serious explosions and fatalities have proven.

Some metals will react with water (and other substances) causing highly flammable and explosive hydrogen gas to be evolved and in these situations, it is vital that the correct fire extinguisher is used or else the situation can be made worse.

Although there are benefits to shift work, some undesirable effects can be health problems, disruption of the internal body clock, sleep disturbance and loss, errors, productivity and accidents.

Systems must be established to protect shift workers. Is shift work completely necessary? If so, how can you as an employer comply with the law, what type of work is being carried out during a morning, day and late-night shift and whether night workers have the same facilities and procedures compared to day workers? If employees are working alone or are mobile when on shift then consider the risks and supervision needed for lone and mobile workers. If there was an accident in the workshop with a lone worker on shift, how would this individual get help?

Rest periods and days between shifts must also be thought about as workers need sufficient time to commute, eat, sleep and participate in domestic and social activities. 

Taking steps to reduce and eliminate this type of incident not only makes your workplace safer for you, your employees and visitors, but can reduce the amount of time that you may have to spend dealing with the aftermath of such accidents.

Risk assessments, employee training and robust housekeeping standards can go a long way to preventing these types of accidents as the causes can often be simply and easily remedied. In a metalworking and precision engineering environment a lot of the hazards probably take the form of trailing cables, build-up of waste and spillages.

Some users of degreasing units may not be aware of how a fire can occur when using a non-flammable or high flashpoint solvent. Fires often occur because the unit is not being properly maintained and/or because there is a build-up of combustible and flammable contaminants within its sump. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) cite a case where a fire occurred in a trichloroethylene vapour-degreasing tank. The solvent level fell to such an extent that the accumulated grease/oil overheated. The low solvent level indicator was defective so the operator, who had left the tank unattended, was unaware that manual topping up was required.

To degrease some metals, a ‘stabilised’ solvent is needed. This is because some solvents react violently with certain metals. For instance, some chlorinated solvents can react violently with light metals, such as aluminium. A degreasing solvent can undergo a dangerous exothermic reaction if aluminium is present in a finely divided form (e.g. aluminium swarf), producing acidic fumes and solvent vapour. It can also react dangerously with strong alkalis producing a toxic and spontaneously flammable gas which is explosive in air.

There is also a solvent that can react with fresh zinc surfaces, such as newly galvanised metal, to emit the same hazardous gas. Knowing which metals shouldn’t be degreased with which solvents is vital to avoid accidents and injuries and you should ensure that all employees involved with such materials have undertaken the appropriate training.

Historically, in metalworking and precision engineering premises, thieves have targeted selected raw materials, unfinished and finished goods as well as tools and equipment. Recent changes in legislation combined with various police operations have had some success in reducing metal thefts but this does not mean businesses should become complacent. Whoever you are and wherever you are, if your security precautions are poor then there are plenty of intruders out there ready and willing to take advantage. 
Automation means that production can take place with little human intervention. Whilst this may make perfect business sense, you should consider what might happen if an automated machine develops a fault or part of the control/monitoring system fails. What is the potential for a fire or explosion and what protection systems and procedures are in place to detect and extinguish or control them? Unless the hazard to human health makes it inadvisable, it is always best for processes to be carried out when trained employees are present.

The hazard of vibration is often neglected in the workplace. Workers can be exposed to whole-body vibration (WBV) when using mobile machines or work vehicles, or vibration can affect the hands or arms, such as in situations involving the use of hand-held power tools. Both types can cause employees health problems.

A single exposure to a severe vibration can cause injury or affect health, as can long-term exposure to vibration from power tools and vehicles. In the metalworking and precision engineering industry, vibration from activities such as manual fettling can be a significant hazard for the employees, due to both the number of hours they can be exposed and the magnitude of the vibrations. Exposure above the legal limit is not uncommon.

The Health and Safety Executive’s website has a number of case studies which show how some businesses have been able to reduce this type of exposure by making changes to their processes. The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations (CVWR) were introduced to ensure that employers address and control this hazard and, like other similar regulations, they impose duties on them.

There is an array of legislation applicable to environmental and waste matters, and different parts of the UK have variations in how these apply.

A common theme is the Statutory Duty of Care, which applies to anyone who produces, stores, or transports waste, to keep it safe and make sure they are authorised to take it and can transport, recycle or dispose of it safely.

Metalworking and precision engineering can have a vast range of waste that needs to be dealt with appropriately, including packaging. Damaged stock, worn-out parts and tools and hazardous substances. Having effective waste management will create a safer working environment.

It might be surprising for some how much disruption can be caused if a building is damaged by water and also how easily it can happen. Poorly maintained roofs and gutters and pipes that freeze and/or burst in extreme cold are common sources for water that leads to extensive damage.

Metalworking and precision engineering businesses have a range of expensive machinery and computers in workshops and even exposure to moist air can cause significant disruption. Whether water damage is due to a storm or escape of water, procedures should be in place in case of water leak or flood to prevent business interruption for an extended amount of time.

We understand how busy metalworking and precision engineering premises can be and know that being busy can sometimes lead to complacency when it comes to working safely. 

Accidents often happen because little has been done to keep employees and visitors safe from moving vehicles. Loading docks, yards, and storage areas with fork lift trucks can be especially hazardous. Accidents involving people struck by vehicles are all too common in metalworking and precision engineering premises. Failure to control this hazard effectively can expose employees and visitors to the risk of death or serious injury. Additional risk can exist where vehicles are moving around storage racking with products on, raising the potential for the structures to collapse and trap people.