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Accident Figures show Man and Machine must work in Closer Harmony

PRCSH36 30th August 2011

Advances in technology and a greater awareness of health and safety issues have made the iron and steel industry a much safer place to work than it was just a few decades ago but figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show than the number of accidents involving deaths and serious injury have remained at a constant level for the past 10 years. As a result the focus is now falling on changing the behaviour of operators of materials handling equipment working at steel production sites to create a safer and more productive working environment, writes David Cooper, Managing Director of Cooper SH.

The most recent figures from the HSE reveal that there were nine fatal accidents reported at steel production facilities between 2001 and 2009, seven of these involving fork lift trucks or other loading equipment. During the same period 419 serious injuries were reported, with around 70 per cent attributed to forklift trucks, reach trucks, overhead cranes and other material handling vehicles and equipment.

A closer inspection of the figures reveals that the totals for each year have remained fairly constant, both in terms of fatalities and serious injuries. Whilst there were three fatal accidents in 2002/03 and two in 2006/07, there were no fatalities between 2004 and 2006. The remaining years during the period in question saw just one fatality per 12 month period.

Although few conclusions can be drawn from such small numbers, the figures for serious injuries are much more helpful, with 44 reported incidents in 2008/09 compared to 45 in 2001/02. The intervening years saw very similar figures with the highest number of accidents reported in 2004/05, 62 in total.

Overall the figures suggest that improvements in health and safety in the steel industry have reached something of a plateau, and this is driving manufacturers of lifting and steel transportation equipment to look at innovative ways to influence behaviour through new technology. Recent innovations have included curve control technology that prevents drivers from turning too quickly and therefore reducing the risk of vehicles overturning. Many of the systems available on the market are able to continuously monitor speed and the position of the steering wheel, reducing speed automatically if the driver turns too sharply.

These systems can now be complemented with additional hydraulic devices that stop trucks from becoming unstable on inclines, particularly useful at large-scale steel production facilities that cover a wide area that is not particularly flat.

Another important development is the introduction of radio frequency identification devices (RFID) and Konecranes – a market leader in heavy materials handling– recently introduced its Nearguard system, which should further reduce the risk of accidents during the movement of steel around production plants. The innovative safety alert system features sensors fitted to each corner of the truck that locates nearby objects by reacting to RFID tags. These tags can be placed on other mobile equipment or even safety clothing worn by other people on the site and the driver is alerted to their proximity by an audible alarm and a colour screen.

Whilst such technology will obviously play a significant part in future health and safety improvements, the human factor is where the greatest progress can be made. For example, Konecranes has also launched an alcohol prohibiter device that drivers must breathe into before operating the vehicle.

However, devices such as this only target one extreme of poor behaviour and for a sustained improvement in safety a more holistic approach must be taken in the longer-term.

Technology can never fully eliminate human error and so cargo operators must combine investment in vehicles with appropriate training. This training needs to go beyond simple instruction on how to use the equipment but look at almost every aspect of their behaviour in the workplace.

The benefits of such an approach go far beyond meeting necessary legal health and safety requirements – or even a moral obligation to ensure that lives are not shattered by unnecessary accidents.

In today’s economic environment it is more important than ever to eliminate unnecessary costs and the link between business efficiency and health and safety has become increasingly important.

It is in this area that developing new technology that specifically targets driver behaviour is set to have most impact. Vehicle monitoring systems have been around for a while, but the next generation are being fine tuned to make a real impact on driver behaviour.

A typical example of poor practice that impacts on both safety and efficiency is the tendency of drivers to increase engine speed in the belief that it will provide optimum hydraulic performance. In reality, maximum performance is reached at approximately two-thirds of maximum engine speed but many drivers continue to work the accelerator pedal in the mistaken belief they are getting more power.

The result is more fuel burned, increased CO2 emissions and greater wear and tear on the vehicle – not to mention a greater risk of accidents from adopting such an aggressive operating style.

Previous management systems have been able to monitor overall fleet performance but systems such as Konecrane’s ECO Drive provide information on the performance of individual trucks.

The onboard computerised system provides real-time information on operation times, use of hydraulics, number of lifts, idling time and fuel used and the raw data can then provide an overall picture of performance.

And, as each driver has to log on before the truck will start it is possible to compare the performance of operators, making it easy to identify those with poor driving styles. As a result managers can target training more effectively whilst encouraging those that perform well to share best practice. Such an approach has already seen some companies reduce their fuel costs by up to eight per cent.

The past few decades may have seen some reduction in accidents and a significant improvement in efficiency at UK steel facilities, but if both statistics are to continue to improve, then more effort is needed to ensure that technology enables man and machine to work in even closer harmony.

David Cooper is Managing Director of Cooper SH, the largest independent supplier of specialist material handling equipment to the iron and steel industry. It is also the country’s main distributor of the Konecranes port equipment range, that includes reachstackers, heavy lift trucks, gantry cranes and straddle carriers.

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Editor’s Notes

Operating in all sectors of heavy lifting across the UK and Ireland, Cooper Specialised Handling is the exclusive UK distributor for SveTruck, RAM Spreaders, Telestack bulk material handling conveying systems and Sany mobile handling equipment, sole UK importer and exclusive distributor for Mantsinen cranes, Movella Translifters, TEC Containers and a long-term specialist in Konecranes lift trucks.  The company, which celebrated 20 years in business in 2018, also has a dedicated after-sales division, Cooper Handling Solutions, which specialises in engineering support.

Independently owned, Cooper offers total solutions in both solids and bulk handling. Its customised solutions comprise high quality, high value products and reliable service for businesses operating in the most challenging heavy handling environments, including ports, freight handling, inter-modal terminals, manufacturing and other heavy lifting industries.