Maintenance challenges safety

These days, maintenance, just like many other industrial services, is increasingly outsourced. On the one hand, this brings various benefits with regards to resource allocation and reliability management. On the other, it brings some specific challenges to safety management. Choosing a highly qualified service provider is one way to manage maintenance-related risks.

As maintenance and service operations are carried out by experts who possess detailed knowledge of processes and their functions, client companies can allocate their own resources to core operations. Maintenance has several features that increase the level of difficulty when it comes to safety management.

For example, property damage or business interruption resulting from errors during maintenance can be a major cost in any industry. It is also known that maintenance tasks involve various safety risks. Such challenges, and ways to tackle them, are also known by Maintpartner, a Finnish company that operates in the Baltic Sea region.

Maintpartner provides maintenance and service to various industries. In Finland, the company employs approximately 1,000 people and is constantly growing. "We want to take good care of our employees," says Saija Pottala, who is responsible for HSEQ at Maintpartner. Due to the specific aspects of maintenance, occupational safety on client sites can sometimes be particularly challenging.

Countless ways of failing – the issue of reliability

Generally, maintenance operations are risky, both in the probability and severity of the potential consequences. This applies to both post-maintenance system reliability and to occupational safety during actual maintenance work, which are the two different aspects of safety that relate to maintenance.

Reliability is typically affected by the “human contribution” which, in this context, refers to various kinds of errors and mistakes that may happen during maintenance, sometimes resulting in minor incidents or even major disasters after the work has been completed and the technical system is up and running again.

This issue has been widely touched upon by various accident investigators, reliability engineers and scientific researchers in their efforts to understand and prevent maintenance- induced weaknesses in technical systems. An excellent demonstration has been provided by James Reason with his “nuts and bolts” example (see, for example, Reason & Hobbs, 2003).

In this example, he illustrates with a simple system how disassembly is practically error-free. The tricky part is in re-assembly, where there is only one way to re-assemble a system correctly, i.e. exactly as it was before it was disassembled.

Conversely, there are multiple ways of doing it incorrectly.  This, along with a number of major disasters with a background in unsuccessful maintenance, have sometimes been used as an example that demonstrates the human contribution to accidents and incidents, also reflecting on post-maintenance system reliability.

Essential to keep technical systems up and running

Although maintenance may pose a risk to system reliability, it is still essential to keep technical systems up and running safely and reliably. Another, sometimes forgotten, issue is safety risks that may appear at any phase of a maintenance operation. “Technical systems are only seldom, if ever, designed for maintenance and repairs,” says Saija Pottala. “This is one of the major issues that impacts maintenance safety”. A maintenance operation typically
involves multiple phases, in which repairing or replacing a part and/or re-adjustment is only one phase.

The operation usually also involves system disassembly and reassembly, preceded by the preparatory work phases and followed by cleaning up the site. Thus, there can be a wide variety of separate tasks and work phases involved in a maintenance operation.

Accident statistics and reports indicate that the causes of injury in maintenance vary greatly. For example, an injury can be caused by energies and substances within the system being maintained. Accidents can also be caused by the surrounding operating environment, i.e. structures and activities that do not relate directly to the maintenance task in question. Lower limb injuries are typical consequences of maintenance-related accidents, for example when something falls down during disassembly.

Other typical problems are musculoskeletal injuries relating to poor ergonomics. This often relates to poor system maintainability, basically referring to the features that can make a technical system easy or difficult to maintain.

From the perspective of occupational safety

From the perspective of occupational safety, the number of tasks is one feature that makes maintenance work particularly challenging. Another factor relates to time: downtime for an industrial system is costly. Thus, preventive maintenance, not to mention corrective, unplanned repairs, must be performed efficiently.

This may result in time pressure, which could increase the number and severity of risks if the work has to carried out in exceptional conditions and/or with limited information about the fault and its exact location. Saija Pottala confirms: “Defective maintainability causes safety and ergonomics to deteriorate in task execution. In preventive maintenance, the planning of safety and ergonomics can be easier to carry out, compared to repairs. As far as repairs are concerned, time pressure is particularly high”.

It may also be presumed that the cognitive load is high when a task includes troubleshooting under time pressure. Good maintainability can make work easier, safer and faster, while improving post-maintenance reliability. Respectively, allocating enough time and choosing a high-quality service provider is one way to manage maintenance-related reliability and safety risks.

The safety challenges of maintenance business

As with all outsourced services, Maintpartner’s employees also face various kinds of risks depending on their customer sites. The risks may relate to the operating environment and conditions and/or the actual tasks being performed.

On a task level, disassembly is particularly regarded as risky because, for example, the cause of a possible malfunction may be unknown, the failure mode may be misinterpreted and/or the energies and substances may be extremely dangerous if not securely separated from the system. Moreover, disassembly and reassembly double the number of task phases, along with the related risks. Between them, there is the actual task, e.g. replacing a part or removing a jam from a process.

The tasks are sometimes completed through troubleshooting and by basically always restoring the process and cleaning the site. From the perspective of an individual employee, everyday tasks should involve inherently hazard identification and relevant, practical measures to manage risks.

Company safety management personnel must be aware of the amount and type of risks, which vary greatly between different clients and different tasks. Maintenance-related safety issues should be considered from at least three different viewpoints:

  1. the task changes but the operating environment remains the same (e.g. outsourced factory maintenance with established customers sites),
  2. the operating environment changes but the task remains the same (e.g. aftersales service), and
  3. both vary (e.g. evening out temporary workload peaks between customer sites).

While doing the actual work, each individual employee have the best possibility to impact their own safety.


And some ways of tackling them

Maintpartner’s efforts in safety and health management have paid off: its accident statistics have improved remarkably in recent years. This positive progress is reflected in both the number and the severity of accidents, as the number of sick-leave days per accident has decreased. Yet, there are no quick wins: “Our commitment to safety has been systematic and long term. Each employee needs to be aware of the safety processes and commit to safety in their everyday work,” says Saija Pottala. “A good safety record requires cooperation. Looking after yourself and others”.

Close cooperation between service provider and client is an effective way of promoting maintenance safety. This cooperation must also include fluent information flow so that both the client and service provider are aware of the current safety-related topics. Such topics could be, for example, changes in site operations and/or procedures. In addition, the client is aware of the facilities and operations on site and has most probably conducted risk assessments and implemented safety management measures to reduce risks.

This information is also of key importance to maintenance, although several risks may relate to actual maintenance operations, requiring detailed safety planning each time before an operation is started.

“When starting with a new client, we review all processes and practices together with them. We also agree on joint procedures,” says Pottala, clarifying Maintpartner’s practices. “In addition, we perform a safety review and assess the site-specific risks”. Good knowledge and experience regarding the maintained system can help to reduce risks significantly. From this perspective, good cooperation with the operators is of focal importance.

What next?

Irrespective the ways of development in technology and industry, it is likely that maintenance will always be necessary at some points during the life cycle of a technical system. Maintenance may also be the kind of task that cannot be fully automated and requires a human contribution in one way or another.

The current and future development in industry may still influence maintenance work, for example, 3D printing or the Internet of Things. More complex and interdependent systems may also reflect on the execution of maintenance task, not to mention client expectations regarding quick and smooth system recovery and disturbance-free operation. Irrespective of the ways in which production systems are operated, there will probably always be maintenance workers with their hands on the systems, literally. 

From Maintpartner’s perspective, the current safety challenges are still quite practical, relating, for example, to client communication: “Client expectations regarding safety are constantly increasing. However, there are several ways of calculating and interpreting the safety figures. They may be calculated differently, although the concepts are apparently similar,” says Saija Pottala. Meanwhile, technological advancements are positively expected. “Novel technologies may help to analyse information from a technical system. This can also help to plan safety more easily and effectively”. 

Article by
Salla Lind-Kohvakka

Salla Lind-Kohvakka

Development Manager,
Risk Management, If

Contact Salla Lind-Kohvakka

Further reading:

  • Reason, J. & Hobbs, A. 2003. Managing Maintenance Error - A Practical Guide. Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington.
  • Lind, S. 2009. Accident sources in industrial maintenance operations. Proposals for identification, modelling and management of accident risks. Edita Prima Oy, Helsinki.