An inspector performs a safety inspection on a manufacturing line, evaluating the impact of a safety retrofit

As with any project, it’s always cheaper and easier to design new features before the overall system is built rather than trying to retrofit them later. Safety retrofit projects by necessity involve managing multiple demands and dealing with constant tugs-of-war between the design, the bill of materials, the installation labor, and the desire to avoid production delays.

Minimizing the impact of line unavailability during the implementation stage

On a complex production line, a complete safety retrofit may require 5-7 days to implement fully. During this time, the line will most likely be unavailable to run production. Depending on plant capacity and production demands, this lost production time may be significant, and plant managers and production schedulers will not be happy about it.

During this stage, it’s essential to communicate with production planning about your intentions and practice good project management. Be realistic about how long the project is going to take. You need to be brutally honest about the timetable and expect that the first few installations will take longer than you hope.

Layout a schedule and communicate it to all stakeholders for feedback. If possible, don’t schedule the retrofit at peak times – you should consult with the plant and production managers to determine the best time. Be sure to get senior management buy-in for the safety solution and installation schedule so that you can resolve any conflicts promptly.

It might be worth it to consider designing a modular installation schedule that will allow the plant to run intermittent production. For example, you can physically install the brackets and light curtain hardware first and save the process of tying it all into the control system for the final step. If an emergency production need occurs, the machine will still be able to run.

Managing unforeseen delays after implementation

Once work begins, you’re likely to discover equipment problems that are completely unrelated to the safety solution itself (for example, brittle wiring or poorly performing hydraulic or pneumatic systems) that will require repairs. These might force you to adjust your safety design, causing unforeseen delays that will exacerbate the frustrations of the production managers.

Be sure to plan, as much as you can, for the unexpected. Allow for a contingency in both your budget and your schedule. Unless you have a very experienced crew and a well-stocked parts room, avoid the temptation to schedule the retrofit during off-hours, weekends or holidays. If problems arise, the team won’t have easy access to the materials or expertise to resolve them.

Designing to support production as well as compliance

Beware of the false economy of focusing only on achieving compliance in your safety design. A solution that prioritizes compliance at the expense of production is a poor design, and by hampering production, it might also fail at its stated purpose of keeping operators safe. It’s important to avoid adopting any solution before you understand how it impacts the workflow.

If a safety solution slows down production or prevents employees from doing their jobs efficiently, it will soon be removed or bypassed. For example, you can achieve compliance by installing tamper-resistant fasteners on an access door, but the maintenance personnel might be tempted to replace them with standard fasteners if they need to use the door frequently.

Safety interlock option

A better – albeit slightly more expensive – solution in the above scenario would be a safety interlock. The extra financial investment will help you maintain both compliance and productivity over the long term. If safety measures are removed or bypassed after installation, you’ll have incurred the cost of the safety solution even while your machine remains unsafe.

It’s important to involve all the stakeholders – including production, maintenance, EHS and management – and fully understand their requirements before you dive into your safety solution design. Interview the actual operators and observe them performing their jobs, ideally on different shifts.

When you watch the operators on their shift, avoid focusing on “what they’re supposed to do” and pay attention to what they do. The former represents an administrative control, which is the least effective method for protecting workers from harm. Design your solution, if possible, around what the operators actually need to do in order to get the job done.

Review the solution with the system’s various users (stakeholders) to identify problems and get their buy-in. There are often multiple ways to achieve compliance, and you’ll need to weigh the cost of the safety solution relative to its impact on production. Workflow changes may be necessary to keep operators safe, but you want to minimize the impact of such changes.

Ultimately, the design of a safety retrofit needs to include a comprehensive consideration of production efficiency and workflow in addition to the measures that are necessary for compliance. Ignoring the needs of production will cause hidden costs to emerge over the long term.

This article originally appeared on Smart Industry Forum on Nov. 4, 2019.