Dust control, Dust management, Features

Where production and profit meet

Martin Engineering examines the way conveyors are specified, designed, purchased, operated and maintained.

Engineers have spent decades attempting to design, install and maintain belt conveyor components that eliminate fugitive materials to improve the working environment, reduce accidents and increase productivity.

But why?

It is estimated that 85 per cent of belt conveyor maintenance and production problems are related to fugitive materials – dust, spillage and carryback.[1] Accordingly, a similar percentage of conveyor safety issues arise from these same fugitive materials.

The number of workplace injuries has seen a steep decline over the last century, but we have reached a point of diminishing returns. To achieve the next level of improvement in reducing conveyor accidents, the approach to these complex systems must change, including the way conveyors are specified, designed, purchased, operated and maintained.

Root causes
It has been found that there are five root causes of workplace injuries and fatalities that lead directly to an increased release of fugitive materials, which in turn result in scenarios that encourage workers to potentially react unsafely.

These five root causes:

• Production-first culture
• Low-bid purchasing
• Needlessly complex designs
• Over-regulation
• Understaffing or undertrained personnel

Production-first culture
When the focus is on production at the cost of all else, it’s little wonder that workers take risks to keep conveyors running. Corporate slogans touting workplace safety and environmentalism can become a smoke screen for what the workers really see: production comes before safety.

Obviously, the reason a company operates is production. So to counter the hypocrisy, corporations would be better off admitting up front that production is the focus.

A better and more realistic goal would be ‘production done safely’.

Low-bid purchasing
A poor management culture starts in the boardroom, where decisions on capital expenditures are typically based on feasibility studies that only consider direct costs as identified by conventional accounting practices.

Historically, purchasing decisions are almost universally based on a ‘low-bid’ process. The details are left to be resolved as operating costs (and often maintenance expenses) and are not thoroughly considered in the engineering or construction phases.

In the long run, the cost of ‘buying cheap’ can get very expensive.

A low-bid system often fails to deliver the required production capacity, while also posing greater hazards to workers. In fact, low-bid designs often turn out to be the costliest, because they can generate significant expenses for subsequent modifications as a result of issues discovered during trials and start-up.

The focus should instead be on lowest cost over the life of the system.

Return on safety cost versus time analysis. Image: Martin Engineering.

Needlessly complex designs
Complexity does not necessarily improve safety. Simple designs are often harder to realise, but the extra design time required to simplify the operation and maintenance of conveyor components that directly affect production and cleanliness has an enormous payoff.

Unfortunately, the same benefits are almost impossible to incorporate in low-bid designs due to the intersection of the customer perception that those benefits “cost too much” and the supplier’s need to “win the bid”.

Industry groups and associations, standards-writing organisations, countries, states and cities have issued thousands of pages of performance-based safety regulations. In many cases, rules within a country contradict each other or are not applicable to the industry in which they are enforced.

The effort required for suppliers to comply with so many rules is immense, and these efforts are often negated by the varying opinions of a multitude of inspectors. Conforming to the complicated assortment of regulations and passing opinion-based inspections becomes problematic at best, but it seems clear that countries with specification-based standards have lower fatality rates.

Performance versus specification-based standards. Image: Martin Engineering.

Understaffing or undertrained personnel
The lack of adequate funding for maintenance is epidemic in the bulk material handling industry. Millions are spent on components, yet these investments are often made without the added maintenance budget needed to keep the components in a sound and safe operating condition.

Generally speaking, the size of a maintenance crew is based on mean time between failure (MTBF) for major pieces of equipment, based on the illogical conclusion that workers can maintain all the minor components of the system in their “spare” time.

Mean time between failures. Image: Martin Engineering.

Production done safely
Most equipment is unfortunately not designed for easy inspection or safe maintenance.

As a result, during scheduled production outages maintenance of minor components must often be deferred due to access conflicts, lack of time or budgetary constraints. This further reduces components’ functionality, often to the point where they become useless and unrepairable.

Conveyors are powerful systems designed to be rugged and durable to deliver near-constant operation, and the belt can be dragged across piles of dirt or inoperative idlers for extended periods of time, as long as the major functions are kept running.

If the components critical to maintaining a clean and safe work environment were made service-friendly and installed with adequate access, much of the beneficial maintenance could be done safely while the conveyor is in operation.

Enclosed systems with inspection doors protect workers from fugitive material hazards while they check operation. Image: Martin Engineering.

While most maintenance workers are skilled technicians, they rarely understand the conveyor holistically.

Conveyors are complex, integrated systems – a change to one component will often have unintended consequences for others, affecting the rest of the system. Without a complete understanding of how conveyors are designed and components selected, maintenance becomes an exercise in finding the longest-lasting band-aids to treat the symptoms rather than solving the root causes.

Before long, an accumulation of bad choices in treating symptoms results in a system that cannot operate at maximum efficiency.

Treating symptoms shortens component life – belt life is often sacrificed – resulting in the need for increased spare parts, which in turn increases the need for maintenance labour.

Safety pays
A conveyor improvement investment would rarely be justified on safety alone, and current financial analyses do not include safety in a meaningful way.

We’ve reached a point where engineering controls, additional regulations and protective equipment are no longer sufficient to continue the trend of improving safety. Instead, we must change the way we address conveyor systems.

This change must include the way conveyor components are specified, designed, purchased, operated and maintained. Only through this approach can conveyor operators achieve the next level of improvement in reducing accidents.

Hierarchy of controls. Image: Martin Engineering.

An in-depth financial analysis shows that additional design time (to address the above root causes) and purchasing on the basis of true lifecycle costs (for longevity) will have a high return over time.

Increased worker safety is a by-product of this methodology. With this increase in design time, the altered purchasing habits and the increase in safety are used in the financial justification as inputs, and the return on investment is much higher than with rapid designs and low bid.

This mathematical phenomenon is exhibiting itself in reality. A survey of the literature indicates companies that truly focus on safety in the design and practice are more productive and operate cleaner, safer facilities. Conveyor-owning companies must be committed to making conveyors as safe as possible in order to maximise earnings and value.

When combined, an altered way of looking at accidents financially, a change in design methodology, and a change in purchasing methodology will allow a conveyor operator to create a safer environment, increase efficiency and achieve the goal of production done safely.

Subscribe to Safe to Work to get the safety news that matters to the Australian mining industry.

Send this to a friend