Switching the lights back on: Maintenance and Preparation

Equipment downtime is managed most effectively when it is planned. However, this is not always possible when unforeseen technical faults arise in machinery or in unforeseeable exceptional circumstances such as the Coronavirus pandemic.

After a period of downtime, maintenance technicians and engineers will understandably be keen to get back to work and to start manufacturing efficiently. As a surge in demand is likely in the second half of the calendar year, maximising output is more important than ever before and so companies who are caught off guard will find it more difficult if equipment has not been well maintained up to this point. Effective maintenance strategies and stringent testing and inspection are essential for companies to successfully get back up and running at full capacity as quickly as possible and to ensure that equipment is ready for extended use.

The importance of maintenance after downtime

In order to ensure that health and safety conditions are maintained and that deterioration liable to result in dangerous situations can be detected and remedied in good time, the employer shall ensure that work equipment exposed to conditions causing such deterioration is subject to: (a) periodic inspections and, where appropriate, testing by competent persons within the meaning of national laws and/or practices; (b) special inspections by competent persons within the meaning of national laws and/or practices each time that exceptional circumstances which are liable to jeopardise the safety of the work equipment have occurred, such as modification work, accidents, natural phenomena or prolonged periods of inactivity.

Directive 2009/104 EC of the European Parliament and of the Council

Prolonged inactivity as a result of downtime caused by Covid-19 falls under the category of exceptional circumstances that may jeopardise safety. As such, testing of equipment when returning to work is not only good practice, but necessary by law.

Three types of checks can be undertaken and will be used depending on the type of equipment:

  • Thorough examination to ensure machinery is fully functional. This will often include an element of testing.
  • Visual inspection to determine any obvious external deterioration and to ensure that guarding is in good condition.
  • Pre-use checks carried out by the user to ensure that equipment is functioning correctly prior to use.

Where downtime (planned or unplanned) has occurred previously, it is likely to have been undertaken on a machine-by-machine basis to minimise disruption. However, in the wake of Covid-19 where entire premises have been shut down and multiple types of machinery have experienced downtime, getting equipment up and running again is likely to be a bigger task than ever seen before.

All equipment that has safety critical features should be inspected when returning to work. Particular attention should be paid to equipment that is likely to have become unsafe due to conditions such as stress, wear, impact, corrosion, heat, vibration and misuse.  

Inspecting the workplace

As machinery and equipment does not operate in isolation, an inspection of the workplace in its entirety may be useful. This includes:

  • People – typically those using equipment, those within the vicinity of potential hazardous equipment and those who are testing the equipment.
  • Environment – this includes hazards such as lighting, temperature, noise, vibration and ventilation.
  • Equipment – such as the materials, tools and machinery that are used to provide a service or to create a product.
  • Process – this is the way in which a user interacts with other people, the environment and the equipment whilst working.

Whilst regular maintenance serves to assess these elements on a frequent basis, this period of inactivity offers a rare but invaluable opportunity to undertake a comprehensive approach when evaluating all aspects of the workplace. This is particularly important as new considerations and processes may need to be implemented to mitigate against additional health and safety risks caused by the pandemic. This could include adapting equipment and work spaces to maintain social distancing between employees or the inclusion of rotas to ensure that equipment is operated by one user at a time.

Thorough testing

After a prolonged period of inactivity, it is inevitable that businesses will want to get up and running again as soon as possible. However, taking the time to properly test equipment and consider effective changes moving forward will be worthwhile in the long-run.

Do not compromise on quality when inspecting and testing machinery, despite the increase in quantity of checks required. For effective testing and inspection:

  1. Follow guidelines when determining what to include in an inspection- this includes using sources such as manufacturer/supplier handbooks, health and safety guidelines, expert guidance and in-house knowledge.                                                                                                                                                                                                     
  2. Keep accurate and precise records- when testing equipment accurate records are essential to ensure that duplication is avoided and that machinery is not neglected. They will also be useful for the future.                                                             
  3. Appoint a competent person- maintenance should always be carried out by an expert. Some tasks may require engaging an external contractor but the majority of tasks should be undertaken in-house although additional training may be required.                                                                                                                                           
  4. Clean thoroughly- cleaning equipment ensures full visibility for inspections and alerts users to issues such as leaks and damage. Essential for testing, cleaning is useful for preventative maintenance and will improve the life of machinery.

Upgrade your maintenance strategy

As factories and workshops are increasingly reducing output and temporarily suspending production there is likely be more time available to schedule critical inspections and maintenance. The current period of downtime also provides an opportunity to upgrade the maintenance strategy for critical assets. Companies can now go further than sustaining the existing maintenance strategy by replacing it with a superior strategy that may be more beneficial in the long term.

Whilst saving costs is a paramount concern during periods of inactivity, investing in maintenance should remain a priority.

  • Predictive maintenance

For companies still using preventative maintenance measures, now more than ever it is time to explore strategies for predictive maintenance with a view to implementing them in readiness for a return to work. This is one way of ensuring that equipment downtime is minimised in the future and that component lifetime is maximised.

  • Improve safety protocols

In this period of Coronavirus management, now is the time to increase communications and encourage employee engagement with regards to maintaining and updating company safety protocols. With the inclusion of new changes for social distancing and increased hand hygiene, it makes sense to use this opportunity for an overhaul in safety protocols where appropriate.

  • Explore new innovations

Machinery downtime offers the opportunity to research new innovations and to explore how new technology can be incorporated to improve production, increase safety measures and maximise output. Where new technologies provide multiple benefits these can offer operational and cultural advantages in addition to added safety, improving processes and the workplace more broadly.

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