The manufacturing sector is made up of a diverse range of industries, from heavy industries to specialist or delicate operations, from large multi-sites to small family-run businesses. Some are growing industries, whilst others are in decline. The sector employs an estimated 2.5m workers. This is equal to approximately 8.5% of the UK workforce, but yet 16% of the UK reported injuries to employees arising from this sector. 

In manufacturing over the past five years, each year an average of 22 workers died in workplace accidents. There was also an average of more than 2,589 reports of major injuries and about 8,656 reports of injuries that kept workers away from work for seven days or more (source: link).

Many manufacturing workers also suffer ill health from workplace exposures. It is estimated that each year an average of 85,000 workers suffer from work-related ill-health (new or long-standing) (source: Labour Force Survey)

The Challenges

1.  An ageing workforce

Common to this sector is an ageing workforce, with a predicted 30% of workers aged over 50. As these workers retire, their knowledge and experience can be lost. Replacing them can be hard as today’s generation don’t aspire to working in the manufacturing sector, and Brexit presents a possible impending employment crisis, as recruiting foreign workers prepared to do these jobs becomes harder.

That said, the reality on the ground with workers of a certain generation can be a resistance to change and poor adaptation to increasing safety governance. An attitude of “I’ve always done it this way, and I’m alright” does not go hand-in-hand with a positive safety culture. An aging workforce must move with the times; otherwise, the whole future of the company is at risk from health and safety enforcement action and/or civil claim.

2.  Automation and Artificial Intelligence

The number of people employed in manufacturing has shrunk considerably over the past 30 years, partly as a result of automation and improved production techniques, and partly as a result of cheaper imports and the export of production capacity by GB manufacturers.

Indeed, as low-skill, low-wage jobs in manufacturing disappear in favor of automation, this brings with it new risks – the risk of a human working alongside a machine. Many robots operate a safe distance from humans, often separated by space, cages, light guards or pressure guards. Problems can arise when humans require close contact with robots during set-up, programming, testing and repair or where humans take risks and enter ‘danger zones’. The next generation of intelligent, free-roaming automatons ramp up the risk of human contact even further.

3. A plethora of hazards

The health or safety hazards in the manufacturing sector are often specific to the processes involved, which differ substantially between industry and subsector. Often companies focus on the physical dangers, typically those associated with machinery use and guarding. Yet, more commonly overlooked are the occupational health dangers. Whether contact dermatitis from exposure to machine oils and lubricants, legionella exposure from cutting fluids, carcinogen exposure from welding fume, vibration exposure from polishing, linishing or fettling tools, or machine noise-causing occupational hearing loss. These occupational health risks are seriously disabling and on the HSE ‘hit list’ for targeted intervention, so don’t get caught out!

4. Greater risk of injury

Employees in the manufacturing sector work with machinery, from milling machines, planers, grinding machines, lathes, threading machines, and other production tools. These employees are therefore at greater risk of industrial accidents and injuries. This fact is supported in UK injury statistics.

  • Eye injuries

Eye injuries from dust, swarf and other particles in addition to chemical splashes are commonly reported but can be easily prevented by wearing safety goggles with side-eye shields when performing tasks with a risk of material ejection, such as welding, drilling, hammering, sanding, spraying, chipping and smelting.

  • Machine injuries

Working with manufacturing machines poses several risks to employees. Machines that have gears, sprockets, pulleys and rotating shafts pose risks of entanglement. When a machine has two hard surfaces that move together, employees are at risk of crush injuries. Machines that have sharp edges or perform scissoring actions put workers at risk of cuts, punctures and severed digits or limbs. Employees are also at risk of trip-and-fall accidents if a machine has trailing cables or hoses. Employers should install machine guards to reduce the risk of these accidents. Turning machines off and isolating them at the main power supply, with a lock-off ‘permit to work’ system while they undergo maintenance, is another way to reduce the risk of machine injuries.

  • Exposure to fume and dusts 

Manufacturing processes can generate a wide range of fumes and dusts. When processing materials, it is really important you understand what dusts and fumes are being generated so you can prevent your employees from being exposed to any hazardous substances. COSHH assessments often do not consider processed dust and fume, it is therefore important you consider your processes and then apply the hierarchy of control to eliminate wherever possible exposure.

5. HSE enforcement – the FFI stick, not the carrot!

In the majority of manufacturing industries health and safety legislation is enforced by the HSE.

The HSE’s policy on FFI (Fee’s for Intervention – a charge to businesses of £160.00 per hour for a material breach) is acknowledged by industry experts as a means of plugging a 35% cut to its budget as well as raising revenue for the Treasury. This has resulted in a system whereby the HSE now look for material breaches where in the past, they would have just given an informal notice. The manufacturing sector is one of the industries that have been hit the hardest. In June 2016, for example, 1460 FFI invoices were sent totalling £962,081. This brought the total bill facing the sector in 2016 to £5.2m!