Q: What’s the Facilities Guy’s view of the role of the engineering professional on safety?
A: “For safety is not a gadget but a state of mind.” ~Eleanor Everet
Today’s controlled environments present an obstacle course of varied safety challenges for the facilities professional ranging from the benign to the life threatening. The program to manage these assorted challenges must match that diversity—demanding utilization of your engineering skills but also your people skills, your training skills, and your management skills. While the storage and utilization of hazardous production materials is an exercise in engineering, it’s usually during use that these materials intersect with the “wildcard” that is the root of most unwanted emissions, spills, releases, and toxic reactions: the human factor. But it’s also important to keep the risk in perspective. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, tripping and falling cause three times more workplace injuries than harmful substances.
At the same time, let’s not underestimate the potential severity of safety issues in the controlled environment. A review of controlled environment workplace deaths in the past decade reveal causal factors that no lab or clean manufacturing facilities professional wants to deal with including explosions, fire, electrocution, poisoning, radiation, equipment malfunctions, and assorted viral and bacterial infections.
In this month’s column, we’ll travel outside the comfort zone of engineering and algorithms to look at managing the less precise people and process side of safety. “There is more to heaven and earth, Horatio”… than your MSDS data bank. So we’ll leave discussions about HPM engineering, process piping, fume hoods, etc. to another column.
People always, engineering sometimes
No matter how precisely engineered a lab, cleanroom, dry room, vivarium, or other controlled environment may be, people are the catalyst that makes it function. And it’s people that introduce the most significant risk into your planning and design efforts. Given that, today’s facilities professional needs to think beyond engineering and engage in the design and development of standards, processes, and procedures to ensure the safe and uninterrupted operation of the facility. Further, the facilities professional needs to ensure that proper training protocols and procedures are instituted and remain vibrant.
While controlled environments are rife with materials that have safety consequences and require special handling, engineering is a science that can be controlled. The safety “wild card” in a controlled environment is people. Photo: SMRT-Architects and Engineering
While this responsibility has traditionally been the domain of Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) staff, EH&S operations are more frequently migrating under the umbrella of the facilities department. This scenario makes it your ultimate responsibility to create a culture of safety that is infused throughout every operation and procedure.
Even if your organization maintains a separate EH&S department, it’s incumbent upon the facilities group to ensure their involvement in every aspect of safety planning and program execution.
Utter the word “safety” or “safety training” and there is an almost Pavlovian reaction among many employees to avoid the topic or tune out. To counter that, the first challenge is to make safety an ingrained part of your organization’s culture. This will only succeed if that message and sense of urgency is delivered from the top. It’s up to you to drive your CEO to the conclusion that safety matters. Then, develop a sophisticated communications program that ingrains the safety message in almost everything your organization does. We’re not talking off the shelf “inspirational posters” here—they inspire no one and are the subject of Dilbert-like employee comments.
Today’s business climate adds further complications: many in-house facilities groups are stretched thin and many have downsized in recent years, while regulations continue to grow and processes and operations become ever more sophisticated. In an environment of competing demands, it’s important to ensure the safety program doesn’t slip to the back burner because that can burn you, your department, and your organization.
If your staffing levels are driving a less than optimal level of attention to safety, consider teaming with a trusted outside consultant. For engineering issues, look to an engineering firm with experience in controlled environments. For safety issues, there are consulting firms who can function as your extended staff, assisting with EH&S considerations for design, permits and licensing, safety program development and execution, new employee or annual training, and a host of other services. They can be retained for a single contract or on an ongoing basis to provide a comprehensive program.
Planning for what you hope never happens
Risk management is the science of identifying potential risks, assessing their likely occurrence, and developing appropriate measures (including training) to eliminate, reduce, or mitigate those risks. It’s important to integrate that process into a continuous loop of surveillance, mitigation, training, and testing to ensure an effective safety program.
Understand the universe you need to plan for—identify potential safety risks for each location. Review possible risks in key categories like technology, system or equipment malfunctions, natural disaster, and the myriad opportunities caused by the human factor —whether through error or intentional acts including sabotage, terrorism, and accident.
The next step is to slice the categories into a more granular analysis of each location’s vulnerabilities and the potential impacts to your people and organization—including a look at the impacts a safety incident has on production, the investment community if you’re publicly held, your company reputation (which will impact your business flow), and your financials.
Always remember that the impact on your employees and their families must be your first priority—not a media sound bite. As part of your safety planning, engage management in the hard core exercise of scenario planning, including the organization’s support and commitment to employees in the event of a prolonged shutdown.
An ounce of prevention
Your risk assessment exercise carries a bonus: the opportunity to reduce, minimize, or eliminate identified risks. Structure this as a separate effort, with designated mitigation teams. The value of their work will never be fully quantifiable since a safety incident avoided can’t be recorded. Keep the mitigation team fully informed of the safety team’s efforts and vice-versa— the groups should work separately but parallel and fully informed and closely coordinated.
Your SWAT team
Every facility that deals with hazardous materials or processes needs to have a vibrant first response team in place—equipped and trained to deal with the potential incidents you outlined in your planning, above. Select the members of the Emergency Response Team (ERT) carefully and make sure your organization invests in their continued training. Make sure strong relationships are built with the local and county or state public safety teams —police, fire, and medical emergency professionals —and conduct joint training exercises several times each year. The coordination of emergency response roles, processes, and procedures between your inside team and the professional responders is critical. Your team needs to understand jurisdictions, including when incidents are elevated beyond the local levels, up through and including federal authorities. An actual emergency situation is no time to sort out command and control roles. Chaos costs money and sometimes lives.
A parting word
Integrating safety into the very backbone of your organization’s culture has to be Job #1. To do it well is an ongoing, relentless challenge with little perceptible achievement. Pure engineering projects are much more interesting. But at the end of the day, ensuring the safety of your employees and the public is a role too important to ignore or marginalize.
Richard Bilodeau’s 30-year career includes plant engineering positions in clean manufacturing. He has designed, operated, and supervised the construction of advanced technology facilities and engineered clean manufacturing facilities for lithium-ion batteries, medical devices, electronics, and pharmaceuticals. Contact: TheFacilitiesGuy@smrtinc.com