Andy Matthews, production director of National Hickman’s Fibercill division, discusses the perilous relationship between man and machine and why safety standards are important.
I have a strong personal reason for being concerned about manufacturing safety. In 1978, I began my career at National Hickman as a teenage apprentice on the shop floor, armed with a Wham! hairstyle and boundless enthusiasm. However, on January 16, 1981, while setting up a moulding machine, I moved my hand too close to a poorly guarded saw blade unit on the machine’s bottom. Despite surgery, I was left with half of my left index finger missing and my self-esteem in shambles. I swore I would never work in a saw mill again.
I decided to get back on the horse and keep going, largely because of my father’s encouragement. I worked my way up the company ladder, eventually becoming a director of National Hickman’s Fibercill division, and vowed that I would never expect any of my employees to work in an unsafe environment.
Since 1981, the manufacturing industry has come a long way in terms of safety. The European Union’s increasingly stringent CE certification has put pressure on manufacturers across the continent to improve safety standards. According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, the sector reported over 250 workplace fatalities in 1974, while the figure for 2013-14 was less than a quarter of that figure.
But we have no reason to be smug. Manufacturing employs roughly one-tenth of the British workforce, which corresponds to the percentage of workplace fatalities. However, we aren’t doing so well in terms of non-fatal injuries. Almost one in every five injuries to British workers still occur in our industry, indicating that some manufacturers are still cutting corners.
When purchasing machinery, the first step for me is to strike the right balance between output and safety. Because we now operate in a global market, the high-performance machines that I source can come from anywhere in the world and are not necessarily held to the same standards as those in the United Kingdom. I need to pay at least as much attention to their safety features as I do to their price and potential productivity.
Sawblades are a fact of life in the timber industry, so even machines with the highest safety certifications must be handled with caution. Blades will always need to be replaced, and a machine designed to cut quickly through MDF/wood doesn’t care what else is in its way. When a machine is operated by hand, supervision and procedures must be twice as stringent. This is just one of the reasons we’ve turned to robotics/automation for a lot of our wood moulding and preparation. It creates a barrier between the danger and the man.
People’s safety is not something that can be taken for granted. We’ve won 15 British and International Safety Council awards in a row, but each year we have to work a little harder. We must demonstrate not only that our working environment meets the appropriate standards, but also that we have all of the processes, reports, inspections, and controls in place to ensure that we are constantly vigilant and prepared to address new risks as they arise.
The UK manufacturing industry can boast safety standards that are among the highest in the world. The fact that the construction for the hugely successful 2012 Olympics was the first to be completed without a single fatality is testament to this. It demonstrates something that we are well aware of here at Hickman – that real success in manufacturing, no matter how much sophisticated machinery you have, ultimately depends on treating your workforce well. And that means keeping them safe.