Hazards encountered in industrial automation

Recognizing safety hazards is important in any work environment—in the office, commissioning on the factory floor, or in the middle of construction. See 5 tips on avoiding common vulnerabilities.

By Evan Pederson November 11, 2014

Safety is a topic we hear about often in the modern workplace. Industry rules and standards about equipment and procedures address common risks, and are continually evolving to address new ones. But one component of safety that depends on the individual is the need to stay aware of one’s surroundings. Learning what things to be on the lookout for is therefore critical, and it’s an ongoing process.

For those of us in the industrial automation business, there are some unique factors that affect the hazards we face, particularly during commissioning. Often, development is done primarily in an office environment, while commissioning can be done literally on the factory floor. It often happens while construction is still ongoing. Equipment that was still being installed one day may be running the next. Sometimes we’re seeing the site for the first time, and it is unfamiliar. We might be trying to program a programmable logic controller (PLC) from a laptop—doing “desk” work—on a fold-out table next to a maze of pipes and motors. And at times we are called on to do tasks that might fall outside our typical range of work. All of this can happen while simultaneously be under pressure to get things running.

All of these factors can translate to things to look out for while commissioning a project. Here are some examples I’ve encountered over the years:

  • Tripping hazards. This is always one to watch out for, but especially so during a startup if there is ongoing construction. Even if only for short periods, drains might not have covers, pipes, or fittings might be lose on the floor, and flooring surfaces can be extra slick or uneven.
  • Burn hazards. Sometimes steam lines will transition from out of service to in service during the course of the startup. If lines have been cold for a week, it can be easy to forget that they have become hot, and sometimes insulation might not have been installed yet.
  • Falling debris hazards. Along with trip hazards, this goes along with construction. I’ve been on a site where tile work was being done on the wall above our work area, including tile demolition.
  • Pipe clamps and caps. On new construction especially, if pipe clamps are being used it’s not uncommon for some to be left lose by the pipefitters. Same with caps. I know of one case where a cap came off during a first water run and soaked a welder who was working on an adjacent pipe. He wasn’t injured, but it was definitely a near miss.
  • Lock out procedures. For new construction, where new power distribution equipment and motor control centers are being installed, lock out can become a little more complex than normal, especially when combined with the need to test new equipment.
  • Incomplete construction. Once before doing a test run of a cleaning circuit, I walked the line and found that some drain lines had not been completed. Without the lines in place, there was a risk of pouring hot water onto people walking below.

Unique hazards don’t need to lead to accidents. They just require extra attention. Some examples:

  1. Don’t think of the factory floor as being the same as an office, even if the work is sometimes the same.
  2. Take safety seriously. Take the extra time required to be safe.
  3. Don’t get tunnel vision. We might only have a narrowly defined task to complete, but paying attention to what others are doing around us can alert us to when things aren’t right.
  4. Communicate. Especially when dealing with the energizing of equipment for testing or running for the first time. Be sure everyone understands what is supposed to happen and when.
  5. Walk around. Sometimes just taking a few minutes to walk around the work area or follow the process lines can lead to identifying both process and safety issues.

Along with the rules, safety is a cultural matter. For the unique hazards present during startups, shared experiences, stories of accidents and near misses can sometimes be the difference between recognizing a problem in time and missing it until it’s too late. What are some safety observations you’ve had during commissioning?

This post was written by Evan Pederson. Evan is an Engineer II at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more.