During the economic downturn, many manufacturers had a single-minded focus on staying afloat. Now that recovery is becoming reality, manufacturers must determine how to adjust to yet another “new normal” for their plant operations.

For many, safety considerations are playing an increasingly important role as they work to increase productivity.

Unfortunately, reductions in headcount have left many without the bandwidth to perform safety assessments in addition to standard job duties. If the people-power does exist, on-staff maintenance engineers may have general knowledge of the plant overall, but lack specialized safety-related proficiency.

For these reasons, organizations are increasingly leveraging the expertise of consulting engineers, to help fill gaps in both staffing and skills — and to ensure that manufacturing operations move toward recovery.

Assessment phases

Although exact requirements vary from one organization to another, the reason that organizations hire safety consultants is universal: There is a specific safety-related issue (or opportunity) needing improvement.

In most cases, the consultant completes the same phases of the assessment, regardless of project goals — current state analysis, review of standards and specifications, remediation and improvement, and cost-benefit analysis.

However, the specific tasks that a safety consultant completes depends on the focus area and project goals designated by the company.

Phase 1: Current state analysis

Consulting engineers generally kick off a comprehensive assessment with a current state analysis. This is an opportunity to assess the current situation and perform a detailed analysis of how the plant is operating, to determine areas for improvement.

During this phase, a safety consultant doing a hazard assessment might inspect machines and work cells to determine the obvious points of operation and power transmission hazards. The consultant might also take detailed information gathered offsite for more in-depth analysis, to identify high-impact areas for improvement.

Phase 2: Standards/specification review

In the next phase of the assessment, the consultant reviews applicable industry standards and specifications to determine whether they're being met and where there are gaps, or where violations or hazards exist.

At this point, a safety consultant assessing machine safety risk would review specifications, such as OSHA, TÜV, IEC, NFPA, ANSI, and ASSE. The consultant might also clarify safeguarding requirements and define the appropriate control circuit architecture and safety performance level needed for compliance.

Phase 3-4: Recommendations and cost-benefit analysis

Using the information gathered during the previous analysis and standards review phases, the safety consultant makes specific recommendations for improvements. At the same time, he or she also conducts a cost-benefit analysis offering insight on the potential savings of making changes and costs of doing nothing.

Case in point: An engineer making an arc flash assessment would appraise labeling and floor marking to identify potential hazards during the standards review. Then during the final phase, he or she would provide detailed improvement recommendations — for example, to add warning labels to switchgears and substations, and offer training classes for new hires in operations and maintenance.