Moving waste in a safe and responsible manner

Written by: RWW | Published:

The Health & Safety Executive ranks waste and recycling as a high risk industry. Although the sector employs only about 0.6% of the employees in the UK, it accounts for over 4% of all workplace fatalities. Freelance writer, Joe Morris looks at how the materials handling sector is working to keep its employees safe.

With the dust settling after the penultimate budget of this parliament, and another financial year drawing to a close, it’s the season when the ever present shadow of government legislation, for good and for ill, becomes especially prominent in the collective mindset of the nation’s businesses. 

While for many the jury is still out on the overall benefits of the budget - with exporters pleased with an expansion of lending schemes and some welcome funds for fighting waste crime tempered by an icily-received freeze on the carbon price floor - away from the glare of this government set-piece there are many ongoing issues in the industry that could be helped or hindered by future regulation. 

One area which has been a bête noir for some of the most extreme free marketeers, but which is rightly regarded as a critical in a sector rife with potential hazards like waste management, is health and safety. 

Most of these accidents are caused by the powerful machinery essential to many waste management activities. For example, in a typical paper recycling facility, scrap material is carried to a shredder or baling press by a conveyor system. 

Although most conveyors have guard rails, the material itself has to be introduced somewhere, and it is via these access points that things are most likely to go wrong. 

It is not unknown for workers to enter a conveyor system to clear a blockage without switching machinery off, which is a clear recipe for disaster. However it happens, an accident involving a shredder or baler is likely to have very unpleasant consequences.

Accident prevention has traditionally involved a variety of preventative measures such as emergency stop buttons, pull-cords, video monitors and buddy systems. But an injured, unconscious or trapped worker may not be in a position to hit an e-stop or pull a cord in time. And in busy environments, even vigilant co-workers may behave their attention distracted, with the all-too-real potential for disastrous results.

The smarter approach, now officially recommended by the Confederation of Paper Industries, involves the use of automatic personnel protection systems. 

These systems monitor worker locations and stop the machinery in an emergency,  preventing further injury and death. Of course, when the stakes are this high, reliability is paramount. 

Recycling facilities are hostile environments for electronics as they are cold, damp and prone to high levels of electrical interference. As a result, the design of effective personnel detection technology requires a great deal of fine-tuning. Any such setup needs to have an absolutely foolproof way of distinguishing human beings from material on the conveyor. 

Safetech

The fact that conveyors are usually constructed from metal complicates the job of any sensor system further still. Sunderland-based suppliers of safety equipment for workers, Safetech say they have given this thorny issue a great deal of thought. The company’s general manager, Daniel Smith, explains how their solution works.

“The most effective way to do this is for each person who works around the hazardous area to wear a detector belt, fitted with transponders. If the worker is detected in the danger zone, the machinery is stopped and further harm or death is prevented, even if the person is injured, unconscious, trapped or concealed.

“As the HSE requires that employers should do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of their workers, it seems that an automatic personnel protection system is essential in this type of facility and could save companies a heavy fine for non-compliance,” continues Smith.

An automatic system could have other financial benefits too. By eliminating the need for a buddy system, staffing costs can be reduced. It is likely that a rigorous, smart approach to safety will drive down insurance premiums too. Of course, safety measures are never all about the bottom line - no responsible manager wants to put their workforce in positions of avoidable danger. 

Smith again: “We’ve been in the automatic personnel protection business since 1986 and since then have acquired a massive amount of experience and know-how. Our latest product is Guardian, which takes advantage of recent developments in hi-tech electronics. The intelligence at the core of Guardian provides sophisticated set-up and diagnostics facilities. And one Guardian system can offer protection for several conveyors, which means dramatic cost savings for customers.”

The Guardian system can offer protection for workers involved in a wide range of processes, including refuse recycling, plants handling paper, board, plastic, metal textiles, furniture and electrical appliances, and many manufacturing and engineering functions. The systems are reported to be optimised to cope with high levels of electrical interference and extremes of temperature and humidity.

Guardian is said to be proving popular and the company has recently moved into new premises to cope with the demand. Its systems are reportedly in use across the UK, Europe and North America. And following several product enquiries from potential customers in Australia and New Zealand, the company now has plans to expand into the southern hemisphere, too.

JCB

This safety-conscious design ethos has begun to creep into other parts of the industry, as JCB’s new wheeled loading shovels illustrate. 

Ranging from the 9-tonne JCB 411 through to the 22-tonne JCB 457 Wastemaster, these models have been tailored to the arduous conditions found in the sector. 

As well as helping to protect the planet - the two smallest models are fitted with JCB’s Ecomax engine, which meets the EU Stage IIIB/US Tier 4 Interim emissions standards and delivers reduced fuel consumption - they have been specifically been designed with worker safety in mind, too. 

Proximity alarms, fire suppression kits, flashing beacons and high visibility chevrons will all surely prove to be welcome - and potentially life-saving - features on a busy site.

Blue Fuchs

Blue Fuchs is another player supplying material handling equipment to the waste and recycling industry, and they too have used government regulations as a springboard to a new era of responsible, earth-friendly designs. Managing director Terry Hughes explains.

“A key development in recent times has been the move towards more fuel efficient engines with the phased introduction of Tier IV engines to reduce engine emissions and pollutants. This has admittedly been legislation driven, but this drive has seen fuel use in certain size engines drop by up to 30% when compared against comparable sized pre Tier IV engines. The coming months and years will see this legislation tighten still further to include smaller sized engines and as an example, the E Series engines available from TEREX Fuchs are already well tested and proven to both meet this tightening legislation and offer incredible fuel savings.”

While regulation is often referred to by business commentators as having negative connotations, in reality, many accept it can be an essential tool for improving the business environment, correctly implemented. 

“Legislation can often be perceived as a profanity in our - and most other - industries and in certain instances this level of cynicism is understandable, even merited, but equally true is that correct, well thought out and clearly signposted legislation can actually benefit many businesses in our industry. In either instance the trick is to be quick to adapt and spot the opportunities available when changes are made,” states the MD. 

“A good recent example is the tightening of legislation with regards to the quality of fines and while there remains a lot of discontent within the industry in relation to this legislation and the possible uncertainties still surrounding the detail on the legislation itself, Blue Group was very quick to adapt and position itself to offer our customer base very bespoke and individually designed waste separation systems to process various and multiple waste streams, each one with a view to maximising the quality of the fines. 

“Dependent on the source materials, Blue Group Systems offer different combinations and multiples of flat deck screen, trommel screen, ballistic, optical, magnetic and air separation methods to maximise results for Blue’s customer. We’ve seen our customer base respond well to this level of coherence between what we can offer and what the bodies writing legislation deem to be necessary.”

Governments change; in fact the polls currently point to a likely switch next year. But the demographic direction of travel carries on regardless. For the waste industry, this could mean boom times to come. 

Hughes again: “The Office for National Statistics forecasts an increase of over 11% in the current UK population to in excess of 70m by 2027. More people means more waste and an ever increasing need to be able to deal with this waste and handle and/or recycle it ever more efficiently” ...and more safely. 


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