A real-world look at what diminishes conveyor safety

By and |  August 16, 2023
Improving safe access and maintenance to conveyors increases efficiency significantly. Photo: Martin Engineering

Improving safe access and maintenance to conveyors increases efficiency significantly. Photo: Martin Engineering

Mining engineers have spent decades attempting to design, install and maintain belt conveyor components that control fugitive materials to improve the working environment, reduce accidents and increase productivity.

Why? It is estimated that 85 percent of belt conveyor maintenance and production problems are related to fugitive materials like dust, spillage and carryback. Accordingly, a similar percentage of conveyor safety issues arise from these same fugitive materials.

The number of workplace injuries has taken a steep decline over the last century, but we have reached a point of diminishing returns. To achieve the next level of improvement in reducing conveyor accidents, the approach to these complex systems must change – including the way conveyors are specified, designed, purchased, operated and maintained.

It’s been observed that there are five root causes of workplace injuries and fatalities that lead directly to an increased release of fugitive materials. These fugitive materials result in scenarios that encourage workers to potentially react unsafely.

The five root causes are a production-first culture, low-bid purchasing, designs that are needlessly complex, overregulation and understaffed or undertrained personnel.

Production-first culture

When the focus is on production at the cost of all else, it’s no wonder workers take risks to keep conveyors running.

Corporate slogans touting workplace safety and environmentalism become a smoke screen for what workers really see: production comes before safety.

Obviously, the reason a company operates mines and processing plants is production. To counter the hypocrisy, corporations would be better off admitting up front that production is the focus. A better and more realistic goal would be: ‘production done safely.’

Low-bid purchasing

Poor management culture starts in the boardroom, where decisions on capital expenditures are typically based on feasibility studies that only consider direct costs as identified by conventional accounting practices.

Historically, purchasing decisions are almost universally based on a low-bid process. The details are left to be resolved as operating costs (and often maintenance expenses), and they are not thoroughly considered in the engineering or construction phases.

In the long run, the cost of “buying cheap” can get very expensive. A low-bid system often fails to deliver the required production capacity while posing greater hazards to workers.

In fact, low-bid designs often turn out to be the costliest because they can generate significant expenses for subsequent modifications because of issues discovered during trials and start-up. Instead, the focus should be on lowest cost over the life of the system.

Needlessly complex designs

Complexity does not necessarily improve safety. Simple designs are often harder to realize, but the extra design time required to simplify the operation and maintenance of conveyor components that directly affect production and cleanliness has an enormous payoff.

Unfortunately, the same benefits are almost impossible to incorporate in low-bid designs due to the intersection of the customer perception that those benefits “cost too much” and the supplier’s need to “win the bid.”

Related: Designing conveyor systems with safety in mind

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