Man and Machine

Andy Matthews, production director of the Fibercill division at National Hickman discusses the dangerous relationship between man and machine and why safety standards matter

I have a strong personal reason for caring a great deal about safety in manufacturing. When I started my career at National Hickman, as a teenage apprentice on the shop floor in 1978, I was equipped with a Wham! hairstyle and boundless enthusiasm. On 16 January 1981, however, whilst I was setting up a moulding machine, I moved my hand too close to a poorly guarded saw blade unit on the bottom of the machine. In spite of surgery I was left with half of my left index finger missing and my confidence in tatters. I thought that I would never again work in a saw mill.

Largely due to the encouragement of my father, I took the decision to get back on the horse and carry on. I worked my way up the company ladder, became a director of the Fibercill division of National Hickman and vowed that I would never expect an employee of mine to work in an environment that was unsafe.

Safety in the manufacturing industry has come a long way since 1981. Ever stricter CE certification from the European Union 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 fatalities at work in 1974, whereas the number for the year 2013-14 was less than a quarter of this figure.

But we have no reason to be complacent. Around one tenth of the British workforce is employed in manufacturing, which corresponds to the percentage of fatalities at work. In terms of non-fatal injuries, however, we aren’t doing quite so well. Almost one in five injuries to British employees still take place in our sector, indicating that there are still some manufacturers who are cutting corners.

For me, the first step is to strike the right balance between output and safety when purchasing machinery. Now that we work in a global market, the high performance machines that I source can come from anywhere in the world, and are not necessarily subject to the same standards as the UK. I have to pay at least as much attention to their safety features as to their price and productivity potential.

Working in the timber industry, sawblades are part of life, so even the machines with the highest possible safety certifications need to be treated with care. Blades will always need to be changed and a machine designed to cut quickly through MDF/ wood doesn’t care what else gets in its way. If a machine is manually operated, then supervision and procedures need to be doubly rigid. This is just one of the reasons why we have turned to robotics/Automation to handle a great deal of our wood moulding and preparation. It puts a distance between the danger and the man.

Keeping people safe is not something that can be achieved easily. We have received 15 consecutive British & International Safety Council awards but every year we have to work a little harder. We have to demonstrate not only that our working environment meets the correct standards, but that we have all the processes, reports, inspections and controls to ensure that we are constantly vigilant and equipped to address new risks as they emerge.

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.

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