To understand the significance of safe work practices, now and in the future, it’s useful to look into the past.
It was the early 1930’s and work had commenced on one the most monumental bridge erections of the era. Called the “bridge that couldn’t be built” by many, construction started on a bridge spanning the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. The bridge became known as the Golden Gate Bridge.
In that era, the rule of thumb was that one worker would die for every million dollars spent. With an estimated price tag of between 27 and 35 million dollars, the cost in both construction and potential loss of human life was unthinkable.
Chief project engineer Joseph Strauss aimed to break that rule of thumb and cheat death. To do so, he instituted a vigorous safety program. While hard hats, safety belts and other similar devices were already in use, Mr. Strauss made them mandatory. Breaking the rules meant immediate dismissal from the project.
But a different innovation stands out because it validates the idea that safety doesn’t cost … it pays.
While the foundation piers and towers were being built, Strauss commissioned the construction of a safety net. The manila rope net — manufactured at a cost of $130,000 — was stretched under the bridge when the span work was started. Positioned under and ahead of the current work, as well as 10 feet to either side, the net prevented workers from falling into the icy waters of the Bay, as this video shows.
Nineteen men fell into the net and lived. Did this $130,000 safety feature pay off? Consider these facts:
- Since the fear of falling to their deaths was removed, the workers were able to concentrate on their tasks more intensely. They completed difficult chores in less time.
- The bridge’s construction was completed well before the estimated deadline.
- The cost for the project came in 1.3 million dollars below budget.
The net and other safety precautions saved time, money and more importantly, worker’s lives.
Safety’s role in maintenance, today and in the future
In today’s industrial environment, the role of the maintenance technician has changed.
While it has changed little in the past two decades, we are now at a point where maintenance is affected by other business drivers, such as technical support equipment and strategies directed toward worker safety. While lubrication, electrical tasks and other tasks are still necessary, the field is changing. As more technology is implemented in process control, we will see the nature of maintenance work evolving.
For example, much of today’s machine monitoring and diagnostics are computer driven. According to a white paper developed by the University of Western Australia, this digitally monitored system brings with it a more proactive maintenance approach than before.
A significant proportion of worksite injuries and fatalities involve maintenance crewmembers. In the past, a reactive maintenance methodology was one of the main causes. Workers often had to deal with situations that had become hazardous.
By implementing a proactive, preventive stance on maintaining equipment, the team member will enter a more controlled environment where safety procedures are easily developed and used.
A focus on safety is a focus on productivity and cost efficiency
When Joseph Strauss planned and implemented his safety net in 1936, he proved that safety doesn’t cost … it pays. Because workers fears were diminished, they were more productive. As mentioned, this increased productivity not only completed the project ahead of schedule, but under budget as well.
Whether buying new equipment, designing new systems or constructing new facilities, maintainability must be assessed, keeping worker safety top of mind. A maintenance department that can work safely and more efficiently when the risk of injury is removed adds to the overall productivity of any operation.
To facilitate these changes, even basic OEM equipment and systems, such as facility lighting, must be designed for efficient and safe maintenance tasks. In instances where existing equipment or systems must be retained, it’s often possible to improve their safety factor through retrofit kits or conversion assemblies.
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