Repurposing manufacturing plants: health and safety risks

Out-Law Guide | 27 Mar 2020 | 12:07 pm | 5 min. read

Many manufacturers are considering changing their production so they can make high-demand products such as hand sanitiser, coronavirus testing kits, food, and medical and cosmetic products.

Repurposing manufacturing operations can introduce new, or heighten existing, risks. UK manufacturers must consider their obligations under health and safety law when repurposing their production plants to address the challenges posed by the spread of coronavirus, officially Covid-19.

Repurposing: general health and safety considerations

The first step in repurposing a manufacturing plant to meet different production demands is to consider the new significant risks that may arise out of the changes. It is important that, in addition to those risks, the relevant control measures are also considered.

Risk assessments should focus on any new machinery being adopted for use within the amended production line; it should also consider the new substances to which employees might be exposed as part of any new or varied production processes and the nature of other risks which may arise from increased use of specific machinery.

Risk assessments should also consider the varied production operation as a whole, for example, elevated workplace transport risks, increased number of workers – and the increased demand for supervision, a greater number of young workers and the introduction of workers into new or unfamiliar areas of production.

As with all good health and safety planning, the risk assessment should act as a 'blueprint' for good health and safety management; this should also assist an employer comply with the general duties under sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA).

The s.2 and s.3 HSWA duties require an employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of its employees; and the health and safety of third parties to the extent that the risk relates to its business operation, respectively.

Specific health and safety legislation

Specific legislation that employers need to consider will include:

  • Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER),
  • Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER)
  • Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002 (COSHH) and
  • Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 (VAWR).

PUWER and LOLER

An employer has a duty to ensure that work equipment provided for employees is suitable for its intended purpose; regularly maintained and inspected by a competent person. Employers must eliminate risks to the extent that is possible and where it is not it should use engineering measures to control the risks. Any residual risks must be controlled by way of systems of work, information, instruction and training.

Where work equipment is lifting equipment LOLER regulations will apply. LOLER regulations require all lifting operations to be properly planned and supervised by a competent person. This also specifies all lifting equipment must undergo regular examinations by a qualified technician Equipment must be appropriately marked and records of each examination must be retained.

In relation to both PUWER and LOLER, an employer must ensure that the person using the equipment has the relevant competence to work on such equipment, which will involve a consideration of existing competence, information and instruction. It is also necessary to consider what, if any, supervision arrangements are proportionate.

Suppliers – work equipment

For those placing work equipment on the market, those products must comply with the essential safety requirements as defined by EU law. For the majority of work equipment the relevant legislation will be the Machinery Directive. Such products must undergo conformity assessment and be appropriately CE marked before they are placed on the market. The supplier must provide instructions for use and the product should be free from obvious defects for its working life.

It is imperative that an employer planning to use work equipment is provided with all the relevant certification and information.

COSHH and VAWR

Existing, new or varied production, especially relating to new products, may expose employees to substances that may be hazardous to health. Where this is the case, under COSHH employers must ensure they have carried out a suitable and sufficient COSHH assessment of the risks, deploy adequate control measures, provide relevant information instruction and training; properly manage exposure and monitor health information.

Where production may lead to hand, arm or body vibration, an employer must assess those risks and has duties to ensure risks are reduced and controlled; limits are not exceeded, relevant instruction and training is provided, records are maintained and that health surveillance is carried out.

Varied production – core obligations and checklist

Amended production techniques may lead to the use of the new machinery, the hire of new machinery, the use of existing machinery for alternative production – which may require adaptation – and employees may be exposed to machinery or work processes in which they have no or limited experience. Similarly, one change in production may lead to a change in an increase in other generic risks within the workplace.

As part of this management of change, in order to comply with health and safety law, employers should consider the following checklist:

  • Have I contacted the supplier of the equipment such that I have all the relevant certification and information in relation to the use, or adapted use, of the work equipment?
  • What additional risks do this method of manufacture / production give rise to?
  • Is the equipment suitable by design, construction or adaptation, for the actual work it is provided to do?
  • Is the equipment constructed or adapted such that, in the conditions in which it is to be used, it does not pose an unacceptable risk to health and safety?
  • Will the machinery work safely as it is or will it need to be adapted to ensure safety? If so, have we consulted the supplier?
  • Is there a risk assessment for the new work equipment?
  • Is there a risk assessment for the adapted use of the work equipment?
  • Is a specific COSHH or VAWR assessment required?
  • Are risks on the work equipment eradicated or suitably controlled by engineering measures to the extent that they can be?
  • Are employees suitably competent to carry out work on the machinery – what are the relevant training needs?
  • Do all employees have the relevant information and instruction to carry out the work safely?
  • What management or supervision is required for the use of the work equipment – considering the equipment and the employees carrying out the work activity?
  • What health and safety and other expertise is required to consult in relation to the nature of these work activities?
  • Have we properly consulted with management, supervisors and employees to ensure a joined up approach to safety and production? Is a tool box talk necessary to raise heightened awareness?
  • Do we need to consider the effect on general safety within a production environment, i.e. workplace transport, night working, young workers, fatigue, etc.

Summary

Organisations are to be encouraged to play their part in the national effort to supply products and equipment such as ventilators, medical products and foodstuffs. During this period, however, it will be important that employers consider the safety of employees which focus on specific, general and dynamic risk assessment. 

New or heightened risks may arise from new or amended work equipment as well as the general risks which may rise out of any new processes. In respect of work equipment, employers should work closely with suppliers to ensure they have procured safe, certified equipment appropriate for its end use.

Proportionate controls should focus on ensuring employees posses sufficient competence and information to carry out the work safely. Employers should consider re-skilling and up-skilling employees by way of further training, as well ensuring appropriate management and supervision is in place.

Where possible, employers should look to share and collaborate with other organisations that work in the field, its regulator, and its employees. Employers should look to use highly-skilled managers, supervisors and health and safety professionals in an appropriate and effective way to engender a safety-led approach.

Co-authored by Simon Tingle of Pinsent Masons.