Safety Matters: Vinyls' Solution

Thursday 29th May 2014

Melbourne-based PVC manufacturers Australian Vinyls (AV) take their health and safety obligations seriously. The company, part of the Wesfarmers Group, publicly reports on their safety, health and environmental performance on a yearly basis. This level of transparency is only one small component of the company’s “top-down approach” to OH&S.

In 2007, AV installed a new operating system in the Laverton plant’s control room. The transition proved to be lengthy and problematic. As a result, the company initiated a workplace assessment conducted by OH&S specialist Andrea Shaw and, from that review, 15 recommendations were tabled.

“The review was conducted with on-site Health & Safety Reps, and the AWU was engaged throughout the process,” says Mark Kershaw, AV’s Manufacturing Manager. “We knew we had to fix these issues and agreed to take on all 15 recommendations.” The biggest challenge was eliminating unnecessary alarms and messaging. During the changeover, the control room’s finely tuned alarm system would sound off around a staggering 1000 times over a 12-hour shift.

“It’s pretty safe to say that the alarms were causing stress and fatigue. For every simple process, repeat messages were coming through. A lot of it was information overload. There was a lot of sorting to be done, prioritising the alarms and messages,” says Mark.

 ALARM BELLS RING

AV’s AWU Health & Safety Rep, Tony Pisano, says that control room operators (CROs) were being barraged by alarms well before the new system was installed.

“It played with all of our minds. Here’s an example. On my honeymoon in Hong Kong, the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night and my wife had to wake me up. I rolled over and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s a false alarm.” That was in 2002, but she still reminds me about it to this day.”

Tony’s duties at AV involve being stationed in front of 12 screens over a 12-hour shift, monitoring the plant’s operational output. The highly specialised CRO position is critical to the plant’s ongoing success. AV, the only manufacturer of PVC powder in Australia, hires over 100 staff with 15 trained to operate the control panel.

As the alarm problem continued, the Union negotiated with management to work together to resolve the issue. “We set up a procedure on managing the alarms. Those procedures are still in place,” Tony says, the alarm frequency now reduced from 1000 to 100 over a 12-hour shift.

Next on the agenda was tackling fatigue management head-on. The issue of ergonomics was addressed with the panel’s desk, seating and screens all designed for easy adjustment. The lighting and air conditioning layouts were also configured to avoid fatigue. “A lot of fatigue management is purely education and preparation,” Tony says. “We talked to the team about shift work, diet, sleep patterns, their job roles and what it impacts. It was a great educational process.”

SHIFTING BALANCES

Previously, staff worked four 12-hour shifts in a row, on site from 6 until 6. In winter, some CROs wouldn’t see daylight over a four-day stretch. Staff would eat lunch in front of the panel and breaks weren’t structured or scheduled. In an overhaul, roles are now rotated with two people capable of operating the panel on site every day, one working in the control room and the other floating on-site.

“It’s multi-skilling as well,” says Mark Kershaw. “We also changed work schedules. Difficult tasks aren’t carried out in the middle of the night when workers are more likely to get injured. Training has been put in place and we’ve formalised a lot of our work practices.”

Five years later, staff retention is high and productivity has increased by 20 per cent. Mark believes the fatigue management plan put in place had some bearing on those figures. 

“The benefits towards productivity outweigh any costs associated with implementing something like this,” Mark says.

“All workers have the right to a safe workplace, and the key to it is through training and education,” Tony says. “You can get lulled into a false sense of security. Put it this way: if the company didn’t keep maintaining this plant, it would deteriorate. It’s the same with OH&S. We have to keep meeting targets and making sure  we don’t go back to where we were.”