Shredding with safety in mind

Written by: Chris Oldfield | Published:

With so much wealth in waste, commercially driven shredding is commonplace. This largely supports the nation’s resource agenda, but to what extent do bottom-line and environmental motivators overshadow considerations for safety? Chris Oldfield, managing director of UNTHA UK, considers three safety themes set to loom large in 2016

There’s no disputing that, if sufficient care is not exhibited throughout each stage of the supply chain, the waste, recycling and energy sector is inherently hazardous. Thankfully however, the number of less scrupulous firms that appear to demonstrate a somewhat blasé approach to cutting corners is small. On the whole, the industry has experienced a degree of cultural change in the past decade, which now sees various stakeholders prioritise safe working practices more and more.

Secret to safety levels?

The reasons for a more safety conscious attitude are multifaceted. The Health & Safety at Work Act sets the baseline, protecting the wellbeing of employees as they carry out their daily duties, and the liability of employers responsible for their care. A commitment to compliance has been further witnessed in the past 12 months, as a result, in part, of Defra’s pledge to work closer with the Environment Agency in policing the sector’s professionalism. And as the economic upturn continues and the search for skilled workers becomes tougher, we’ll no doubt see employment conditions improve even more, in a bid to attract and retain the best staff.

So while there is a growing acknowledgment of the wealth in waste, and a desire among organisations to become ever more profitable in their shredding activity, this, for the most part, isn’t to the detriment of safety standards.

However, in an industry seemingly fuelled by a shared passion for progress, we will see new shredder safety considerations come into play in 2016.

It’s all part of the determination to work increasingly smarter, across every element of our businesses.

For those of us charged with looking after the office-based side of our daily operations, ergonomics is not an unfamiliar term.

We have to consider the design of employee seating, for instance, to safeguard the posture of staff while they are at work. Even desking is becoming more sophisticated, with height-adjustable products facilitating the perfect position for each individual. This is very important too, because we all know that a relaxed, comfortable and healthy employee will be more alert, productive and satisfied in their job – not to mention fit to work.

So it makes sense that ergonomic considerations are increasingly being incorporated into the design and manufacture of modern shredding solutions.

Operator protection

We have already seen shredders arrive in the marketplace that have been purposefully engineered with ease of maintenance in mind.

Such technology doesn’t just have uptime and throughput benefits – it protects operators too. Features such as clever foreign object protection mechanisms are now commonplace, especially on more sophisticated single- and four-shaft shredders.

If a shredder automatically stops and the problematic material can be extracted with ease, this minimises the risks associated with an operator entering the machine to retrieve the object. Pioneering computer diagnostics that automatically detect a potential maintenance issue within the shredder also reduce the need for the operator to investigate the situation. Such less intrusive methods of running the machine are incredibly beneficial when it comes to the wellbeing of employees.

When service and maintenance activity is required, ‘next generation’ size-reduction technology prioritises operators working in an upright position, without the need to hunch or overstretch. Again this ergonomic product design consideration prioritises the health and wellbeing of staff, while probably making the shredder aesthetically more attractive too.

The number of lumbar complaints will fall, employees will be more content and productive in their work, and the business costs associated with unfit or absent employees will be overcome.

Keep the noise down

Noise is rumoured to be the ‘next big thing’ for the UK’s ‘no win, no fee’ legal specialists to get their teeth into. And because continued exposure to noise can have a debilitating and incurable effect on operatives’ hearing, it is perhaps no surprise.

The number of decibels a plant operates at should therefore be capped and policed.

Yes, hearing protection can be worn, but why not strive to design plants that operate below the first dB(A) action point? If average exposure levels are 85 decibels, hearing protection is mandatory; at 80 decibels it must be made available; but below that it isn’t required. Not only would this move preserve the hearing quality of on-site operatives, it would also save money on ear defenders.

Acknowledging this growing concern surrounding noise, a number of shredder manufacturers have therefore made ‘quiet operation’ a focus when developing new technologies. Usually this comes with a shredder running at a slower speed, but if the design is right this won’t affect capacity.

So, if noise can be minimised, especially without jeopardising throughputs, why shouldn’t this be a priority? Litigation on this topic is almost certain to rise this year, so the time to act is now.

Fire prevention

It seems that the industry’s media headlines are scattered with news of one devastating blaze after another.

But with waste becoming an increasingly integral part of the UK and EU’s resource agenda, it is crucial that waste handling, materials recycling and alternative fuel production plants are robust and secure. Fire prevention is therefore paramount – being equipped to simply fight it is not enough.

The storage of readily combustible, mixed input waste materials is often part of the problem, hence why the installation of sprinkling systems is a necessity throughout plants. And, fundamentally, operators need to do their utmost to keep their plants tidy and dust-free, so a thorough cleanse of all machinery and the floor is advised at the end of each day. But innovative features within shredding technology can further help avert otherwise catastrophic incidents.

Carefully positioned UV, infrared, heat and spark detectors on a shredder’s inlet hopper and discharge conveyor, for example, can sense when a fire is likely to begin.

In the event of a significant temperature increase, extinguishing nozzles, positioned in the same place as the sensors and thus pointing directly at the fire risk, can automatically spray water onto the targeted area.

Minimising risk

This means that, if the risk is within the shredder, the materials can be cooled and/or the fire put out before anything is discharged from the machine. If the problem is on the conveyor, the nozzles prevent hot, glowing fractions from entering the pile of output material, where a fire could otherwise break out. An alarm can even be activated to enable an operator to start a manual extinguishing process, and/or alert the fire brigade.

Explosions can be caused if a foreign object such as an aerosol tin bursts due to heat or compression, or if a small electrical spark creates enough of an ignition when it reacts with high volumes of dust. To prevent such scenarios, responsible equipment manufacturers reduce risk ‘by design’.

Shredders with a slower rotor speed, for instance, don’t generate as much dust, and the lower tip speed means the potential for a spark is also lessened. Anti-explosive Atex-specification motors and electronics can also be installed. As a supply chain, we have to take as many steps as possible to mitigate the risks that are so prevalent within our industry. And fire safety is one area of increasing concern.

Are you ahead of the curve?

A number of waste and recycling organisations have already paid great attention to these areas of health and wellbeing. Not because they fear the ‘nannying’ associated with waste policing – they’re way ahead of that.

Instead, they realise the duty of care they have towards the most important assets in their business, and are thinking a little more holistically as to how to improve the safety and integrity of their entire operations.

In other businesses, these topics will be newfound considerations. This isn’t a criticism – the industry is progressing at such a pace that the nature of change is constant. But to ensure safe shredding operations in 2016, the matter of ergonomics, noise minimisation and fire prevention cannot be ignored for long.

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