The metalworking industry, known for its rigorous demands and use of heavy machinery, has recently been under scrutiny due to alarming concerns raised by professionals in the field. A study conducted by FEIN, a manufacturer of power tools and accessories, sheds light on the pressing issue of workplace safety, revealing that a significant number of metalworkers feel uneasy about their safety at work.
There are obvious and inherent dangers to metalworking, but this doesn’t mean that it can’t be conducted safely. In too many cases, however, it still seems that businesses deem risks to simply be an indelible part of manual work. By doing so, they often lapse into a poor safety culture that ignores the improvements that could be made – and leave metalworkers in a uniquely perilous position.
The dangers of metalworking
In simple terms, metalworking is the use of metal to make other objects. It can involve the cutting, grinding, welding or milling of metal, all of which can pose unique health risks. Gas welding can create harmful fumes, while cutting, grinding, milling and filing can all lead to the emission of particulates, which can cause breathing difficulties and long-term lung damage.
More obviously, metalworking carries potential for severe injuries. Machinery could malfunction or be used improperly, leading to traumatic injuries and even deaths. The use of power tools, in particular, necessitates strict safety measures to prevent accidents, including comprehensive training, and rules on lone workers to ensure oversight and assistance is available should something go wrong.
The state of workplace safety
The research from FEIN reveals a disconcerting reality: more than a third of metalworkers do not believe that their safety is a top priority within their company. This sentiment is more pronounced in larger companies, with 50% of workers in companies with 50-99 employees and 38% in companies with 250-500 employees expressing concern for their safety. When it comes to safety training, however, the picture is reversed: while 40% of all metalworkers are offered health and safety training by their company, this figure drops to 13% for companies with 1-9 employees.
An overwhelming 45% of metalworkers agreed that having access to tools with safety features would increase their comfort and sense of security at work. However, cost is perceived by employees as a significant barrier to implementing these safer tools, with 39% of workers stating that the tools with the necessary safety features are too expensive. This perception highlights a critical gap between the need for safety and the accessibility of safety-enhanced tools – whether this is real or just an assumption.
The cost of neglecting safety
The financial implications of inadequate safety measures are substantial across industries. Workplace related injuries and ill health cost the UK economy an estimated £18.8 billion a year, according to the Health & Safety Executive. Yet even in this context, metalworking seems to be an outlier. The inherent dangers of the work in some cases seem to convince people that little to nothing can be done to make it safer. This is a negligent attitude at best, and a dangerous one at worst.
Ignoring one aspect of health and safety or dismissing its impact is a slippery slope. These kinds of attitudes inevitably lead to a creeping erosion of health and safety culture, where one protection after the other is ignored because safety isn’t taken seriously. For metalworking, this may start with not buying the safest possible tools because they aren’t deemed to be economical. But this kind of attitude can lead to not undergoing training, because there hasn’t been an accident before, or because your workers are experienced. After this, one safety feature or policy after the other can easily topple.
How to improve safety in the metalworking industry
It’s evident that improvements need to be made to safety in the metalworking industry. The impetus will be for immediate change, but this doesn’t have to mean quick fixes. The changes below to equipment, policies, and culture can be implemented quickly – but the important thing is to stick with them, and constantly reinforce how important they are.
Investing in safe tools
Metalworking is fundamentally defined by the tools used by workers, both in the sense of productivity and safety. As much as possible, employers should prioritise the purchase of tools equipped with robust safety features, such as non-removable safeguards, abnormal movement protection, and versatile hand-grips. These features are widely recognised by industry bodies and users alike for their effectiveness in preventing accidents.
Tools should also be periodically inspected and tested according to local regulations in order to ensure they are in good working order, and not prone to malfunction, as this could be deadly. Ensuring that these safeguards are in place will not only protect employees, but give them greater peace of mind, allowing them to work uninhibited.
Provide comprehensive safety training
The availability of health and safety training is currently inconsistent, especially in smaller companies. Of all the aspects of metalworking safety, it’s evident that smaller firms deem training to be expendable, or that some level of informal training is sufficient when other safeguards are in place. This is poor practice for a number of reasons, not least that mistakes made by even experienced workers can then be passed on and continued by new hires.
It is imperative that all metalworkers, regardless of the size of their company, have access to thorough safety training. The dangers involved in operating the tools and machinery integral to metalworking mean that comprehensive, industry approved safety training is a mandatory requirement. Doing so ensures that employees are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to safely operate machinery and tools, and does not take any knowledge – inherited or otherwise – for granted.
Foster a positive safety culture
Health & safety incidents generally don’t happen out of nowhere. They are the result of an erosion or absence of a health and safety culture, where rules either aren’t put in place or aren’t followed effectively. This often starts with small lapses, and when things don’t immediately go wrong, more and more rules are ignored, until an incident eventually occurs.
Creating channels for open communication between tool specialists, industry groups, and metalworking firms is essential. As well as facilitating a better understanding of the unique safety needs of metalworkers, this should also help to highlight the importance of instilling and following safety policies – contributing to a much safer working environment.
Assessing value, not just cost
The investment in safety should be viewed through the lens of overall value, taking into account the potential costs associated with workplace accidents and downtime. By prioritising safety, companies are investing in the wellbeing of their employees and the long-term sustainability of their operations.
This applies not just to the potential penalties from breaking the law, but also to the mental wellbeing and happiness of your employees. The survey demonstrates that many metalworking employees do not feel safe in the workplace, and this inevitably has a knock-on effect on performance. Health and safety includes mental health, and a safer working culture brings benefits to all aspects of staff wellbeing.
The FEIN survey has shined a light on an under-explored industry when it comes to health and safety. The wellbeing of metalworkers falls well below modern expectations, and their concerns need to be addressed with urgency. Yet we must also be careful that this rush to address metalworking safety doesn’t mean sticking plaster solutions that drop off later.
Metalworking companies must take decisive action to implement robust safety policies, and instil the importance and value of these policies throughout their management hierarchies. By investing in safety-enhanced tools, providing comprehensive training, and fostering open communication, the industry can create a safer work environment – leading to safer employees and a better quality of work.