When it comes to PPE, don’t wait to learn from your mistakes – learn from trusted suppliers with industry expertise

As with every aspect of life, Maintenance, Repair and Operations (MRO) has undergone enormous disruption since the start of the decade. The RS and Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS) Indirect Procurement Report 2021: From Disruption to Recovery, which shared the results of a global survey of 1,300 senior professionals working in this field, included ten changes since COVID-19, from supply chain disruption (54%) to carbon footprint strategy paused (5%).

Some changes, such as suppliers not in business (30%), were a challenge, but others have advantages too. Increased collaboration with suppliers, for instance, was mentioned by 36% of respondents and provides an opportunity for organisations to learn and develop.

This can be particularly beneficial for those in high-risk sectors such as the water, waste, power generation, power distribution and telecoms industries. Here Chris Cruise, Industry Sector Manager for Utilities at RS, and Rob Russell, PPE Business Unit Sales Director at RS Safety Solutions, share why.

Understand risk factors
A wide range of different industries make up the Utilities sector but one feature common to them all is risk. Whether it’s water pumping station or sewage treatment works, these are hazardous workplaces where the need for robust health and safety provision is non-negotiable.

"There are a huge range of hazards that utilities firms have to handle"Chris Cruise, Industry Sector Manager, RS

“There are a huge range of hazards that utilities firms have to handle,” says Cruise. “Just take the water industry: biological hazards, working at heights, arc flash, switch panels, chemicals, oils, grease, heavy objects, mechanical moving parts and machinery. Workers are lifting, they’re in confined spaces, they’re digging up pipes adjacent to other hazards.”

Statistics bear the extent of these challenges out. Recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) analysis of the waste industry, for example, demonstrates that 4% of its workers suffered from work-related ill health annually in the nine years to 2021. This compares to an average of 3.4% for all industries. Around 3.5% of waste industry workers sustain an injury at work each year, with the figure for all industries standing at 1.8%, while the fatal injury rate is around 17 times great than for all industries.

Each of these incidents is hugely damaging for the individuals and businesses involved, but for the latter there also can be legal, financial and reputational consequences. In early 2022, for example, there was press coverage of a water supplier and a contractor pleading guilty to health and safety charges after a worker nearly lost his leg after it became trapped during an incident at a reservoir. The two companies were fined almost £400,000. A few months later, an energy multinational and another contractor were fined a total of £1.8 million after health and safety breaches during work at an electricity substation led to an explosion that damaged a worker’s retina.

Ensure there are controls
Attempts to address these hazards must build upon the hierarchy of controls.

The level of risk is compounded by the sheer size of these industries; the gas network, for instance, includes 275,000 kilometres of buried pipes. Attempts to address these hazards must build upon the hierarchy of controls. A fundamental element of health and safety compliance, the hierarchy of controls involves reducing risks according in order of priority – with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used as a last resort.

These priorities are:

1. Elimination (eliminate or remove the hazard)
2. Substitution (replace the hazard with a less hazardous one)
3. Engineered controls (reduce exposure to the hazard or isolate people from the hazard)
4. Administrative controls (change and improve the way that people work)
5. PPE (protect the worker with PPE when a hazard cannot be reasonably eliminated)

Work with experts
When it comes to the final stage in that hierarchy, PPE, working with expert suppliers can help to ensure that your organisation has the most robust procedures and most effective products in place.

"We have the range, the expertise and the technical support"Chris Cruise, Industry Sector Manager, RS

How? Because expert suppliers, those with specialist industry knowledge and experience, understand the risks involved and how to mitigate against them whether through products or value-added solutions.

“We have contracts with, say, the water industry. We serve their PPE needs and have knowledge of industry requirements,” observes Cruise. “We have the range, the expertise and the technical support to meet our customer needs.

“Our colleagues at Liscombe are technical experts. When they’re out in the field, they’re talking with customers around very specific challenges and how to meet those challenges.”

Russell agrees. “Everyone on our team of area managers has years of health and safety experience,” he adds, “so when we talk about health and safety to customers, they realise we understand their needs.”

Learn about good practices
This specialist knowledge is also a valuable resource if your organisation encounters a problem or challenge – as happened with one water supplier. “As wastewater contains dangerous enzymes, workwear remains on site to be correctly washed,” explains Russell. “At this company, washed items were shrinking so a member of our team went to the site to investigate.

“It turns out that unlike most sites, this one didn’t have a proper drying room, which meant workers were putting the garments through a tumble dryer at hot temperatures so they could wear them again quickly. We came up with an interim solution and longer term the water company is looking to create a drying room.”

"If something works, we share that knowledge"Rob Russell, PPE Business Unit Sales Director, RS Safety Solutions

Moreover, it isn’t just individual companies that benefit from such industry experience and expertise.

“We take a lot of our knowledge across the sector,” says Russell, “so if we have something that works with one water supplier, we will then tell another about what we’ve done and offer a trial.

“Sometimes there are even nuggets of learning that transfer across industries to other parts of the utility sector as well. If something works, we share that knowledge.”

Find other articles related to the Utilities sector here.