The risks of retooling and restarting

Paul May, vice-president, operations and engineering manager at FM Global explains about how risk management is every more crucial to the manufacturing supply chain as manufacturers seek to redirect their resources to producing new products in the current climate.

Paul May

Coronavirus has made clear the fragility of many organisation’s supply chains, particularly those that are dependent on a particular region. It’s pointed out the need to source materials not just from different suppliers within a region, for example China, but also to have a diversity of suppliers across geographic locations.

The pandemic has shown how dependent we are on producers in other countries for what can be critical supplies in an emergency, making some manufacturers reconsider what is an adequate stockpile of raw materials to produce their goods as well as raising concerns over the local availability of products such as hand sanitiser and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Where cost of goods and labour dominated supply chain decisions before the pandemic, considerations such as risk, business continuity and even national health have now come to the fore in supply chain planning.

Stepping up to fill the gap

With a view to stepping in to fill gaps in supply, we’ve seen a whole range of manufacturers worldwide shift their manufacturing towards new products that are needed in the pandemic. The most common have been hand sanitiser and PPE.

This is an excellent initiative on their part. But with this rapid retooling comes risk. Before ramping up production of new or existing products, consider hazards that could come in the areas of storage, workforce and equipment.

The hazardous nature of hand sanitiser

Some of the manufacturing plants that have re-tooled to produce hand sanitiser include gin distilleries, chemical and perfume plants. They are more well suited to this shift since they’re used to handling ignitable liquids.

Switching from the production of non-flammable products to introduce alcohol to your production lines could introduce a whole host of hazards to a facility. It’s important to recognise that equipment, buildings and fire systems may not be designed for this purpose or the types of fires that could result – including flammable liquid fires – and therefore this can introduce a severe risk.

For those who have or are considering producing hand sanitiser:

  • Use metal bulk containers not plastic to store the product. Plastic containers can melt in fire and the liquid will spill, potentially fuelling the fire.
  • If using bulk containers store them in a separate room. Limit the volume on the production floor to as little as you can.
  • Ship the sanitiser quickly. Don’t build up large volumes of stock as it’s a flammable liquid.
  • If you’re using new production equipment, make sure it’s suited to a flammable environment with minimal sparking.
  • Don’t use temporary rubber hoses, use steel piping to transfer flammable liquids, reducing risk of spillage and further combustion if a fire does occur.
  • For further details, check out FM Global’s checklist on switching to the production of hand sanitiser here.

Preparation to produce PPE

When producing PPE (such as surgical masks) in bulk, there’s the potential for a build up of lint or other fine fabric material which can create fire risks. There’s also a risk of storing fabric on site safely. For those manufacturers shifting to produce PPE, or who may consider doing so in the future, the following should be prioritised:

  • Keeping the environment clean to ensure little build-up of lint.
  • Control the storage of raw materials and finished goods, especially if your warehouses aren’t designed for that commodity.
  • If you were producing metal bolts and now it’s garments, be conscious of the fact that fabric-based fires require a different sprinkler specification to put a fire out than bolts on a shelf.

Ramping up production in other areas

Many consumers will have noticed shelves were bare in the early days of the pandemic. This led to another area of emerging risk for some manufacturers during the pandemic – a rapid increase in usual production levels.

Increased production of staples such as rice, sugar or flour can lead to fires or even explosions due to a build-up of combustible dusts – particularly if areas aren’t kept clean. While under normal production volumes, operations managers would have ample time to maintain cleanliness, this could fall by the wayside during a time of rapidly increasing production, raising the risk of fire or explosions.

Returning to normal has risk too

When reverting back to original production, there are risks to consider too. Even during the best of times, efficient start-up of industrial processes can cause a significant challenge. If your equipment has been idle for several months as a result of pandemic restrictions on usual business activity, ensure you undertake due care and maintenance of that equipment before restarting. Our best advice is to approach this as you would starting equipment for the first time.

Restarting may be particularly risky in the current conditions, in which there may be shortages of experienced staff, social distancing requirements, reduced access to specialised support from contractors and longer lead times for spare parts.

FM Global advises clients to keep communication lines open – we want them talking to our engineers as much as possible to ensure those risks are understood, so we can discuss any changes and offer as much advice as possible. We always strive to partner and work with clients to minimise those exposures as much as possible – and our checklists to enhance safety and reduce risk are available to all organisations.

While companies may be retooling to serve the greater good of society, it is important to only make significant changes to your production facility with a full understanding of what the associated risk implications are.