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Raising issues of concern

20 May 2013

Given that lifting operations are generally critical to overall work schedules, the economic impact of any disruption can be significant. Here, Geoff Holden, chief executive, Lifting Equipment Engineers Association offers some guidance on getting the most out of overhead lifting equipment

Overhead lifting equipment encompasses a truly diverse array of products, ranging from highly complex, fully automated crane systems to the simplest shackles and eyebolts. However, the most commonly used items tend to be well-established in terms of their basic design, and robust and reliable in operation.

It is equally true that many of these products lead an arduous life. Items such as slings and load lifting attachments are typically vulnerable to damage each and every time they are used. Furthermore, lifting equipment is often obliged to operate in hostile conditions that can compromise durability and reliability. When all these factors are taken into account, the threat of product failure or breakdown becomes apparent. Employers are clearly well advised to implement effective procedures that minimise the risk of downtime.


Robust specification

Selecting the right equipment for the application in question is the foundation of reliable operation over an extended working life. While this may seem like a statement of the obvious, LEEA members responsible for the supply of lifting equipment regularly report that some customers provide just the briefest of specifications, even when the application in question is particularly demanding.

To ensure the highest possible standards of reliability, buyers should therefore look to provide potential suppliers with a detailed description of all the factors that are likely to affect long-term performance. These will include the requirements of the lifting operation, the characteristics of the load and the proposed manner in which the equipment is to be used.

The buyer should also warn the supplier of any adverse environmental conditions that might affect the integrity of the equipment, such as extremes of temperature, humidity, dirty conditions or the danger of chemical attack and/or a corrosive atmosphere. To establish a duty rating, the frequency of use and average loadings should also be determined.

An understanding of the scope and status of relevant standards will also put the buyer in a strong position. In particular, the use of Harmonised European Standards (CEN) is highly recommended.  Within the EC, these have a quasi-legal status, in that a product genuinely made to a relevant CEN is deemed to meet the essential health and safety requirements demanded by the Machinery Directive. They therefore represent a near watertight means of ensuring an appropriate level of quality.

Keep equipment under control

Once in the hands of the buyer, key priorities include ensuring that lifting equipment is only used by suitably trained and experienced staff, and subject to an appropriate and comprehensive programme of test, thorough examination and maintenance. Clearly this can prove challenging, but the task is made far less onerous if an effective method of storage and control is implemented. In all but the smallest workplaces, a dedicated facility for all portable equipment is a vital asset. Placed under the control of a responsible person (or persons), this central storage area will help ensure that equipment does not become dispersed across any number of different work areas, sites, toolboxes or vehicles. It will also help keep lifting equipment out of the wrong hands, and make it far easier to ensure that all items are subject to the necessary procedures.

Test, thorough examination and maintenance

It should go without saying that lifting equipment must be maintained in line with the manufacturer’s requirements. Employers in the UK should also be aware of their obligation under LOLER (Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations) to subject all lifting equipment to periodic thorough examination by a competent person. In practice, this means someone with the specialist theoretical knowledge and practical experience necessary to identify potentially dangerous problems in the lifting equipment being thoroughly examined. To help employers select engineers with the necessary qualities, the LEEA issues TEAM (Test, Examine And Maintain) identity and registration cards to employees of member companies that pass the Association’s Diploma examination. Employers are urged to insist that it is shown by anyone intending to work on lifting equipment for which they are responsible. 

In-service inspections

As well as meeting legal obligations, periodic thorough examination will help highlight issues that could affect both the safety and reliability of overhead lifting equipment. However, given that LOLER generally only requires one to be undertaken every six months for equipment that is used for lifting people and for lifting accessories, and every 12 months for other lifting equipment, employers should not place undue reliance on them.

Given that much lifting equipment is vulnerable to damage and deterioration even when used in a proper manner, thorough examinations must always be supplemented by regular in-service inspections. In contrast to thorough examinations, the in-service inspection is typically a visual process, in some cases supplemented by simple tests, and conducted by staff capable of identifying obvious defects. It need not be unduly time-consuming or bureaucratic, but staff need to have the skills, confidence and authority necessary to withdraw from service any equipment that gives cause for concern.

Employers that are successful in addressing all these issues will undoubtedly go a long way towards maximising the uptime of their lifting equipment. However, it is worth highlighting two other important considerations. One of the most common characteristics of lifting operations that go awry involves failed attempts to cannibalise general purpose equipment to suit an awkward, unusual or unexpected load. In many cases, hiring specialised equipment that is designed for the load in question is a less risky, more efficient and more cost-effective solution.

Furthermore, as well as focusing on the detail of the procedures necessary to ensure that lifting equipment remains fit for purpose, employers also need to consider the wider culture that prevails within their workplace. Experience suggests that the safest, most productive environments are almost invariably those in which employees feel empowered to highlight issues or concerns without fear of repercussions. In such workplaces, potential problems with plant and equipment are typically identified and reported at the earliest possible opportunity, ensuring they can be addressed before costly or even catastrophic failures occur.  

About the LEEA

Established in 1944, the LEEA has more than 650 member companies worldwide and campaigns vigorously for higher standards of safety within the lifting industry. Key services provided include training, accreditation and expert technical advice. Member companies include those involved in the design, manufacture, hire, repair, refurbishment, test, examination, verification and use of lifting equipment. Applicants are subject to an initial technical audit before full membership is granted, and then to a continuing programme of assessments. For large scale users of overhead lifting equipment, associate membership provides benefits such as access to technical information and training, without the need for auditing.