For Shell Australia, a low incidence of workplace injury is no accident. The company's health and safety policy is clear, comprehensive and adhered to by all staff, who appreciate and value its importance.
So when Shell's terminal at Pinkenba, Brisbane, embarked on the recently completed construction of its grease packaging plant and re-development of its lube-oil manufacturing centre and special products plant, safety was in the forefront of the minds of the project engineers involved. "Worker safety at Shell is very proactive," says John Robbins, a Senior Major Projects Engineer at Shell.
"Any risk to employees is simply unacceptable. Instead of waiting until someone is injured to react, we prefer to take preventative measures to begin with."
One of the primary concerns addressed was the manual handling which would be required in the new complex. Some employees would be required to lift and manoeuvre heavy 200 litre drums off a pallet, before manually tipping them over and decanting the ingredients into large floor tanks or autoclave kettles.
Other employees would be required to manually palletise plastic and metal drums, ranging from 20kg to 55kg.
To minimise the risks of injury involved with these tasks, Shell decided to install industrial manipulators and contacted Dalmec . Dalmec had previously installed manipulators at Shell in Europe, which had proved extremely beneficial.
After firstly receiving a video demonstrating the use of the manipulators, John Robbins, and two employees who were to operate the new equipment, flew to Melbourne to view the industrial manipulators Dalmec had recently installed at Reckitt and Colman and General Motors.
Impressed with the operation of the equipment at these companies, Shell decided to install a number of pneumatic manipulators in the re-developed areas.
During 1994, five machines were installed at Shell's Pinkenba terminal, each with specialised tooling, custom designed to suit a number of different applications which were required.
Three manipulators were installed with gripping jaws to lift the 200 litre drums and, utilising a special tipping mechanism, empty the contents into a floor tank or autoclave kettle as required.
Each has a computerised load cell and weight indicator incorporated into the tooling, to enable the operators to monitor the exact amount of fluid dispensed at a time.
Two of these were installed on an overhead tracking system, one 18 metres in length, to maximise their access area. Both have air-operated drive systems, to assist in manoeuvring the drums and minimise the physical effort required of the operator.
The third was installed on a floor-mounted assembly, designed to suit the space available.
The employees who would have been required to manually complete these tasks have assumed the role of operators of the equipment.
"The pneumatic manipulators have greatly reduced the risk of injuries, not only back strain, but also finger and foot injuries which can occur when manoeuvring such heavy and awkward drums," says Robbins.
"The ergonomic design of the machines has also meant that they are very easy to operate."
A further two manipulators were installed to palletise items such as kerosene and detergents, in containers and cartons of various shapes and weights.
Special tooling was designed to suit the different items, and up to four items can be palletised at a time. Both of these manipulators are also portable and able to be moved to different areas of the plant as required.
According to David Berry, a Major Projects Engineer at Shell, the installation of these palletising manipulators has advantages in both safety and productivity.
"When undertaken manually, this kind of task presents a unique risk to employees as both lifting and rotating are involved at the one time," Berry says.
"The manipulators minimise the likelihood of back strain or other injuries and make the work much easier. The operators are extremely happy with them.
"In addition, the work is completed faster because the machines are able to palletise a number of items at a time and employee fatigue is not a problem."
As a built-in safety feature, all of the pneumatic manipulators have a device which prevents an item being released if there is a power failure or electrical problem.
Also, given the hazardous conditions throughout much of the Shell complex, Dalmec ensured that the electrical systems built into the manipulators with load cells complied with hazardous area classifications.
"The pneumatic manipulators have been ideal and their flexibility has suited our requirements," says Robbins.
"Most importantly, they have enabled us to adhere to our strict health and safety standards and prevent injuries before they occur.