Is the customer up to spec?

5 October 2001

Customers need to know that they too have responsibilities, says Derrick Bailes

When accidents occur during lifting operations, the finger of suspicion is frequently pointed at one or more of the suppliers involved. Who provided the equipment? Who was responsible for its service and repair? Where lifting equipment is concerned, there is no doubt that suppliers carry considerable responsibilities and should take all reasonable care to ensure that products supplied are fit for the purpose, correctly installed and subject to an appropriate programme of maintenance, inspection and thorough examination. However, it is equally apparent that ensuring correct specification of safe, legal lifting equipment ultimately demands a careful and considered approach by the customer.

In a highly competitive commercial world, the 'balance of power' in the relationship between customer and supplier invariably favours the former. So while the customer can (and should) insist on a prospective supplier meeting a range of criteria, it is rather more difficult for the supplier to oblige the client to fulfil their obligations. Ultimately, the lifting equipment supplier is reliant on the willingness of the client to apply common sense and to respect prevailing legislation. However, in practice, it is not uncommon for those responsible for supply to be faced with a specification that amounts to little more than a broad description of the product category and a safe working load.

Given this all too common scenario, it is important to stress that an employer has considerable duties to uphold with regard to the buying and provision of equipment for use at work. In the UK, for example, these general duties are outlined in the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASWA) and, more specifically, in the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER98) and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. (MHSWR). Comparable regulations apply elsewhere. Clearly the buyer has a responsibility not just to spend the employer's money wisely, but also to ensure that these duties are observed.

To help meet such legal obligations, the 'ideal' buyer of lifting equipment is not only willing and able to provide far greater detail of the application in question, but is also prepared to engage in a much closer partnership with potential suppliers to ensure that the appropriate equipment and/or services are secured. The Lifting Equipment Engineers Association's own code of practice for the safe use of lifting equipment provides a good starting point in this respect, because it details the basic information which should be exchanged between the user and designer/supplier of the lifting equipment at the outset of the purchasing process. In broad terms, the buyer should be able to explain clearly 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 any prospective supplier of adverse environmental conditions such as extremes of temperature, humidity or the danger of chemical attack and/or a corrosive atmosphere. To ensure that a duty rating can be established, the supplier will also expect to be told the frequency of use and average loadings.

This clearly only represents an overview, and further information will undoubtedly be required. An understanding of the scope and status of relevant standards will certainly put the buyer in a strong position; specifying the standard and checking that the supplier clearly states that the product in question complies with it is an important step towards ensuring that legal obligations are observed. However, buyers must always be on guard for 'weasel words' such as "tested in compliance with…" or "generally in compliance with…". These could mean that, in some respect or other, the product does not comply with the standard in question. In the European Union buyers now increasingly have the advantage of a range of harmonised standards which have a quasi legal status in that equipment made to these standards is deemed to meet the European legal requirements in so far as the standards address them. Although their primary purpose is to facilitate free trade within Europe, they can be of benefit to buyers worldwide.

Alongside the provision of a comprehensive specification, companies should also take steps to assess the credentials of any prospective supplier. In fact setting a rigorous specification and demanding an intelligent response from potential suppliers will in itself go some way towards identifying the level of expertise of the companies concerned. However, when it comes to judging the merits of suppliers, it is impossible not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for the 21st century buyer, particularly if he or she is new to the business or not a specialist in the lifting industry. Over recent years the traditional supply chain that linked a relatively small number of manufacturers with a network of locally based agents and service specialists has become increasingly fragmented. Today's buyer is subsequently faced with a sometimes bewildering choice. And while it still includes well established manufacturers and regionally-focused service and support companies, these now compete with a new generation of supply options such as catalogue based and on-line outlets.

As previous articles have detailed, there are inevitably pressures on the buyer to make selections on the basis of price alone. Legal obligations aside, there are very real commercial and safety implications in this approach as a recent call to the LEEA offices illustrates. A company had purchased a low cost electric wire rope hoist block from a mail order source. After a few months use, concerns were raised about its integrity and an outside test house was asked to examine it. Having seen the hoist the test house decided it did not want to get involved and so the purchaser telephoned LEEA for advice. They had received no installation instructions or information for use and no EC declaration of conformity. LEEA advised them about the legislation and they decided to go back to the supplier. Over a period of time the supplier produced some of the information but instead of an EC declaration of conformity it sent a laboratory report relating to a sample hoist but which specifically stated that the report did not apply to production items. The hoist was made in China and, among its other oddities, used a fixed rather than swivel hook. As a result, any twisting of the load will transfer directly to the wire rope itself, with clear implications for safety and rope life. It was certainly not in compliance with the Machinery Directive which requires hazards to be designed out where possible. So this cheap hoist turned out to be a lot of hassle, not in compliance with legislation, potentially dangerous and almost certainly with a short life expectancy. Not much of a bargain! So what exactly are the key characteristics of a good supplier that should be on the buyer's checklist? This is often no more than common sense: a good track record in the lifting business and clear commitment to expert advice and after-sales support should definitely be among the main criteria. In addition, most legislation and regulations place great emphasis on the use of 'competent' staff at every stage of the lifting process. The term competence embraces knowledge and experience, so it is important to ask exactly what level of expertise the supplier's staff can demonstrate with regard to the tasks they propose to undertake.

Clearly any such process of supplier assessment should rule out many, if not all, 'cowboy' suppliers. In doing so, the customer should also dramatically reduce the risk of sourcing equipment that is not up to the demands of the application in question. However, the buyer looking to fulfil his or her employer's duties cannot afford to rely solely on the supplier's credentials to ensure the quality of the product.

In making an assessment of product quality, a little common sense can again go a long way. Exceptionally low prices should always ring alarm bells; cheap equipment may not necessarily be inappropriate, but it must be emphasised that the presence of a stamp like a CE mark and an adequate SWL are not in themselves sufficient evidence of suitability. The current influx of 'budget' lifting devices certainly brings this into much sharper focus when considering whether the product in question is really fit for the intended application. There is little doubt that some of the equipment now reaching the European market omits features that most in the industry would consider essential as the story of the Chinese hoist illustrates.

The LEEA, and indeed all those committed to a reduction in the number of lifting accidents, would obviously like to see more customers fitting the 'ideal' model. However, the pressures placed on businesses often appear to be working in the opposite direction. Headcounts in most organisations are now kept at an absolute minimum, so time is at a premium and multi-tasking is a fact of life. Economic realities mean that any opportunity to cut costs is likely to be considered. Against this background, spending more time on the processes of specification and supplier and equipment assessment may appear to be something of a luxury. However, above and beyond the clear legal duties that employers should observe, there are strong arguments that a more rigorous approach to sourcing lifting equipment can save on both time and money in the long run. Even if accidents are avoided, lifting operations are typically critical to the smooth running of a business, be it in a factory or warehouse or on a construction site or offshore oil rig. A buyer that is responsible for the purchase of poorly specified equipment that creates production bottlenecks, is unreliable or simply fails to do the job for which it is intended, is unlikely to be thanked for saving a few pounds, euros or dollars on the initial purchase price. This is particularly true when the cost of maintenance, inspection and thorough examination are taken into account as well. Avoiding problems in the first place by ensuring correct specification and appropriate choice of supplier and equipment therefore makes long-term economic sense, and will also serve to significantly reduce the risk of unsafe and illegal lifting operations.