Plant Rooms, Out of Sight out of Mind

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Tuesday, January 28th, 2014
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Most buildings, regardless of scale, generally require at least one plant room in order to operate.

These rooms are essential to the buildings operations and typically house a variety of different equipment.

This equipment includes necessities such as air handlers, boilers, chillers, heat exchangers, water heaters and tanks, water pumps (for domestic, heating/cooling, and fire fighting water), main distribution piping and valves, fire fighting equipment (sprinkler distribution piping and pumps), back-up electrical generators, elevator machinery and HVAC equipment.

Most owners and occupiers understand that the equipment in the plant rooms is necessary for heating and cooling the building – among other needs – but is often given little thought with regards to safety and upkeep.

In many cases, the equipment can be aged and obsolete, and it is increasingly evident that this plant and equipment, while it may have been compliant with relevant safety codes when it was installed, can poses a significant risk to the health and safety of those required to maintain it.

Due to the very nature of the plant and equipment located within these rooms there are substantial implications to technicians, and maintainers of such equipment. Plant, as defined within workplace health and safety terms, is a major cause of workplace death and injury in Australian workplaces.

Severe injuries to technicians, and maintainers of such equipment can result from unsafe design, manufacture, installation, maintenance and use of plant. Plant and equipment located within such rooms have moving parts and the action of moving parts may have sufficient force in motion to cause injury or death. In addition to the moving parts there are non-mechanical risks including harmful emissions, contained fluids or gas under pressure, chemicals and chemical by-products, and electricity and noise; all of which can cause serious injury to technicians and others if not adequately controlled.

The importance of the equipment contained within these rooms are paramount to the smooth operation of the building and as such technicians are required to periodically assess, maintain and repair these items of plant and equipment  to guarantee the ongoing performance of the building.

Risks to health and safety exist throughout the lifecycle of the plant from manufacturing through to installing, commissioning, using, maintaining, repairing, decommissioning and disposing of the plant. As such building owners , facility managers as well as persons who conduct a business or undertaking (PCBU)must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the fixtures, fittings and plant are without risks to the health and safety of any individual.

In order to ensure that the risk associated with the items of plant and equipment are controlled, a systematic process involving the following should be implemented:

  • Identify hazards – find out what could cause harm from using the plant;
  • Assess risks if necessary – understand the nature of the harm that could be caused by the hazard, how serious the harm could be and the likelihood of it happening;
  • Control risks – implement the most effective control measures that are reasonably practicable in the circumstances;
  • Review control measures to ensure they are working as planned.

Designers, manufacturers, importers, suppliers and installers of plant are also required apply this process as a way of making plant as safe as possible before it is used within the building in addition to obtaining and providing information about plant so other duty holders can fulfil their responsibility to manage risks.

The most readily available source of information pertaining to the safe operation and maintenance of plant and equipment is contained within the equipment operations manuals. WHS legislation requires (amongst other things) persons who supply machinery to, so far as is practicable, ensure that persons using the machinery in the manner intended are not exposed to hazards. As part of this obligation suppliers are required to provide adequate information in respect to any dangers associated with the machinery, the proper maintenance of the machinery and the correct use the of  machinery.

Given that most of the equipment located within such rooms may have been present from the day of completion, the reality unfortunately is that operator’s manuals are frequently not available.

Building owners, facility managers as well as persons who conduct a business or an undertaking must ensure information pertaining to the safe operation and maintenance of the plant and equipment is readily available and up to date.

By: Andrew Angelides
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