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Training for Safer Conveyor Service and Maintenance

Jerad Heitzler, Training Manager / Martin Engineering

Todd Swinderman, President Emeritus / Martin Engineering

Bulk handling belt conveyors are typically massive, powerful systems that can move tons of material per hour.  They are essentially a giant elastic band, stretched tight and threaded through a maze of components then loaded with tons of material.  Using drive motors as large as 600 HP (450 kW), a typical conveyor belt moves at a relatively constant speed, commonly running between 0.5 to 10 meters per second (≈100 to 2000 fpm).  Their size, speed and power present the risk of a catastrophic injury that can occur in the blink of an eye.  Even the reaction time of a highly trained professional athlete is no match for a bulk material conveyor.

Training Challenges

Conveyor drive motors can be as large as 600 HP (450 kW),
moving belts as fast as 2000 fpm (10 m/s). © 2024 Martin Engineering

One of the challenges facing conveyor operations is the expertise and knowledge leaving many industries through retirements.  Information that is transferred to new employees may not reflect industry best practices.  A “here’s how we do it” approach introduces old methods and possible bad habits that may result in safety hazards, inefficiency and premature equipment failure.

Most conveyor training comes from vendors of systems and components.  Suppliers can train very well on how their products should be maintained and installed and what problems they can solve.

While the loss of “tribal” knowledge is an issue, it also creates an opportunity to significantly improve operations through third-party expert training.  Training based on a combination of deep industry experience and modern engineering will greatly improve operating decisions, resulting in higher productivity, fewer safety incidents and reduced unplanned outages.

Dealing with complex and changing regulations can present additional challenges.  Some regulations may not fully protect a worker, depending on an individual mine’s circumstance, so local governments and corporations often add their own requirements in an effort to improve productivity and minimize injuries.  Further, new conveyor systems are increasing in size, speed, complexity and sophistication, with automation playing an ever-increasing role

Updated design and control philosophies are becoming more critical for making informed operating and repair decisions, and conveyor operators and maintenance personnel are increasingly in need of a deeper understanding of the entire system.  All of these factors indicate a need for training that is specifically tailored to individual sites and operations.  The one-size-fits-all approach is becoming less attractive — and less effective — with each passing year.

Understanding how and why accidents happen is also critical in preventing them from occurring.  Addressing the symptoms of workplace injuries with workable long-term root cause solutions will reduce unsafe practices, improving availability and safety, while enhancing profitability.

A 2003 study by a major corporation found a correlation between fatalities and unsafe practices, indicating that for every fatality there are an estimated 300,000 unsafe behaviors.

In Search of a Deeper Understanding

Most operations personnel are only expected to know the basics of how conveyors operate, but they may not be fully aware of their limits, safety protocols and best maintenance practices.  But optimizing a conveyor system requires an advanced understanding of how fugitive material relates to safety and the newest technologies to control dust and spillage, as well as accommodating changing production demands and how to use existing designs to meet those demands.  Some opertions lack a deeper understanding of equipment limitations, which encourages workers to treat symptoms such as fugitive material by adjusting skirt seals, for example, when the real culprit may be insufficient belt support or wear liners.

Equipment vendors and third-party trainers can be a highly effective source of training, but there are hundreds of companies providing such services, and expertise and approaches vary widely.  Training is often piecemeal, with little follow-up to evaluate progress toward mine-specific goals and spotty access to industry experts.  Some firms take training seriously yet fail to repeat and update training often enough.  Any approach that allows maintenance personnel to drift back toward trial and error learning is certain to increase costs and reduce effectiveness.

In contrast, dedicated educators with a specific focus on (and a reputation for) expert conveyor training will guide personnel along a path of best practices and continuous learning.  The most successful trainers develop site-specific curriculum that pertains directly to the individual facility, delivering information that not only educates but motivates learners to change behaviors.  Good teachers should provide a variety of delivery methods, based on different learning styles, i.e., good graphics for visual learners, clear documentation for those who learn best by reading, demonstration models or actual equipment for hands-on learners, all designed to increase the probability that there will be measurable positive results.

Some trainers are even able to integrate their programs with customer Learning Management Systems, so companies can ensure thorough and convenient training for all employees — at all levels — across multiple sites.  Customers can make effective use of their learning management system (LMS) by centralizing conveyor training, delivering consistent, high-quality content inexpensively that’s available 24/7 and ensuring that all workers have the same level of education on vital bulk handling systems.  This also gives trainers an opportunity to review data that helps identify trends or indicates a need for additional content or refresher courses.

Payback on Training

While most maintenance workers are skilled technicians, they are often not expected to understand the conveyor holistically.  Conveyors are complex, integrated systems; a change to one component will often have unintended consequences for others, affecting the rest of the system.  Without a complete understanding of how conveyors are designed, and components selected, maintenance becomes an exercise in finding the longest-lasting ‘band aids’ to treat the symptoms rather than solving the root causes.  Before long, an accumulation of bad choices in treating symptoms results in a system that cannot operate at maximum efficiency.

Organizations that embrace regular training show significant performance advantages over the competition.  The proof is reflected in safety, productivity and environmental records, along with above industry average financial returns and share prices.Numerous case studies revealing the positive relationships between safety and productivity are backed up by organizations that gather global statistics on accidents and incidents.

Conclusion

The most effective approach to training examines a mine’s specific conveyor challenges and helps companies run cleaner, safer and more productive operations by treating the root causes of its problems.  When workers and management understand why certain actions are important, as well as the cascading effects that result from poorly trained staff, they are more likely to adjust behaviors and reap the benefits.

Jerad Heitzler / Training Manager / Martin Engineering

As program manager and lead instructor for Martin Engineering’s FOUNDATIONS™ Training Workshops, Jerad Heitzler is a leader in helping the industry learn how to make the handling of bulk materials cleaner, safer, and more productive. He started with Martin Engineering as a Customer Development Representative in 2006. He soon realized his love for presentations and for teaching about conveyor systems, and so in 2010 took over management and development of the company’s FOUNDATIONS™ Workshop program. Under his leadership the program has expanded to offer several levels of conveyor improvement workshops around the world.

Todd Swinderman, President Emeritus / Martin Engineering

Todd Swinderman earned his B.S. from the University of Illinois, joining Martin Engineering’s Conveyor Products division in 1979 and subsequently serving as V.P. and General Manager, President, CEO and Chief Technology Officer. Todd has authored dozens of articles and papers, presenting at conferences and customer facilities around the world and holding more than 140 active patents. He served as President of the Conveyor Equipment Manufacturers’ Association (CEMA) was the editor of CEMA’s 6th and 7th editions of Belt Conveyors for Bulk Materials, The Design Guide for Belt Conveyors.  Todd is active on several CEMA committees including Chair of the Bulk Safety Committee and is a member of the ASME B20 committee on conveyor safety which set U.S. conveyor safety standards.  Swinderman retired from Martin Engineering to establish his own engineering firm, currently serving the company as an independent consultant.

Martin Engineering has been a global innovator in the bulk material handling industry for more than 80 years, developing new solutions to common problems and participating in industry organizations to improve safety and productivity.  The company’s series of Foundations books is an internationally-recognized resource for safety, maintenance and operations training — with more than 22,000 print copies in circulation around the world.  The 500+ page reference books are available in several languages and have been downloaded thousands of times as free PDFs from the Martin website.  Martin Engineering products, sales, service and training are available from 18 factory-owned facilities worldwide, with wholly-owned business units in Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Spain, South Africa, Turkey, Japan, the USA and UK.  The firm employs more than 1,000 people, approximately 400 of whom hold advanced degrees.  For more information, contact info@martin-eng.com, visit www.martin-eng.com, or call (800) 544-2947.

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