European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

The strategy for improving machinery standards through users' feedback

Based on their experience and practical knowledge of the equipment, users constitute a precious source of information on the adaptability of the technical solutions provide by the manufacturer. Exchanges of information between manufacturers and users may help to improve the design of equipment, in particular by revealing certain unusual uses of machines by their operators.

This feedback also seems essential with regard to harmonized European standardisation aimed at ensuring that the proposed design specifications are geared to the working conditions in companies. Developing standards is a long process that often takes several years before their publication. As a result, some standards may mention solutions which have since been superseded by recent technological advances, even if these standards may be revised every five years. Moreover, some machines are still not covered by harmonized European standards; for standardisation bodies have not yet been able to tackle all the areas covered by the EU directive on machine design. This machinery directive envisages participation by machine users. However – as confirmed by the TUTB study on the application of this text in Germany, France, Italy and Finland – few workforce representatives influence this process in practice.

Nonetheless, we are convinced of the importance of the various players in the system exchanging information and experiences. Manufacturers and users have a different approach to their machines and also use a different language: while the former use a highly technical vocabulary and are bound by economic constraints and productivity, the latter have a practical approach to the matter - they may not be familiar with EU regulations, but they are aware of the difficulties involved in using the equipment. We will have to ask ourselves how we can facilitate the dialogue between these two actors.

Feedback in action

Following a data collecting project run in co-operation with the Swedish Union LO in 1997, the ETUI in 1998 commissioned SindNova, an Italian trade union institute, to develop a research project to involve workers and firms in assessing the effectiveness of technical standards on the safety of woodworking machinery. The project was carried out in 1999 in Tuscany, Italy, by Fabio Strambi and colleagues from the Siena Local Occupational Health & Safety Unit (USL). It aimed to introduce a participatory model in a specific high risk industrial environment, collecting input from machinery users and integrating it into a strategy for improving machinery technical standards. The outcomes were published under the title: Ergonomics and technical standards: users’ experiences and suggestions - Safety of woodworking machinery.

In 2003 the Bilbao Agency awarded the "Feedback Methodology" in the context of the SME Funding Scheme 2003-2004, when Italy (Regione Toscana) and Germany (GrolaBG) decided to apply this methodology to forklift trucks (FLTs). This project was carried out in 29 SMEs where a total of 192 forklift trucks were used.

The project outcomes were then used to develop a wider European project across five member states, centred on FLTs covered by the harmonized standard EN 1726-1:1999 Safety of industrial trucks - Self-propelled trucks up to and including 10 000 kg capacity and industrial tractors with a drawbar pull up to and including 20 000 N - Part 1: General requirements.

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Contact: Stefano Boy and Marianne De Troyer