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MEEM Adopts Industrial-Strength Safety Progam


From Tech Today Nov 6, 2007

Michigan Tech has long been educating engineers with skills that propel them straight from the commencement podium to the workplace. Now, graduates of the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics are entering industry as well-versed in safety as they are in computer-aided design.

Department Chair William Predebon instituted the effort several years ago, when he asked members of the Industrial Advisory Board (now the External Advisory Board) to visit the department's labs. Then, he invited safety experts from General Motors to review the labs and procedures and to make recommendations.

Those recommendations were taken to heart, and the department developed, staffed and began implementing a full-fledged, industry-standard safety program that extends from professors with million-dollar labs to every undergraduate who turns on a lathe or picks up a set of welding torches.

Thus, starting this fall, all MEEM faculty, graduate students and staff are required to watch a 45-minute general safety video available from the department website. Asking nicely is usually enough to assure compliance, but, if necessary, Predebon does more than ask nicely. "If graduate teaching assistants don't go through the safety orientation, they lose their GTA support," he said. "If graduate research assistants, staff and faculty don't complete safety training, they will be locked out of their labs."

"Safety is important to all of us, and we need to take it seriously," Predebon said.

In addition to completing (and documenting) the general training, faculty and staff responsible for any of the department's 30-plus labs are required to develop a safety manual and train anyone using the facility. The training applies to undergraduates as well; all seniors work in a lab as part of their Senior Design requirement.

Predebon leads a tour of several MEEM labs, showing some recent safety improvements. Undergrads test noise, vibration and harshness principles in a lab stocked with Kenmore washers. Recently, the department ran new wiring and plumbing to each machine from directly beneath the floor. The improvement virtually eliminates the risk of trips and falls. Students provide their own safety glasses, but spares are available in the labs, along with ear protection.

Professor Craig Friedrich, who directs the safety program while Associate Professor Tammy Haut Donahue is on sabbatical, reaches for a white binder stashed by the doorway. In addition to general safety information, it includes an MSDS, or material safety data sheet, tailored to that lab. It lists any substances in the room that could pose a safety threat, along with proper procedures for handling them and what to do in an emergency.

In other labs, fuels are stored in special cabinets that prevent sparks, which can set off accidental explosions. A crane system in an engine lab can lift up to 500 pounds and help prevent back injuries.

Industry experts identified some safety shortfalls had been hiding in plain sight. "We did a lot of labeling," says Jerry Dion, manager of laboratory facilities. For example, identifying signs are now posted next to alarms. Thus, if they go off, passersby can tell if they should respond to, for example, a fire or the release of carbon monoxide.

Doors in the sub-basement link a network of rooms and corridors, and now many are labeled "Not an Exit." In an emergency, Friedrich explains, it's easy to lose your head and, instead of escaping outside, rush farther into the building, straight into deep trouble.

Conversely, other doors are topped with glow-in-the-dark exit signs, just in case the power goes out.

Jonathan Stone, the University's occupational safety and health specialist, gives the department high marks. "Our office is ecstatic that a department would go out into industry for advice on building a safety program," he said. "It's important that our students be trained in their field, but it's just as important that they understand safety. Safety is part of making them great engineers and scientists."


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Nov 6, 2007