hydraulic lineIt has been reported that the absence of concrete reinforcement is the main reason why so many buildings collapsed during Haiti’s tragic earthquake causing the needless deaths of tens of thousands of people. But if the earthquake had been less severe — and only one building fallen down — the prolific nature of the problem may have gone unnoticed.

The latter situation is similar to what is going on in the fluid power industry. Rarely do we see wide scale failure of entire systems that leads to injury or death. Rather, when accidents result in serious consequences, they are usually viewed as isolated incidents — unrelated to accidents occurring elsewhere.

But most of these accidents are related. The common thread is organizations that either produce inadequate safety requirements or none at all. But the problem is more serious than just a lack of safety instruction. Many people specifying components for fluid power systems or working on them lack the education or training to be qualified to do so. Consequently, they repeatedly engage in reckless and unsafe practices and don’t even know it. Sometimes they are lucky that their actions don’t produce catastrophic results. But if fate were to cause catastrophic results in a single day from all the unqualified people working on fluid power systems, the widespread catastrophe would certainly bring the matter to national attention. In a sense — and only to make a point — not enough people are getting injured or killed in a single incident for the issues to receive national attention.

These problems in the fluid power industry can be distilled down to:

  • sub-standard engineering practices,
  • sub-standard material specifications,
  • sub-standard building practices,
  • code violations, and
  • poorly trained building workforce.

Not enough space exists in this issue to examine each of these problems in depth, so this discussion will focus on those directly affecting the maintenance, repair and overhaul sector.

Sub-standard engineering practices — Mechanical engineers undertake the vast majority of hydraulic system design. They take courses in a branch of hydraulics called fluid dynamics. However, knowledge of fluid dynamics alone does not make an engineer fully competent to design hydraulic systems, and it certainly doesn’t aid engineers in designing safe hydraulic systems. The Fluid Power Safety Institute’s slogan describes the issue of safety and engineering best: Fluid power safety doesn’t just happen. It has to be pursued.

To my knowledge, no university in the US teaches engineers safe hydraulic design practices. We don’t assume that engineering students have an innate knowledge of math, physics, chemistry, etc. If we did, why would students be required to take so many courses in these subjects. It seems as if the fluid power industry embraces the notion that people who design hydraulic systems do have the innate ability to design in safety because it’s so hard to find any institution that teaches safety.

Sub-standard material specifications — It’s highly unlikely a mechanical engineer will design a hydraulic system with sub-standard materials. However, the fluid power industry does not dictate who can and cannot design hydraulic systems. While many salespeople are mechanical engineers, non-engineers routinely assist clients with hydraulic system design or modification. This is invariably where the problem of sub-standard material specification rears its ugly head. Untrained personnel routinely specify components with marginal pressure and flow ratings.

Substandard building practices — The people who build hydraulic power units, construct vast plants, and assemble construction, agricultural and mining machinery are called assemblers. Like the hose and fitting industry, the vast majority of plant and machinery manufacturers don’t teach their assembly line workers hydraulic safety or basic hydraulics. Ironically, the tasks assembly line workers do have a profound effect on the safety and reliability of the machines they build. Also, assembly line worker training has been proven to dramatically reduce a company’s warranty claims.