Tom Bateson, head of safety, health, environment and quality at Bio Capital Group, discusses best practice for health and safety practises at AD plants.
OPINION: Let’s be frank. An Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plant is not the most glamorous of working environments: from the handling of food waste at one end (which is then fed into giant digester tanks for decomposition) to the production of bio-methane and bio-fertiliser and at the other.
But with the latest technology and rigorous health and safety (H&S) standards, it doesn’t need to be a messy, hazardous or unpleasant environment to work in and can ultimately be very rewarding given the enormous benefits to local communities and the environment.
Firstly, all AD operators in the UK must comply with regulations concerning environmental protection, chemical processes including flammable atmospheres, animal by-products, health and safety and waste handling, as set down by UK regulators (EA, SEPA, NIEA, HSE. These basic, duty-of-care controls that exist to ensure the safety of our people and those living or working nearby the plant. These regulations cover plant design and equipment – which have built-in, automated safety controls – and fundamental operation protocols.
The AD sector also crosses over with the waste management industry and must therefore adhere to the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) clear standards on best practice. The waste industry has the second highest fatality rate of any industry, mainly due to collisions between people and vehicles and incidents involving equipment – so vigilance on the forecourt and adhering to the POWRA principles is paramount.
What makes the difference is a company’s safety culture in terms of the way it monitors, reports H&S risks and trains and engages its staff to avoid accidents and sustain a healthy and happy workforce. At Bio Capital Group, we adopt the best H&S practices that go above and beyond the basic legal requirements.
We are proud that for the past two years we have won the ADBA H&S award recognising H&S performance at Energen and across the group. Some sites within the group already had ISO accreditation and over the past 12 months we have achieved accreditation to ISO9001, ISO14001 and ISO45001 on a further 5 sites.
Bio Capital Group was formed in 2018 and today we own and operate a portfolio of 8 AD plants (6 processing food waste and 2 agricultural feedstock) plus a waste transport company. When a new plant joins our family, it comes with legacy operations issues. Our 6-strong SHEQ team will work tirelessly to bring that plant in line with our group H&S standards. That process involves training staff to embed a strong H&S culture and integrating new reporting software, amongst other things.
Our group-wide approach can be categorised into four focus areas – the four pillars of our safety culture.
Automated controls/ monitoring
In a nutshell, any regulated AD plant is legally required to have the correct process monitoring technology, controls and H&S protocols in place to ensure gas slippage is avoided and all the potential major risks associated with the AD process are controlled.
In 2021, we implemented Eco Online reporting system software across the group. Designed to empower the teams and optimise engagement, the platform provides a consistent and accessible H&S reporting system for all staff and individual site teams.
Since the introduction of this system, we have seen an increase of 163% in near miss reporting and observations in comparison to the 2021 reports received. As a result, all sites either maintained or vastly reduced accident and incident levels.
Monitoring & Assessment
The SHEQ Team carry out monthly site inspections across the group, along with individual site management, to check compliance against regulations and internal procedures. Every month an Asset Report & SHEQ Report is produced for each site, detailing all reporting trends, any accidents and incidents and other issues.
We implement POWRA (Point of Work Risk Assessments) on site as a guiding principle in staff operations – particularly when unusual or non-routine activity occurs.
Staff engagement and training
We take a proactive (rather than reactive) approach to H&S and make sure our employees are fully engaged with the issues and providing feedback on a weekly basis. We run several internal communications initiatives to raise awareness for health and welfare priorities throughout the group.
These include wellbeing themes and “Toolbox Talks” – presentations with audio narration which finish with an interactive online quiz to test their understanding of the material. One month we might focus on “Slips, Trips & Falls”, while another on dealing with stress, anxiety and depression (which is higher than average in the waste industry). Staff can access a GP and get telephone advice and counselling 24/7 through their healthcare package.
Our group theme “Be Aware, Take Care” highlights the importance of H&S in the workplace but also for loved ones at home.