HISTORY LESSON: Safety is as much part of Volvo’s present and future as it has been in the company’s past
by Tony Lawrence
Safety is one of the Volvo Group’s three core values, along with quality and care for the environment, and has been deeply embedded in company philosophy for the better part of two centuries. Within the construction industry, Volvo CE has consistently led the way in prioritizing safety. “Safety is one of the keys to how we think and what we do,” says Niklas Nillroth, Vice President Core Value Management and Corporate Social Responsibility. “Our customers want a safe working environment for their employees and they want a reputation for safety as well. The ultimate goal is zero accidents. Even if we are not yet there, fewer accidents mean fewer interruptions, less downtime as well as reduced human suffering.”
The earliest exhibits at the company’s Munktell Museum in Eskilstuna, Sweden, such as the first Swedish tractor dating back to 1913 and the company’s first wheel loader from 1954, appear basic compared to today’s machines.
But that can be attributed to Volvo’s continuous improvements in safety features.
“We are well aware that our products cannot prevent accidents by themselves, regardless of how safe the products may be. Accidents can nevertheless happen due to human error and the environment in which the products are used,” says Nillroth. “We work in many different ways to reduce risk. One is to provide relevant information to everyone who uses our products. Another is to cooperate with other stakeholders who work to create safer roads and transport systems.”
Some of the biggest headlines for the company came in 1972, says the Munktell Museum’s Leif Anväg, “when Volvo CE introduced ROPS- and FOPS-approved cabs (Roll Over and Falling Object Protection Structure).”
Making the operator’s cab easy to access, comfortable, ergonomic, air-conditioned and adjustable – indeed, making a 40-tonne articulated hauler easier to drive than most cars – may seem obvious today. By definition, a better working environment improves an operator’s productivity, reduces tiredness and thus boosts safety. But in 1991, with the introduction of the Care Cab, Volvo CE was once more ahead of the game.
Retaining that leadership position is still a top priority. In 2003-6, for instance, Volvo CE developed its Strategic Safety Plan, which led to the Safety Challenge ‘Be Number One for Safety’. That in turn led to the company’s Safety Council launching its ‘Safety for You’ campaign, shortlisted in the European Excellence Awards in 2007.
Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson, visionary founders of the Volvo car business, declared as far back as 1927 that “the basic principle behind all design work is, and always must be, safety”. Over the years, Volvo has developed many new safety innovations that reflect this guiding principle. A classic example, adopted not just by the Volvo Group but throughout the world, is the three-point safety belt invented in 1959 by the Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin while working as a safety engineer at Volvo.
Almost a century before that, Johan Theofron Munktell, who in 1832 launched a company central to the formation of today’s Volvo Construction Equipment, showed his commitment to safe operators, machines and workplaces by persuading his staff to give up distilled spirits – the beverage of choice at that time – in favor of low-alcohol beer. It goes without saying that drinking alcohol of any kind while operating machinery is unacceptable in the modern workplace.
The emphasis at Volvo CE today is not only on machine innovation, but also on operator behavior, through its industry-leading training programs, and worksite layout and design.
The three, taken together, form a ‘safety triangle’. “We emphasize the triangle of safe machines, safe people and safe workplaces. The circle around that is our safety culture,” says Nillroth.
Safety features do not necessarily need to be high-tech. Technology has its place, allowing operators to use remote-controlled attachment brackets and consult proximity sensors, full dual-circuit brakes and reversing cameras. Likewise, telematics and CareTrack, in conjunction with Volvo machines’ own diagnostic systems, provide invaluable information for better maintenance and, by definition, performance and safety.
However, one of the most common causes of construction site accidents involves people slipping or falling off machines – hence the focus on non-slip surfaces. Non-slip steps, handrails and even the angle of cab ladders have had a major impact on reducing accidents and injuries. Making service points accessible at ground level has also proved effective, as well as making it more likely that operators will not be tempted to skip or put off maintenance checks – all designed to eliminate potential danger.