Lubrication is a lifeblood of meat and poultry processing. Without regularly and properly greasing machinery, operations can grind to a halt, or at least necessitate the replacement or repair of equipment and cause production slowdowns.

Yet many processors don’t take adequate steps to safeguard their technologies, analysts say.

“More than half of all rotating equipment failures result from lubrication issues,” says Craig Truempi, a Minneapolis-based digital transformation consultant and an adjunct professor in the graduate program for data science at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul. “Many companies simply do not have good lubrication practices.”

Truempi notes some plants lack lubrication programs while others are not doing enough to protect machinery, which includes using greases that can withstand machine washdowns.

“The dominant failure mode of equipment ties back to lubrication practices,” Truempi says. “It is critical to give the machines the lubricating attention they need, which requires awareness of the issue by the management team.”

While lubrication extends the life of processing equipment, problems also occur if it is done improperly or infrequently, says Norman Marriott, emeritus professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic and State University (Virginia Tech), in Blacksburg. Bearings, conveyors, grinders, mixes, rollers, packaging equipment and other moving parts can sustain damage from metal rubbing against metal and plastic rubbing against metal, he says.

“The more the equipment gets used, the more it needs to be lubricated,” Marriott says. “That requires operators to educate workers on machine needs, including the areas that require lubrication and lubrication frequency. The key is proper training and supervision to be certain that technologies are lubricated as needed.”

Determining equipment lubrication requirements demands supervisors study manuals. They can then educate workers, he says, adding that managers also should conduct periodic machine checks and watch employees to ensure they are lubricating properly.

“Improper worker training and oversight will likely result in improper lubrication,” he says. “Most employees sooner or later will deviate and that is where supervision comes in and being certain that workers are doing their jobs properly.”


Back to school for employees

The most effective training, meanwhile, features “show and tell,” in which instructors point to the machine locations that require lubrication and detail methodologies, Marriott says, adding translators should be called in as needed. 

“Employees who are just given a manual may not read or understand it and they also can lose or damage the materials,” Marriott says. “Teaching is much more reliable when the instructor can show and not just talk, and then observe workers after instruction to ensure they are doing things properly.”

Lubrication mishaps can include damage to machinery by under-lubricating or wasting materials by over-lubricating. Marriott says that while some technologies require constant lubrication, others have lubricants packed within seals and require infrequent maintenance, though it is important for employees to regularly scan equipment for seal leakage.

Some processors also use automated lubricating systems, which require less effort and often can reach difficult-to-access locations. But because such technologies also can fail, Truempi says plant operators should consider monitoring lubrication levels with automated ultrasound sensors along with visual inspections by workers.

Automated monitoring systems “see things humans don’t and tell the human when there is a problem to inspect,” he says.

“Lack of proper lubrication will not cause a problem tomorrow or next week,” he says. “But it can reduce the longevity and reliability of equipment from, for instance, five years to two years. It is that delay from not maintaining and lubricating equipment to an actual failure that is causing some misconception of whether we really need to lubricate and how.”

A major processor mistake is assuming that because lubrication is fundamental, it is always done correctly, he notes, adding that plant labor shortages can make operators less vigilant.


Withstand the cleaning washouts

It can be particularly difficult for meat and poultry processors to maintain optimal lubrication levels because of the need for frequent washdowns, which often result in maintenance personnel spraying water into lubricants and reducing the effectives of the greases, Truempi says.

“The main difficulty in food producing plants is that the necessary sanitation processes use hot high-pressure water or steam combined with aggressive chemicals,” says John Crossan, a Chicago-area maintenance manufacturing consultant. “These will remove essential lubricants from moving surfaces, and can allow moisture and corroding chemicals to penetrate and remain in interstices of the equipment where they do no good.”

While many plant operators correctly focus on ensuring their lubrication procedures are up to date, he says they often spend less time seeing that the procedures are done precisely.

“The first item is strictly technical, can be completely defined and is far the easier of the two,” Crossan says. “The second involves numerous aspects of human behavior that are much more complex and variable. It takes ongoing continuous effort and is more difficult.”

He notes that operators often do not recognize the importance of following correct procedures and the commitment that must be made to it.

“Managers must continually reinforce the value of these care processes to the performance of the plant,” Crossan says. “If people begin to feel the processes are not important or valued, the attention they pay to them will fall off. These processes can never be taken for granted, and must be committed to.”

Workers who operate and maintain equipment, meanwhile, will likely be more observant if plants enable the employees to establish the necessary lubrication procedures and documentation, he says.

“Having processes developed and maintained solely by experts, then given as mandates to those actually operating and maintaining the equipment without their input, doesn’t give the essential ownership and credibility that procedures need for them to be truly effective,” Crossan says. “The first pass at procedures is usually done by technical personnel, but ownership must be transferred as early as possible to those who do the work.”

Operators also should routinely review procedures with people who lubricate machinery to capture any necessary updates, changes or improvements, as out of date procedures lose credibility, he says.


Seek help from suppliers

To further educate plant workers, meat and poultry processors should select lubricant vendors who provide training and information sessions, and who regularly inquire about the need for updating training information, says Holly Alfano, chief executive officer of the Alexandria, Va.-based Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association (ILMA).

“Many lubricant manufacturers and distributors hold interactive, in-person seminars for their customers on how to properly select the lubricant as well as detailing the intervals for change out,” she says. “Training is very vendor driven.”

Such instruction is important as adequate training of operating personnel, along with selecting the proper lubricants and monitoring use, are among the major challenges processors face in ensuring equipment is properly maintained, Alfano says.

She says operators need to “let their vendor help and keep regular training of employees active. Be pro-active before there is equipment failure.”

Crossan says operators can enhance maintenance outcomes by developing diagrams that reveal the key lubrication points on equipment, and that they can increase the usefulness by color coding the points and listing the lubrication frequency for each.

Because lubricants are constantly improving, Crossan says it is advantageous for processors to work with suppliers to find the optimal selections, while also minimizing the number of lubricants in facilities to avoid confusion, misapplication and cross contamination.

“Proper lubrication storage and dispensing are essential to avoid contamination,” he notes. “Dirt contaminated lubricants are a real danger to equipment.”


The human element at work

The development of daily lubrication and inspection checklists, along with routine equipment inspections, also will help ensure that plant personnel are following proper lubrication methodologies, Crossan says, while routine peer audit systems also will keep workers on track.

“Most equipment performance and failure issues are due to lack of proper care and not design deficiencies,” he says. “So, it is important to give maintenance work to employees who are trained and know and understand the procedures and checklists. This is not work to be given to new, temporary or untrained persons as improper lubrication causes more problems than a lack of it.”

In addition, it is essential for workers to leverage the specific lubricants that are designed for various types of machinery, says Orsi Dezi, business unit manager of nonfood compounds at NSF International, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based food-safety auditing firm and standards developer.

Lubricants categorized as H1 are intended for use in applications where there is potential for incidental food contact, including with greases from machine parts and equipment. H2 lubricants are not intended to be in contact with foodstuffs at any time, NSF International notes.

“The performance of H1 lubricants (is) getting closer to that of non-food grade greases,” Alfano says. “Today’s food-grade lubricants can handle high temperature applications and also have a longer life.” NP