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Machine safety in 5 easy steps

By Michelle Morra
| www.cos-mag.com

Many workplace injuries and fatalities have been caused by unguarded or unsafe use of machinery and other heavy equipment. Machine safety experts talk about some basic precautions to ensure that your machinery remain safe for your workers.

Machines designed to work for us can hurt or kill us. Dealing with that irony has been a challenge since the industrial revolution, perhaps even since the first time the wheel ran over primal man’s foot.

It continues to be a challenge despite strict laws, technological advances and increased safety awareness.

Doug Nix has seen an unfortunate amount of poorly designed and built machinery. “Many machine builders are clueless,” says Nix, who is managing director of Compliance Insight, a company that does consulting services, risk assessments and industrial safety training. “The standards absolutely apply to them, yet if the purchase order says, ‘your equipment must comply with x standard,’ they’ll sign it without even knowing if they’re in compliance.”

Another problem, he says, is that it’s uncommon for machine builders to “design” the guarding. That usually happens after the fact. “The machine is built first, then they figure out a guard, often without any drawings.”

Ideally, guards should be part of the original design. The worst time to do risk assessment is at the point where the machine is on the shop floor ready to start production. Any changes will cost exponentially more.

Nix, like so many safety experts, points to Europe as the better model. “Europeans say you’re only permitted to sell safe products. It’s up to you to declare to the world that it’s safe. Responsibility lies with the manufacturer, and the State in which the product is sold.”

Until such a culture infiltrates North America, employers are still expected to keep workers safe from machine hazards. Here’s how that is supposed to happen:

Perform risk assessment

Achieving this first step is half the battle, given that too many workplaces still either fail to do a risk assessment or they do it poorly. 

Assessing risk involves watching a machine’s moving parts and considering how a worker could come into dangerous contact with them.

But according to Terri Holizki, WorkSafeBC’s industry and labour services manager, what is unsafe is not always obvious.

“Most human beings are risk-takers, and what one perceives as unsafe is not to another,” Holizki says. “Small manufacturing firms of less than 20 employees in B.C. represent 85 per cent of the manufacturing sector. Most lack the resources to properly evaluate their needs around safeguarding.”

Help is available, if not in-house then out in the vast market of engineers and occupational safety consultants, safety associations and government inspectors. When performing a risk assessment, employers and OHS experts might also enlist the help of the workers who have hands-on experience with the equipment.

Machines built to standard, such as a drive train, will have permanent guards in place. But look for pinch points between points in a conveyor where hands or other body parts could get caught. Indicate these danger zones with signage, and guard them if possible with a light curtain or a cable that switches the machine off when someone gets too close to the pinch point.

Be realistic. Risk assessments are not supposed to give you happy news. If done properly, you’re going to find things, so go in with an open mind.

Establish a hierarchy of controls

Determine reasonable ways to reduce risk without unduly hampering the work. A common scenario is that after receiving a ministry order to install a guard, an employer slaps on a guard without first making sure workers can still get the job done. If the guard makes the work difficult or awkward, someone will eventually remove it.

Never bypass safeguarding. Though it might be tempting to head for the easiest safety measure—relying on personal protective equipment—don’t do it. PPE is only meant to be a last resort, on the very bottom rung of the safety hierarchy.

Machines can do serious damage to humans, therefore safeguarding must be done right, not haphazardly. But here’s why it’s not so simple. In the hierarchy of machine safety—barrier guards, followed by safeguarding devices, safeguarding by location, awareness means, training and procedures, personal protective equipment—the first step is elimination of the hazard. That would solve the problem 100 per cent. But in a robot cell, for instance, the hazard is the robot, as Nix points out: “You can’t eliminate that.”

For starters, always consider barrier guards first. “Barrier guards are generally the most effective form of safeguarding when properly secured,” says Holizki. “Adding interlocks to barrier guards at an appropriate category 3 or 4 provides safe access to equipment knowing (after you’ve completed an assessment) that the parts of the equipment you are accessing are properly de-energized.”

Know your machine or get help

People are notorious for not reading manuals. For safety’s sake, read them anyway.

Daniel Beal of Human Resources Services Group Inc., a company that offers safety training, assessments and consulting, says every machine comes with documentation that can save the user’s life. “Every time a new machine comes in, the health and safety coordinator should take the manual apart, develop best practices and laminate those somewhere near the operation.”

Only by knowing the machine can you determine important safety factors such as safety distances, and the stopping performance of the machinery. Getting the safety distance wrong will endanger the workers.

Just because you’ve bought new equipment doesn’t mean you are guaranteed that the guarding is adequate. You can’t blame the manufacturer if an injury occurs. By law, you are responsible.

Know your legal responsibilities

Everything that tends to go wrong is preventable, if only everyone involved complied with safety laws. Here are some common causes of machine-related incidents according to Holizki:

•    Guards are removed, not replaced, or modified for convenience sake.

•    Interlocks are removed, providing easy, unprotected access to areas that an employee might want to clean and may want energized to expedite the cleaning process.

•    Conveyors — although bought through manufacturers — are most likely installed by the purchaser or a contractor, who will potentially fail to add effective guarding as they are pieced together.

Keep a copy of the Act and relevant standards on hand. Employers must learn their responsibilities under the Act and make sure their health and safety coordinator also understands that responsibility. In fact, Beal would like to see supervisors read the same materials and take the same training as their employees.

He explains: “If the employee says ‘My forklift is defective,’ and the supervisor says, ‘well that’s the only one we have today,’ you’ve just contravened the regulation. But if you knew your responsibility, you’d say, ‘let’s get this one fixed and contact the leasing company and get another one to work on.’ One is an accident waiting to happen; the other is a competent supervisor doing his job.”

Under the Act, the employer must hire a supervisor who is trained to do the work and knows the Act and regulations that apply. If a guard was removed and someone got hurt, both the person who removed the guard and the supervisor would be liable.

While the Act outlines people’s responsibilities, CSA and ISO standards get pretty specific about what makes machinery safe or unsafe. Nix does safety audits and admits they’re not very popular with clients because, of the more than 500 machines he has inspected in 15 years, only 15 or 20 passed the inspection.

“I’m not making this stuff up,” he says. “I use the standards directly as a yardstick. Unfortunately users have the concept that the standard is a high level benchmark, when actually it’s the bare minimum requirement.”

And another thing: If a machine comes from a country where safety standards are lower than ours, you’re still expected to meet (North American) standards.

Safety simple mechanics

If ever complying with machine safety laws and standards gets complicated, go back to basics. Employers need to know that the health and safety of the worker is their responsibility. They need to follow guidelines under the Act. In company orientation, employees must learn that they have a right to refuse unsafe work. And if they do see something that’s a contravention of the Act, by law they must report it.

Beal tells of a young worker who reported an unsafe condition to the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The employer subsequently laid off four people, including the young worker, and only hired back the other three. When asked by the young worker what to do next, Beal recommended he phone the ministry again.

“He got his job back,” Beal says. “The employer was charged under Section 50 and fined $2,000 a day for each day the young worker was off work. So the Act does work, but you have to follow through with it.”

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Michelle Morra is an award-winning writer based in Toronto. You may contact her at writemorr@yahoo.ca

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