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Below the belt

By Stefan Dubowski

A worker at an iron foundry in Winkler, Man., had his hand crushed in a conveyor belt. An employee at a car plant in Woodstock, Ont., got both arms trapped in a conveyor, causing numerous fractures. At a Value Drug Mart distribution centre in Edmonton, a worker’s hair got caught in a conveyor, ripping her scalp and amputating her thumb.

Such horror stories are all too common despite the many technologies and techniques in place to ensure people working on and near conveyors are safe. For example, regulations call for guarding systems that keep workers away from the spinning belts, shafts and spindles. Guard-making companies offer barriers for idlers, couplings and other moving parts. Provincial health and safety authorities produce bulletins, pamphlets and newsletters that describe the hazards and suggest solutions.

“Our occupational health and safety regulations include guarding moving parts of any mechanical system, warning of startup, locking out when servicing and working on equipment,” says Ray Anthony, director, safety operations south at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety.

Nonetheless, accidents keep happening. Safety experts say companies must reconsider their attitudes about conveyor dangers and managers have to speak up to warn employees about the hazards.

The first step in protecting against conveyor accidents is understanding just how dangerous many of the moving parts can be. Scott Monkman, operations manager at Belt Conveyor Guarding in Barrie, Ont., explains that areas where the belt meets the pulleys — the cylinders along which the belt is propelled — are particularly dangerous. If a worker’s finger, hair or sleeve is caught in one of those pinch points, the employee could be drawn in.

All rotating parts are of concern, Monkman says. For example, consider the main pulley, which can be 3 inches to 4 inches wider than the belt.

“That exposed rotating component is as much of a hazard as the pinch point,” he says, especially if it has an irregular shape, like a wing pulley does. The edges could entangle clothing, tools or body parts.

Notably, if a worker is holding something that’s pulled into a conveyor — a stick or a tool meant to pry out debris, for example — he’ll keep a grip on the item, even though doing so could spell disaster.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction,” Monkman says. “The person will try and pull it out rather than let go.”

With common conveyor speeds, accidents happen fast. Doug Rourke is the Penetanguishene, Ont.-based manager of safety at the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium, a non-profit organization that supports manufacturer growth. In his work, he has visited breweries where the conveyors operate at such a speed that the bottles are a blur.

“If something happens, you have very little time to react,” he says.

Speed trumps safety

To truly understand the risks of conveyors, consider not just the physical characteristics but also the way companies operate and how workers go about their business. Manufacturing operations may be pushing safety to the bottom of the priority list, although not explicitly. It isn’t that employees don’t get it; it’s that employers send mixed messages: work safely; work fast.

“Rarely will the boss clearly say, ‘Do everything absolutely safely,’” Rourke says. So, if an executive tells a supervisor to meet the numbers at any cost, safety will go out the window.

As a result, employees get hurt — and they often get the blame, he says.

“Whenever you do an accident investigation, inevitably you’ll hear something along the lines of ‘The person was stupid,’” Rourke says. “In actuality, the person wasn’t stupid. He or she was trying to be a good employee.”

Many conveyor accidents result from workers trying to help their employers save time. An employee might aim to remove debris from the machine without shutting it off because a shutdown would affect productivity. Of course, as Rourke points out, that’s faulty logic.

“They think they’re going to save time. They don’t think about the fact that pulling their arm out of the machine is going to take even more time.”

Conveyor safety solutions

The desire to work quickly — coupled with the machinery’s inherent physical dangers — makes conveyors especially risky. Fortunately, there are solutions, such as good guarding.

“It really comes down to keeping the worker away from the hazard,” says Monkman. “The simplest way of describing it is the person should not be able to reach over, around, under or through to come into contact with the hazard.”

Provincial regulations across the country stipulate that guarding should be designed to keep people at least 1 metre away from a point of hazard, he points out.

Communication is another important measure. Managers should talk often with employees about hazards and safety.

“Communicate the hell out of everything,” Rourke says. “And if you think you’ve said it enough, you haven’t said it nearly enough. Hold toolbox talks. Sit down and explain how to clear a jam safely.”

According to the government of Manitoba, organizations should take specific steps to ensure workers are safe near conveyors. For instance, only fully trained employees or service providers should repair and clean the machine. As well, companies should install a pull-cord along the length of the conveyor, so workers can stop the machine immediately in emergencies. That pull-cord should only enable someone to stop the conveyor, not start it.

Long conveyors require particular safety care. It’s difficult for workers to see all the way down a lengthy machine. That means employees might not be able to tell if someone is at the starting control ready to turn the conveyor on. In that case, companies should install alerting systems that warn workers that the conveyor is about to start moving.

According to WorkSafeBC, there are several safe work practices for conveyors:

• Only perform service on the device when the motor disconnect is locked out, so no one can inadvertently start the conveyor during servicing.

• Employees should never climb, step or sit on the conveyor, whether running or not.

• Guarding should never be removed.

• Companies should keep the area around the conveyor clear of obstructions.

A lockout mechanism is particularly effective to ensure no one turns on the conveyor while others are servicing the machine. Vivien Wharton-Szatan, provincial co-ordinator for the industrial health and safety program at the Ontario Ministry of Labour, points out that companies must use lockout systems on conveyor power sources, according to the industrial regulations of Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. As Wharton-Szatan says, only one person should have the key to unlock the power source: the individual servicing the device.

“He should have control of the key, so no one can come and mistakenly start the machine while he’s working on it.”

Rourke says conveyor installation techniques also play an important role in safety. Traditionally, engineers who situate conveyors in manufacturing facilities design the lines for maximum productivity. They don’t necessarily think about guarding, spacing and other aspects that could affect worker safety. Rourke encourages designers to talk to workers to understand how they do their jobs and how to help keep them safe.

“Those are the industrial athletes who are going to have to work on the conveyor day in and day out for however many years that product is being made,” he says.

[em]Stefan Dubowski is a freelancer writer based in Ottawa. He can be reached at[a href=""].

[/a]This article was originally published in the February/March 2015 issue of COS.


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