Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Gotcha! There’s no hiding from the machine guarding requirement


June 11, 2009
By Michelle Morra

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With expert timing, a worker deftly reaches inside a machine to clear a jam while the machine is still running. Over the years he gets away with it 1,000 times, but 1,001 takes his hand off.

It’s against the law to expose workers to moving machine parts. Whether you remove safeguards, fail to lock out equipment or just let old, outdated equipment lurch along without any safety features, you take your chances. Not only are workers’ lives and limbs in danger, but the law has no tolerance for plants that operate in the dark ages of safety, especially when the technology exists for vastly safer, more efficient manufacturing.

Machinery must be guarded. It’s plainly written in the Occupational Health and Safety Act and in the CSA Standard. Not only that, but now under Bill C-45 of Canada’s Criminal Code, a company owner, manager or supervisor can be criminally fined, charged or even imprisoned for having failed to prevent a worker’s serious injury or death on the job.

“If you’re not in compliance with the law, you’re looking at risk,” says Michael Wilson, machine guarding specialist with the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA). “A lot of people sort of hope and pray no one comes to the door, but when you do get caught, you get caught bad.”

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Safety technology such as light screens, safety mats, interlocking gates, switches and motion sensors are designed to stop a machine within milliseconds if a worker’s body part gets too close. Newer machines feature redundant control systems, where if one aspect fails, another kicks in to continue the safeguarding. And today’s more passive safety systems prevent the sort of injury that happens when someone reaches into a machine to clear a jam.

Creators of these advanced technologies have removed the temptation to reach in by making it physically impossible. They have gone to great lengths to prevent workers from coming near dangerous parts. Too many manufacturers choose to take their chances, however, rather than upgrade to a safer work environment. Why aren’t they making the switch?

One maintenance manager, Anicete Goncalves, admits that guarding all of his plant’s equipment involved a few growing pains, at least in the beginning. Management at Vintex, the Mount Forest, Ontario-based vinyl textile coater, made the proactive move of hiring a consultant to audit the plant, assess against current standards and, if possible, provide recommendations.

“We had various pieces of equipment needing upgrades,” says Goncalves, the company’s maintenance manager. “The bulk of our work involved in running nips, where engineering solutions were not readily available.” The plant had quite a task ahead, but management didn’t hesitate.

The company hired S.A.F.E. Engineering Inc. to conduct a hazard assessment of the plant’s equipment. Based on the assessment, management set priorities of what equipment to retrofit, which pieces to decommission and which key new pieces of equipment to purchase. S.A.F.E. helped design a plan and tailored the new equipment safety features to the workplace, and continues to work closely with Vintex.

While adding new guards, Vintex also removed some standard fixed guarding that impeded worker’s productivity and replaced them with area scanners that work much better for their operations and for their people.

Were the workers concerned that guarding would change the way they did their jobs? “Yes,” says Goncalves, “and it has.”

In its decision to shape up for safety, Vintex staff and management had to be flexible and open minded. If a retrofitted machine wasn’t operating as smoothly as before, S.A.F.E. took it back to the drawing board. They made adjustments, with input from workers and management, ensuring compliance to legislation and worker satisfaction. Now, says Goncalves, the company is operating at the same rate as before and is achieving the same high-quality finished products.

Vintex is not alone. Other companies that commit to a safer manufacturing environment experience a similar learning curve, but ultimately benefit. Unfortunately, injury and fatality statistics indicate there are still companies that choose to put workers at risk, rather than get with the times. Some may think they have good reason.

Six common excuses for exposing workers to moving machine parts

1. “It’ll never happen at our plant.”
Sadly, too many plants learn the hard way that accidents can happen. Machines killed 223 Canadian workers from 2002 to 2006 across several industry sectors. During that time there were 90,059 machine-related injuries, 36,066 of them in manufacturing alone. Machines and human flesh don’t mix. Besides surface wounds and bruises, statistics from the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) list open wounds, intracranial injuries, traumatic injuries to bones, nerves, spinal cord, muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints among the machine-related injuries–and the victims are often young or inexperienced workers.

2. “We had to remove the guards because they were hard to work with.”
It’s right there in the Health and Safety Act: workers may not intentionally defeat or otherwise bypass the safety device as required by the employer. “It’s flat out illegal. I don’t care why you do it,” says Wilson.

When workers remove guards, it’s often because the equipment wasn’t professionally designed or installed. It’s important to consider productivity and a worker’s specific tasks long before you purchase the equipment. Otherwise, says Wilson, people who cannot work well with the new system will invariably find a way to make it work. “And it’s usually not the best way. It’s the nature of the beast that production rules, but be careful.”

Vintex has a policy that removing a guard results in immediate discipline, and depending on severity, possibly termination of employment. “It’s in the code, and it’s in the safety regulations,” says Goncalves. “Guards cannot be removed.”

3. “The law only applies if I buy new equipment.”
Wrong. Many employers learn the hard way that there’s no such thing as “grandfathering.” According to health and safety law, if you bought a machine in 1980 and it was built to 1980 standards and you’re still using it in 2008, there’s no requirement to rebuild it to that standard. As long as you don’t replace it, technically you don’t have to add safety features to it. None of this matters, though, if someone gets hurt or killed. The law expects you to be compliant to today’s standards, period.

Besides, using outdated equipment is just plain irresponsible. “Imagine you had two pieces of equipment, one new and one old, side by side,” says Simon Fridlyand of S.A.F.E. Engineering. “One machine is safe, the other terribly unsafe. Now you as a manager have to decide who works on which machine. Do you value one worker’s safety more than another? Of course that’s an impossible decision. You have to do the utmost to protect everyone.”

4. “Safety is a luxury we can’t afford.”
Goncalves admits his plant’s up-front investment to protect its people may have seemed high. “People may have wondered why we made such a sizeable investment,” he says. “But the way the legislation is written, everybody’s liable, from the worker to the owner. In our company, employee safety is of the utmost importance. Exposing an employee to any sort of hazard is not an option.

“A simple guarding application may cost $3,000, and if someone were to become entangled in a machine, once you’re done with the litigation and fines from the ministry, etc., we’re talking potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. Today, looking at the bigger picture, Goncalves sees it as an excellent investment.

It’s not just something safety professionals have been preaching for decades. Safety actually saves you money at the end of the day, which is what large companies are finding out. Some have actually made money by upgrading to safer equipment. The money they don’t pay in workers’ compensation insurance premiums can offset any adjustment in productivity.

A Cadillac solution isn’t always necessary. Fridlyand says that while nobody can afford to retrofit their entire plant, they can retrofit some equipment and replace a few key machines with newer, safer ones.

5. “We can’t be productive if our machines are guarded.”
Fridlyand suggests there’s a huge lack of understanding of the relationship between safety and productivity. With the right consultation, design and installation by a qualified person, manufacturers can find the most efficient path to operate the machine with the new safety system. If that’s done correctly, he says, at the end of the day you’re not only much safer and in compliance with safety standards, you also have a much leaner, more efficient machine.
When Vintex invested in safety, the initial drive was to protect our people and to avoid the cost of an accident. “Another benefit from the guarding process has been the need to automate certain parts of the equipment and change our methods,” says Goncalves. “It really forces you to evaluate current operating conditions, and we’ve had certain instances where the change has actually improved productivity.”

6. “We don’t need help.”
Retrofitting old equipment with a safety guard, or installing brand new equipment, is no simple task. You can’t just buy a safety device, plug it in and forget about it. That’s why Ontario requires companies to find either a safety consultant with engineers on staff, or an engineering firm that specializes in safety-related issues, to conduct a pre-start health and safety review (PSR) of any new or retrofitted equipment.

Engineers don’t come cheap, so to get more from the investment, enlist help sooner than later. It’s better than buying a used machine for $5,000, then finding out it needs a $30,000 upgrade to comply. Compliance lies with the equipment owner, not the supplier. Even a brand new machine isn’t guaranteed to be compliant with safety standards. So if you hire an engineer, do it before purchasing, not after.

One big advantage to getting help is that the engineer takes on the responsibility for compliance. “At the end of the day, we sign and seal the document,” says Fridlyand. “We’re taking the liability away from the customer, and we feel comfortable doing that because we’re familiar with the codes and standards. And what we basically certify is that the equipment is compliant with current standards.”

Companies can also ask the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA) or any other workplace safety association for assistance. The Canadian Standards Association also publishes resource documents that explain the standards in detail.


Michelle Morra is a freelance writer based in Toronto.