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Features Machine Safety Opinion
A long and winding road: The global harmonization of machine guarding standards


June 12, 2009
By John Murphy

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After 30 years of working in the safety business, providing customers with the latest technologies in guarding solutions, I have witnessed many changes and improvements in how we approach the challenge of making the complex world of automated machinery safer for workers. This challenge is partly a technical one, but increasingly it is also about how we implement the latest technologies and procedures to agreed-upon standards.

I imagine a world where we have agreed-upon, constantly reviewed machine safety standards that apply globally in a harmonized way. The end user of any piece of purchased equipment would know, no matter where they were in the world, what the latest safety standards are, and would be required by legislation to implement them. In this imaginary world, we have a universal understanding of harmonized global standards, and we all apply the same guidelines to implement them.

Sadly, we are a long way from approaching this dream scenario. In Canada, for instance, our national safety standards are applied differently in different regions. Safety for machinery in the Canadian workplace comes under the jurisdiction of the provincial Occupational Health and Safety legislation. Some of our standards have been referenced in legislation; however, none of them have been adapted by all regulators across the country. In fact, there are no CSA safety standard references in Quebec.

We can find references in some OHS legislation. For example, the Z142 and Z432 (CSA standard for machine guarding) is referenced in B.C. and the Northwest Territories, and the Z434 (standard for industrial robots and robot systems) is referenced in B.C. and Alberta, but there is no reference to Z460 (standard for control of hazardous energy – lockout and other methods) in any province. Having travelled around the country in the last six months, I have experienced first hand the frustration around the review and application of standards with appropriate solutions.

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Canadian companies use CSA and ISO standards, but they also use ANSI, ASME, EN and local standards. When we use this multitude of standards, it often creates an environment of confusion and anxiety, not to mention an increased workload. Headaches include: meeting control integrity requirements for all standards, increased documentation required for export, and simply not having enough machine-specific standards to apply. These all become huge headaches for both machine builders and end users.

Across the pond, there are 27 member states in the European Union, and they are covered by the 59 ISO/IEC safety standards. In Europe, they have machine-specific standards to look after conveyors, AGVs, lathes, packaging machines, food mixers, robots and presses. There are also production-related standards that govern the general principles of basic design of machinery. They also have specific standards for control systems for the minimum gaps allowed, and for the positioning of protective equipment with respect to the approach speeds of the human body.

These standards are comprehensive in their scope and provide the seed documents for the CSA standards we use in Canada because the Europeans are way ahead of us with regards to safety standards. They have 30-plus years in this field, and an emphasis on safety that, because of their long-term focus, is much more advanced.
South of the border, the U.S. is making strides in harmonization, but the progress is uneven to say the least. The new RIA 1506 takes a giant step forward, but there are standards such as the National Electrical Code that may never be harmonized, leaving the dilemma of producing separate products for the domestic and international markets, or perhaps abandoning efforts on the international scene altogether.

Being a member of the Z142 committee, and having as a group just recently finished the latest revision, I recognize the inherent difficulties with the issue of harmonization. Even within our group, which has worked together very successfully, there was contention on subjects such as control reliability. Achieving harmonious conclusions among even a very like-minded group is not an easy task. We then expect the code we develop to be applied correctly because, although the standards are voluntary and not regulations, they become in a civil/criminal proceeding the de facto minimum requirements.

In the end, all manufacturers and users of machinery face the same economic challenges, and moral and ethical dilemmas. We want to provide the safest working environment possible for our customers and employees. We also want to have a set of standards that considers as much input as possible from as many experienced and knowledgeable sources as possible. We want to have standards that apply for all companies and individuals that do not change when you cross a border or cultural divide. We want to do all of this in a cost-effective way that allows our products to be acceptable in all of the markets we wish to serve.

The reality of globalization and the speed of information through Internet technology means that we are very aware of what others are and are not doing. Through the process of discussion, committee work and research, the standards are becoming more universal.

This process of globalization is slow and often painful, and is taking place all around the developed world. Canada, as a country, and North America, as a trading bloc, must embrace the development of harmonized safety standards. Securing our access to the global marketplace will require this.

John Murphy is the corporate machine guarding and safety manager at Vickers-Warnick Ltd., based in Stoney Creek, Ont. He has 20 years of practical experience dealing with safety issues throughout Canada, and has been involved in CSA standard development committees since 1991.