Machine safety myths: 13 workplace misconceptions, debunked

Wednesday October 03, 2018
Written by Todd Mason-Darnell & Michael Joaquin
October 3, 2018 – Experienced safety managers are usually well versed in the consequences of poor safety practices, which may include fines, worker’s compensation costs, high turnover, lost productivity, worker injuries and even fatalities on the job. Even so, misunderstandings about machine safeguarding requirements place many facilities at risk for noncompliance and serious accidents.

Several trends are contributing to this disconnect. As older workers retire, many industrial facilities lack the engineering expertise required to ensure that their machines meet modern safety standards. In addition, the increasing use of automation may be leading to complacency at some plants. Manufacturers may not realize that even if a process is automated, the machines still may not be compliant.

Here, we discuss several misconceptions that industrial safety and facility managers often hold when it comes to machine guarding.

MYTH #1
Safety is something you can just take care of once and then forget about.

This is completely false. Safety is an ongoing requirement, and companies must have regular risk assessments performed on their machines to ensure that they meet the most recent safety standards.

Companies often wonder what they should look for in an assessment service provider. When selecting an assessment service, perhaps the most important thing is to make sure that the team is composed of safety experts and engineers rather than sales professionals. The provider needs to have a thorough understanding of machinery control systems and should hold relevant industry certifications from a professional certification organization (such as TUV Rheinland) and, in some circumstances, professional engineering credentials. They should also have professional liability insurance.

MYTH #2
Good administrative controls and comprehensive employee safety training can replace good engineering.

This is an unfortunate misconception that can put employees in harm’s way. The very foundation of machine safety consists of a hierarchy of controls that regards engineered solutions as the preferred method. Administrative controls and employee safety training are necessary and helpful, but they are typically used as supplementary controls to mitigate residual risk. They don’t take the place of properly implemented safeguarding and safety systems.

MYTH #3
Older machines can be “grandfathered in,” so they don’t need safeguarding.

This is false. No equipment is exempt from current machine-guarding standards, and so-called “grandfather clauses” simply do not exist for machine safeguarding. An exemption does exist under some robot standards, and it applies to a robot’s safety circuit integration. This has led to some confusion.

Managers at facilities with older equipment may believe their machines are grandfathered in because they were built before machine-guarding standards existed or that brand-new equipment is always compliant. These are common misconceptions that can lead to violations. New equipment is rarely compliant unless the customer specifies machine-guarding compliance in the design.

MYTH #4
If a Ministry of Labour inspector recently visited your facility and didn’t say anything about a specific set of machines, then those machines must be compliant.

This may not be the case. An inspector doesn’t need to pass judgement on every single piece of equipment at a client facility, and it’s possible that another inspector who arrives later may issue orders for compliance on a machine that the first inspector already examined.

MYTH #5
The CSA and ANSI standards are law.

This isn’t exactly true, since legislation and standards are separate things. A standard is a guideline that can be used to demonstrate compliance with the law. Legislation is the law, and it can be imposed by enforcement officers (i.e. inspectors). Legislation is typically known as "non-voluntary" compliance, whereas a standard – which isn’t enforceable by inspectors – is known as "voluntary" compliance.

MYTH #6
If you’re moving a machine to a new location and you already had it assessed for risk, you don’t need to have another risk assessment done after you move it.

This is not necessarily true. Depending on the complexity of the machine, moving it to a new location could create a requirement for a new risk assessment.

MYTH #7
If you have several machines that are identical, you only need to do a risk assessment for one of them.

As with the previous myth, this statement depends on the complexity of the machine. Even seemingly insignificant differences between machines and their positioning relative to one another could change the outcome of a risk assessment. For instance, the addition of a small step to one of several otherwise identical machines could be sufficient to place a worker in harm’s way.

MYTH #8
There are machine safeguarding exemptions for smaller companies.

This is false. All companies are required to safeguard their machines properly and protect the lives and safety of their employees. What may depend on company size is the amount a company is required to pay in case of a safety violation.

MYTH #9
The machine’s OEM is responsible for doing the risk assessment, so if a machine is certified to be safe, nothing more needs to be done.

This is false – the employer is still responsible for ensuring worker safety, whether or not an OEM has certified a machine as safe.

MYTH #10
In the case of a failure to protect safety, the worst that will happen is that the company will pay a fine.

This is a common misconception, as many executives and supervisors falsely believe that they can’t be held personally responsible for accidents that may occur. The truth is that Bill C-45 (also known as the “Westray Bill”) amended the Canadian Criminal Code imposing serious penalties for violations that result in injuries or death. It attributed criminal liability for these violations to corporations, their representatives and those who direct the work of others. This means that executives can actually do prison time for failing to protect the safety of their employees. In addition, the direct supervisor can be held personally responsible and may need to pay a fine.

MYTH #11
Performance requirements for safety measures stop at the wire.

This myth deals with the ways in which various energy sources need to be safeguarded. Many manufacturers believe that safeguarding is only necessary when the energy source is electrical. In fact, all energy sources need to be “single-fault tolerant,” including hydraulic and pneumatic sources.

MYTH #12
A gate using a padlock to prevent access is an acceptable and sufficient safety measure.

This is false. Movable guards providing protection against hazards need to be interlocked to signal the apparatus to stop. Fixed guards should be securely held in place either permanently (by welding, for example) or by means of fasteners such as screws and nuts that make it impossible to open the guards without using tools. Since the guards must never remain closed without their fasteners, a gate must be fastened shut or interlocked.

MYTH #13
Safety is too expensive, and it reduces productivity and efficiency by adding extra steps to key processes.

If there’s one myth we want to completely debunk in this article, this is it. Safety measures can save money in the long run by helping to avoid expensive and traumatic incidents. Although the upfront investment cost is always a major consideration, it shouldn’t deter facility leaders from implementing safety solutions. The costs of an accident – in terms of fines, worker compensation, lost productivity and poor morale – could be several times the initial investment cost.

Regarding productivity, there are ways to intelligently design safety measures so that they don’t impact the efficiency of the machine. In some applications, organizations can remove workers from hazardous operations and actually increase productivity by replacing certain manual tasks with automation or robotics.

An example of intelligent safety design would be using a safety laser scanner to minimize potential downtime in areas where collaborative robots are in use. In this scenario, if a worker enters the robot work area, the safety laser scanner will trigger a reduced speed mode in the robot, causing it to slow down to a safe operating level. When the employee steps out of the area, the robot returns to its normal speed, and production can continue while protecting workers from potential hazards.

If you consider the lost productivity resulting from on-the-job injuries and the reduced efficiency caused by low worker morale, it’s easy to see that adequate safety measures are an essential component of a high-functioning system. Instead of being a burden, regular risk assessments and comprehensive machine safeguarding enable companies to maximize productivity, reduce their turnover rate and maintain a dedicated and thriving workforce.

The authors, Todd Mason-Darnell, Ph.D. and Michael Joaquin, P.Eng., work at Omron Automation Americas, which is an industrial automation partner that creates, sells and services fully integrated automation solutions that include robotics, sensing, motion, logic, safety and more. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION magazine.


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