Making Machines Foolproof


Making Machines Foolproof

Surefire ways to keep employees safe shouldn’t be trade secrets.

When it comes to machine guarding, Darren Hedrick, operations manager at Trussway in Fredericksburg, Virginia, takes a proactive approach. “We’re constantly working with the mindset that we need to take the chance of human error out of the situation,” said Hedrick. “We start by minimizing the scenarios where machine adjustments need to be made and from there look for any other way we can make it foolproof.”

Machine guarding protects the operator and other employees in the work area from hazards created during a machine’s normal operation. You can be certain that if OSHA is in your plant, the inspector will be looking at machine guarding. For component manufacturers, that can mean close inspection of anything from cutting operations to presses and everything in between.

In late 2016, OSHA announced a heightened focus on cuts and amputation hazards after having received more than 2,600 reports of amputations nationwide in 2015. Exposing employees to the risk of amputation is serious. And, if you have multiple locations, you’re even more vulnerable to big fines. Hedrick explained that a citation at a second location for the same violation (or a substantially similar one) is considered a “repeat” violation, and that can mean a significantly higher fine than a single violation.

Trussway, which currently has six manufacturing facilities, likes to think outside the box with their machine guarding. “We’re always analyzing our equipment for potential concerns,” said Hedrick. Sometimes machine guarding solutions simply mean adjusting or modifying factory-installed guarding, but Trussway has found that in some cases, the factory-installed guarding is inadequate. In those cases, Trussway employees create new safeguards from scratch.

In one instance, on a radial arm saw, Trussway staff looked for solutions that made it impossible for an operator to get a finger or hand near the blade during normal operation. The process included fabricating a custom lower blade guard out of Lexan so that employees were protected but could also see what they were doing. Hedrick admitted that they don’t always get it right the first time. “In one case, we experimented with multiple devices until we came up with a solution that prevented the hazard from causing injury and also didn’t present any new hazards.”

Any machine part, function, or process that can cause an injury must be corrected. Safeguarding must be carried out immediately, as soon as the issue is identified. When the operation of a machine or accidental contact with it can injure the operator or others in the area, the hazards must be either controlled or eliminated. Amputations, especially, are costly and have the potential to both cause permanent disabilities and increase workers’ compensation premiums.

“You know,” Hedrick concluded, “I think the [OSHA] fines scare people…but I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re supposed to do. We need to stop thinking about safety in the same manner we think about things like trade secrets. When we share our thoughts and experiences with the industry, we’re giving information but we’re also getting information back.” The industry approach to safety should be similar to its approach to lean manufacturing: a continuous improvement process that everyone works on and everyone shares. Hedrick pointed out that, as individuals, all of us have a few good ideas every now and then. Collectively, those scattered ideas form a multitude of best practices, any one of which could prevent an injury or even save a life.

About the Author: Molly E. Butz worked with CMs to develop the original SBCA Operation Safety Program and has over 12 years of experience helping CMs develop and maintain safety best practices.