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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Machine head

An engineer with a passion for making machines safe shares his tips with JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM.

“What if…?” is a question Nick Frame spends a lot of time pondering.

As a specialist in the design and installation of machine guards, he says careful thought about the different ways machinery can be used – or abused – is vital to the process.

When he is called to look at a machine in operation and advise about safety requirements, he is aware it’s not just about protecting the person who’s using it that particular day.

“The night shift person might do things quite differently,” he explains. “Then you have to think about the other people who’ll need to access the machine – cleaners, fitters, electricians and so on. They all have different needs which the guarding system will have to allow for.”

Anticipating needs

Frame set up his own industrial safety company, Framework Design, ten years ago, but his interest in machine guarding dates back almost three decades, to his first job after graduating as a mechanical engineer.

“I was working for a machinery manufacturing company and part of my role was commissioning machines and training operators,” he says. “I found I enjoyed trying to anticipate operators’ access requirements, and working with them to accommodate those needs.”

In the early days of his career, before the HSE Act became law, machinery manufacturers were not legally bound to provide guards on their equipment, so this responsibility often rested with the end users.

Since then the legal situation has changed fundamentally and new equipment comes with readymade guards and interlocks, but Frame says some machinery manufacturers still tend to regard safety devices as an add-on rather than an integral part of the design.

“It’s something that may be left till last,” he says. “We’ve built our machine – now, how to make it safe?”

Safety not assured

Factory-fitted guards and interlocks are no guarantee of lasting safety, however. Changes to operating procedures, interactions between different pieces of equipment, breakages, or deliberate tampering can make a previously safe machine hazardous.

“We had a case recently where a machine had been designed not to operate unless the guard was closed, but the operator placed a knife blade against the switch so he could use it with the guard up.

“In those sorts of situations we recommend coded magnetic proximity switches which are very difficult to defeat – you certainly won’t do it with a knife blade!”

Frame spends about half of his time conducting on-site machinery safety audits, sometimes focusing on a specific machine, sometimes on a whole site. Either way, he says, it’s important to talk to as many as possible of the people involved with each machine.

Operator knowledge

While there are some types of machine that Frame feels he knows fairly well – “I lived and breathed palletisers and depalletisers for a while” – there is no substitute for the sort of first-hand knowledge an operator can provide.

“We come in, look at the equipment, and leave, but the operator stands at it for eight hours a day and gets to know it in a quite different way.

“When you have a good rapport with an operator they will frequently show you the aspects they feel are dangerous – usually things associated with clearing jams, or with processes that the machine was not designed to deal with.”

From these conversations, his own observations, and photographs showing the various stages of each machine process, Frame puts together a report setting out guarding recommendations and other safety requirements. Each item of equipment is also given a risk score between zero and 22, based on the Australian Safety of Machinery Standard AS4024, to help clients prioritise remedial work.

Identifying harm

Risk scores are not a substitute for spelling out the dangers associated with a machine, however. Each report also gives specific information about the injuries that are likely if hazards are not addressed.

“Crushing, cutting, severing, entanglement and impact injuries are the characteristic ones, and then there are packaging machines where the cutting bar is also a heat sealer, so you’ll get cut and burned at the same time.

The reports say what parts of the body are likely to be harmed, but Frame says the extent of the harm is harder to quantify. A crushing injury to the hand, for instance, could mean anything from a bruise to degloving, or the loss of fingers.

Often there is more than one solution to a machinery hazard. While isolating hazards by use of guards, light curtains, interlocks or perimeter fencing is the control most often adopted, hazard elimination is a possibility in some cases.

“This might involve something as simple as increasing the clearances around a nip point or reducing the operating forces for pneumatic equipment, but it could also be automating a process so there is no longer any need for worker intervention.

“We make different suggestions, based on the company budget, but if automation costs $20,000 and a guard costs $200 I know what most people are going to do.”

Boosting productivity

A decision to install guarding is just the first step, however, and there are a lot of things to be taken into consideration to ensure the finished product does what is required without creating extra difficulties.

“It’s easy to look at a machine and see what’s wrong, but if you don’t select guards that are practical they won’t be used.

“Guarding and productivity go hand-in-hand too, and operators should refuse to use machines if management doesn’t get that right.”

If production engineering improvements are carried out at the same time as the guarding goes on, operators end up better off, Frame says.

“You can do something like improve reliability to minimise operator intervention and make it a win-win situation.”

He recalls one workplace where a long-serving maintenance worker was strongly opposed to putting guards on some 1960s packaging machines.

“Originally the machines needed two people to start them, but we made engineering improvements that meant they were safer and could be started by just one person. Productivity improved and our opponent had to eat humble pie.”

After the event

Most of Frame’s work is the result of proactive safety management rather than a workplace accident. While this means he must start from scratch when tracking down hazards, employers who call for his help following an injury can be a little over-zealous, he says.

“Usually the incident will have been investigated by the in-house safety committee and the Department of Labour, and as a result the employer’s response can be a bit over-the-top.

“Things that don’t really need to be guarded will all have to be done in a big hurry because the company wants to be seen to be taking positive action.”

Although conveyors account for a significant number of workplace accidents, Frame says they actually present relatively few guarding challenges. He finds the conveyor safety standard, AS 1755: 2000, to be practical with lots of sensible guidelines for dealing with nip points and the risk of entanglement.

“The other thing we recommend is the use of individual isolation and lockout padlocks.”

Stay vigilant

Machine guarding is not a once-for-all time exercise, however. Frame recommends daily checks to that ensure interlocks and emergency stops are working as they should, and that all guards are in place.

“Some factories paint the area beneath the guards in a contrasting colour so they can see at a glance if one is open or missing.”

Even when everything is in place and working satisfactorily, the dynamic nature of factories means safety needs often change over time.

“I have one customer who gets me in every six months to look at the same plant, and every time I go I see something new that needs doing because they’ve added an area of production or changed their processes in some way.

“When you’re dealing with machinery you can never afford to take things for granted.”


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