Some of the most common and oftentimes severe on-the-job injuries occur when machine operators are injured by industrial equipment. As long as heavy machines have been in existence, injuries stemming from the use of those machines have also been around. Throughout the years machines have become safer. Greater safety awareness, better engineering and other technological advances have certainly helped reduce the likelihood of injury. Guarding against hazards is just one of many ways to eliminate on-the-job injuries, and is an ever-evolving practice.
When a hazard within a machine is identified, there are typically three options available to mitigate that hazard. The design engineers can:
• redesign the machine to completely eliminate the hazard;
• guard against the hazard; or
• warn the user of the hazard.
The preferred method for dealing with a hazard is to redesign the machine when possible so as to totally eliminate the hazard. When a machine poses a hazard that cannot be completely eliminated, the appropriate course of action is to guard against the hazard. If a hazard cannot be eliminated or guarded against, the final course of action is to develop adequate warnings alerting the user of the hazard. This process of identifying a hazard and choosing the best method for eliminating that hazard is known as a safety hierarchy.
Industrial machines, often due to the very nature of the machines, create hazards that cannot be completely eliminated. Machines that mill lumber, cut steel or bind materials can oftentimes also mill, cut or bind the user. To completely do away with these functions would eliminate the hazard, but also the utility of the machine. In such cases, guards are often the best means to retain both the function of the machine and protect against the hazard. The OSHA Act of 1970 requires that every employer provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards,” and requires the guarding of any machine part, function or process that may cause injury to operators or others.
Hazards generally occur in three locations: the point of operation, or the location where the machine cuts, bends or presses a material; a power take-off or power transmission device; and with any other moving parts. There are many different types of guards that are commonly used to protect the user from the hazards associated with these locations. Fixed barrier guards, interlocking devices, light curtains and sensors are all common methods to protect the user from hazards. An appropriate guarding method largely depends on the type of hazard. The most effective guards are those that do not hinder the function or utility of the machine while safely eliminating the hazard posed to the user.
All too often machines are unguarded, inadequately guarded, or the wrong type of guard is used. In many instances, productivity and ease of use is given more weight in machine design than user safety. Failure to adequately guard against hazards can cause any number of injuries including amputations, lacerations and even death. Every on-the-job injury involving a machine must be examined on a case-by-case basis. Just because guards are incorporated into a particular machine does not necessarily mean that the user or operator is adequately protected. If you need more on this subject, contact Evan Allen, a lawyer in our Personal Injury/Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Evan.Allen@beasleyallen.com.
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