Some of the most common and often times severe on the job injuries occur when machine operators are injured by industrial equipment. As most know, those injured on the job are often entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. However, the inquiry as to what remedies are available to an injured employee should not stop there. All too often, other viable claims related to the design and manufacture of the machine in question are over looked.
As long as heavy machines have been in existence, injuries stemming from the use of those machines have also been around. Over 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 safety engineering hierarchy gives machines designers a series of steps to take evaluate to mitigate a given 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, when possible, redesign the machine 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. It is well known within the engineering field that desgining a machine to eliminate a hazard and then guarding against the hazard are far superior methods for safeguarding operators than warning them. However, all too often, we see design engineers skip immediately to the third rung of the hierarchy and merely warn of hazards.
Industrial machines, often due to the very nature of the machines, create hazards that cannot be completely eliminated. Machines that cut aluminum bend steel, or bind materials can often times also cut, bend, 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 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.
Even if the manufacturer takes appropriate steps to design and implement guards on machinery, the guards must remain in place and in good working order to be effective. In Alabama, if an employer removes a safety device incorporated by the designers of the machine, the injured may sue their employer outside of workers’ compensation. Under Ala. Code § 25-5-11(c)(2), an injured employee may bring an action in tort if a safety device is intentionally removed from a machine. These cases are very common and are easily overlooked unless a detailed investigation is conducted.
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 was adequately protected.
If you need more information 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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