Machine Automation + Choosing the Right Guarding to Reliably Protect Workers

Craig Sylvester, PE

As automation becomes more prevalent, what can manufacturers do to reliably protect their workers from accidents?

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“Do Not Enter, Authorized Personnel Only” is a sight employees often encounter at work. Employers sometimes use simple warning signs and rope off access to a work zone to guard machine operators, maintenance personnel, and even janitorial staff who may be exposed to hazards. But are signs and movable barriers adequate? Not knowing the answer could lead to serious consequences for workers, employers, and insurance carriers as businesses continue to leverage machine automation to solve problems.

The use of machine automation in the U.S. and across the world today extends well beyond manufacturing and the traditional robots used in automobile or airplane assembly plants. Machine automation is prevalent in other industries as well. Packaging and distribution businesses, lumber processing plants, and even commercial laundry facilities, for example, rely heavily on machine automation to increase productivity and control costs. In today’s environment where automation use is expected to continue to grow, employers should be clear on the hazards and the various stay-out zone guarding options available to protect workers. While simple barriers may be suitable in some cases, in others, more reliable machine guarding setups with redundancy may be required.

Choosing the Right Machine Automation Guarding

To determine the most appropriate design for machine automation guarding, employers should first perform a Hazard Risk Analysis to identify the dangers of equipment in motion, and the potential consequences if unprotected workers enter an active work zone. Technical experts with experience in both machine tool design and industrial accident investigations can support employers with this important first step. A Hazard Risk Analysis should be performed any time equipment is upgraded, new equipment is installed and after an accident or near miss.

Once a Hazard Risk Analysis has been completed, employers can then select the best guarding solution. Options may include the use of warning signs, awareness barriers such as temporary chains or fixed gates, or more sophisticated guards including presence-sensing devices such as light curtains and entry gates or fences with electronic interlocks. Where the risk of injury to workers is determined to be high, these sort of interlock devices can be a reliable and effective solution. Redundancy and backup machine guarding options are also an approach for employers to consider when warranted. Periodic inspections of automated equipment systems should be routinely completed to test system performance and help identify any required maintenance.

Regardless of the type of machine automation in use, whether industrial robots, moving conveyors or product processing equipment, protecting workers from the hazards of moving machines is a fundamental responsibility for employers and their insurance carriers to meet. Can a simple sign, a temporary barrier or audible and visual warning systems effectively establish a safe work envelope and adequately protect workers in automated machine environments? In most cases the answer is no. Instead, employers should take a comprehensive approach that includes a Hazard Risk Analysis as a first step to keep their employees safe.

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