Although machines are indispensable to modern work, machine-related incidents remain a common cause of injuries in plants and other workplaces.

The effects of these injuries can be considerable. Often, the effects range from minor scrapes and scratches to permanent disability and even fatalities. Not only do these incidents cause costly and time-consuming damage to machinery, but they can also negatively impact employee morale.

Because of the possibility of grievous injuries happening in a matter of seconds, employers have an important responsibility to ensure that they have taken adequate steps to keep their staff safe when they are operating on or working with different equipment.

We discuss those steps below.

1) Conduct a facility safety audit

You can only improve what you can measure. Creating an environment with minimal machine-related injuries starts with identifying the existing hazards and safety issues in the plant. An integral part of this process is a risk assessment exercise to identify risks of injury that may occur when operating the plant’s machinery, and ways to minimize them.

An audit helps to discover areas of strengths and weaknesses. It focuses attention and resources where needed rather than wasting time interfering with processes that are already functioning efficiently.

The audit should cover two major areas:

  • Equipment risk assessment: Before any work equipment or machinery is used or installed, it is advisable to conduct a risk assessment. The assessment will focus on all hazards that could be released during installation, operation, maintenance, and breakdowns - and the possible effects on the operator. You should ask yourself questions like:
    • Does the equipment transmit vibrations continually to their hands and arms,
    • Does it emit very bright light?
    • Are there barriers in place to prevent contact with the moving/rotating/hot parts of the machine?
    • Does the machine’s power source (e.g. heat, gas, electricity) pose a risk to workers?
    • Are there risks of musculoskeletal problems due to operating the equipment for long hours in a bent or squatting position?
  • Work environment risk assessment: Apart from the machinery, the overall work environment should be assessed for safety. Check that employees can work without distractions (e.g. from excessive heat/cold/noise). Is there enough room to move around without colliding with equipment? Is there adequate lighting? Is the plant clean and tidy? Are there any leaking roofs or windows that could allow water to pool on the floor and lead to trip hazards, and so on.

The above information will help with developing a comprehensive safety strategy that incorporates every angle from which problems could arise. That takes us to the next step.

2) Utilize proactive safety controls

From the safety audit information, your focus can now be directed at creating a proactive system that is effective at preventing accidents before they happen. This is achievable through:

In-built safety controls

Most reputable manufacturers provide machines that come with in-built controls that can help to minimize injuries. So, before procuring work equipment, it’s important to check that they come with operating controls that enhance safe usage.

Some common but very effective examples include emergency stop devices, fail-safe features, machine guarding, etc.

Safety policies and procedures

Organizational safety procedures will vary depending on the industry and the kind of equipment being used. But generally, there should be a safety policy that covers details like:

  • step-by-step procedures for operating equipment
  • permitted clothing around machinery and the use of PPE
  • prohibition of alcohol and drug use by machine operators
  • when and how to report equipment faults or defects

3) Safety training

Adequate and regular safety training is essential for reducing mechanical hazards. In fact, it is mandatory.

Any worker who will be operating a machine must be made fully aware of all hazards involved - this step is especially critical for new employees. Ideally, this information will be provided through different mediums such as written documents, videos, or safety notices and warnings. Also, there should be adequate oversight function to manage new staff and ensure that safety procedures are being followed correctly.

However, it doesn’t end there. There should be frequent training of older workers as well to avoid some of the common risks associated with complacency.

4) Regular equipment maintenance

Regular equipment maintenance is key for workers’ safety. Several safety-related complications can arise from poor or inadequate maintenance. For one thing, poorly maintained machines are likely to malfunction without warning and put any nearby workers at risk.

Another effect of infrequent maintenance is that there is a higher tendency that the maintenance unit will waste a lot of time grappling with reactive maintenance because of unplanned shutdowns. If the habit of emergency repairs continue long enough, it’s only a matter of time before the organization is left with a crippling amount of deferred maintenance.

A typical problem with rushed or emergency maintenance tasks is that the pressure to complete the repair on time could influence workers to take unsafe shortcuts. For example, a technician working on critical equipment that has shutdown during production may not be careful to follow proper Lockout-Tagout (LOTO) procedures. This often leads to serious safety incidents, especially when electrical equipment is not shut off properly. According to OSHA, LOTO non-compliance is one of the most commonly cited violations in industries.

5) Compliance checks

If you follow the above steps carefully, you could find that a few years have gone by and nobody has been seriously injured at your facility. Several inspections and audits have taken place, and yet no safety issues are pending. The staff is performing their duties routinely with minimal or no reports of non-compliance. But, this is not the time to relax or celebrate. In fact, safety professionals have observed that complacency in an organization is what often leads to a big incident.

This happens because after performing tasks repetitiously, the tendency for boredom or complacency to set in is high. Conducting planned and unplanned inspections at intervals is one of the proven ways to address this problem. Such checks will help to ensure that the agreed procedures are still being followed over time.

In conclusion

Certainly, employers need to be vigilant with safety in their plants because if they fail to take the recommended steps to protect workers from the hazards of machine-related injuries, they may be liable for injuries sustained. Nevertheless, creating a safe plant is easier when machine safety is regarded as everybody’s responsibility.