Safety and the law
June 1, 2007
The safety professional has to know a lot about the company he or she serves, from risks to management structures to the personalities of employees, managers and corporate directors. You’re required to be up on OSHA compliance. You must know best practices, implementation strategies, machines, ergonomics, economics and a bevy of other disciplines. But to be an effective safety manager, somewhere in that bevy should be a knowledge of machine law.
A safety professional should have an understanding of the legal principles that apply to the workplace and the machines in the workplace. When products are sold to others and cause harm, there can be product liability for the manufacturer. This is traditional product liability. There can be liability if the product is defective in design, has a manufacturing defect, if there is a “failure to warn” because of inadequate warnings, or if the product has an “advertising defect.” A product can have an advertising defect if the statements made in the advertising or spec sheets are untrue.
Usually, safety gets involved in product liability avoidance as a product safety engineer working with the engineering department during product design. Safety also gets involved as compliance engineers responsible for certifying the product to standards, electrical labeling and CE Marking for sale to Europe.
The principles of product liability are equally as important when the safety engineer works for a company that buys machines or other products for the workplace. In the event of an accident, the safety engineer may be involved in accident investigation. To find the root cause of the accident, the safety engineer needs to determine if the machine that was involved in the accident might be defective. Was there inadequate guarding, defective or no interlocks, or inadequate safety labels? Was the manual and other training material supplied by the manufacturer of the product inadequate?
If there was a fire or chemical leak or spill, was it due to a defect in the machines? Was the control system defective? Was the software defective? These are considered product defects under product liability principles.
A basis for risk analysis
One of the most important roles of the safety engineer is accident prevention. A safety engineer would be doing an incomplete job of prevention without studying the machines in the workplace for potential defects. Semiconductor companies like Intel and Samsung and organizations such as Sandia National Laboratories require a pre-installation product safety review of the equipment that they purchase to evaluate whether the machine has product defects.
A voluntary standard that is used is known as SEMI S2 (Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International). This evaluation includes a study of electrical safety, fire safety, chemical safety, interlocks, safety devices, safety labels, manuals, ergonomics and the ability of the equipment to withstand an earthquake safely.
Some companies have developed machine safeguarding requirements for equipment they purchase or for upgrading existing equipment. These guidelines use risk analysis to determine the risk associated with the machines. Based on the results of the risk analysis, the type of interlock, guard and safety label is determined.
Keeping up on codes
Safety engineers must be aware of the latest standards and codes. The latest version of ANSI Z535 for factory signage, for example, makes the safety sign in Figure 1 obsolete. If a company moves to a different jurisdiction, older equipment will be evaluated to the latest codes. Results of an electrical field evaluation may require that the equipment be modified before it will be allowed to operate. A company that moves its equipment from the United States to Europe or Mexico will need to be sure that its older equipment meets the requirements for CE Marking.
Another area where knowledge of the law is important to the safety engineer is in the area of terms and conditions. Companies can work with the safety engineer to develop safety requirements to be included in their terms and conditions of purchase. This then becomes a powerful way to buy safe products.
Bottom line: The safety professional doesn’t need to be an attorney, but in order to be effective, they must understand the law that applies to their job. They also should know where to find a safety lawyer for legal help when needed.