Factory safety – Safety balanced with commercial issues

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Ensuring worker safety in and around industrial processes is a vital consideration for manufacturers and OEMs. Balancing the needs of safety with commercial considerations becomes ever more complex as safety standards evolve and new technologies become available. But, as Paul Davies of Rockwell Automation explains, by understanding the principles underpinning an effective safety strategy, designers can ensure the needs of both are satisfied.

Any safety programme should start with a thorough risk assessment that will help identify the areas of risk within a facility or machine, and point to the right technology to reduce that risk. Rather than aiming to remove risk altogether, a risk assessment aims to establish acceptable levels of risk. This analysis proves invaluable in helping to identify the kind of safety products that might be required in any particular application to achieve the most effective – and practical – solution. In a manufacturing environment, the assessment process can help to chart a course for an effective machine-guarding strategy, itself forming part of an overall safety strategy designed to protect the company’s investment in both machinery and personnel.
Design-out potential hazards.
The best way to reduce a potential hazard is to remove it at the design stage. A careful review of the risk assessment and risk reduction at the earliest stages of design can highlight potential trouble spots, such as pinch-points or sharp edges, helping companies take the necessary steps to design-out these features long before they require guarding. The removal of risk areas in this way can result in more efficient machines, as with fewer potential hazardous areas, there are fewer risks of unplanned stoppages occurring.
Consider the options for machine guarding.
Where a hazard cannot be removed entirely through design, the reduction of risk by the physical guarding of the hazardous area is the next best option. There are a huge range of machine guarding systems and components available, including safety mats and safety interlock switches, that can be used to protect workers around specific areas of a machine or industrial process. Devices such as light curtains can be used to guard areas – enabling exclusion zones to be created for maximum worker protection. Systems frequently combine elements of both to achieve the most effective solution.
As part of the analysis of the most effective strategy to adopt, careful consideration must be given to how frequently a machine or process will need to be accessed. This analysis will help refine the list of possible machine guarding solutions, allowing designers to arrive at a strategy that balances the commercial needs of the operation with the need to ensure risk levels are reduced to an acceptable level. Naturally, it’s also important to ensure that the solution chosen doesn’t itself cause another hazard!
Add advanced controls.
As well as applying the appropriate machine guarding devices, engineered solutions can be implemented to further reduce potential risks. Electromechanical safety relays have formed the backbone of safety control design for many years. Today’s devices offer a wealth of advanced features that allow sophisticated safety schemas to be implemented without adding unnecessary expense or complexity. Even more advanced protection can be provided by safety-rated controllers. Using these dedicated safety control architectures, extremely sophisticated solutions can be developed employing the full range of inputs, such as light curtains, E-stop buttons and safety mats and outputs such as guard locking solenoids and alarms. Clever design, such as the manual release function found on high-end safety interlocks, can enhance safety functionality still further at very little extra cost.
Promote awareness
Encouraging safety awareness helps reduce levels of potential risk in any workplace, but particularly so in industry. Effective signage and the use of visual/audible warnings can all help reduce the risk of accidents. Careful consideration of positioning should be carried out to ensure that signage and warning devices are positioned where they will best serve their intended purpose. Consideration must also be given to which products would be most appropriate in each given circumstance. For example, an audible alarm would need to be clearly distinguishable above the normal operational noise of a machine or process. Once again, a comprehensive range of warning beacons and audible alarms are available on the market, enabling the designer to chose the most appropriate device for use in each application.
Training
Providing effective training that allows workers to understand the hazards likely to be encountered in the workplace and how to reduce the potential risk is the cornerstone of any safety strategy. The majority of workplace accidents are caused through ignorance and/or failure to follow correct safety procedures. While it is the company’s responsibility to provide such training and equipment as is necessary to reduce risk, it is the employee’s responsibility to ensure that this equipment is used and these procedures are applied in the workplace. While an important element in any safety training programme is to ensure that all employees understand that safety is everybody’s responsibility, choosing safety products which incorporate tamper-resistant features also helps to ensure the overall integrity of the safety strategy.
Follow-up assessments
After installing physical safeguards and establishing safety procedures, it is vital that follow-up assessments are made to ensure that risk has been reduced to an acceptable level. It is also vital that periodic assessments are made to ensure that these measures remain effective. But as well as confirming the effectiveness of the safety measures adopted, such assessments should be made on a commercial basis too: The twin aims of any safety strategy should be safety and productivity, and these two aims are not mutually exclusive. A careful follow-up assessment might reveal ways in which a process could be made more efficient without compromising safety levels. New products and technologies, such as the Safe-Off facility in Allen-Bradley PowerFlex drives, for example, could offer just such an opportunity by delivering both enhanced safety and improved efficiency.
Rely on experience
When embarking on any safety programme, the single most valuable asset a company can have is an experienced partner, well versed in both current legislation and the latest safety techniques and technologies. When choosing their safety partner, designers should consider carefully not just the ability to supply products, but also the expertise available to be able to understand the issues and to make the right recommendations to balance safety effectiveness and cost effectiveness.