Greater OSHA rules enforcement requires new emphasis on machine guarding

Many employers are not aware of the strong enforcement tools that are available to OSHA. Although these tools have been used sparingly in the past, they will undoubtedly be used more often in the future.


Has the OSHA inspector visited your facility lately?

If so, you’ve probably already noticed that some things have changed. If not, you may want to take this opportunity to look more closely at your operation – especially your machine guarding systems.

Pledging to “put enforcement back into the U.S. Department of Labor,” Secretary Hilda Solis is promising more OSHA inspections. Jim Washam, safety consultant and partner, Machine Safety Specialists LLC, said employers will see a shift to a more aggressive, citation-based approach from OSHA.

“The priorities are changing,” said Washam. “OSHA is moving toward more enforcement, and placing less emphasis on the partnership programs of the past. It wants to reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries by making sure that companies comply with its requirements. Many employers are not aware of the strong enforcement tools that are available to OSHA. Although these tools have been used sparingly in the past, they will undoubtedly be used more often in the future.


Increasing enforcement

What’s fueling this philosophical shift? Established some 40 years ago by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA today faces applying outdated standards to advanced technologies. The present machine guarding environment, for one, with its computer-controlled automated production equipment and multi-faceted robotic cells, is faster, more complex, and beyond the purview of most aging regulations.

OSHA cannot easily update its regulations. As a regulatory agency, it can make changes only through an elaborate, time-consuming process that would likely find any new standards outdated by the time they were adopted. Nonetheless, Washam said, OSHA is finding ways to work around the hurdles.

Approximately 800 citations are issued annually under its general duty clause, which makes OSHA’s only obligation for issuing a citation the ability to prove an infraction is a recognized hazard. OSHA is successfully and reliably proving a hazard is recognized by industry by showing that it is covered and contained in a nationally recognized consensus standard.

 “In many respects, that’s why OSHA incorporated a general duty (29 USC 654 Section 5 (a)(1) and a general machine guarding clause (Subpart O, 1910.212),” Washam said. “It was just not realistic to adopt machine guarding standards for every type of equipment, and now, as equipment changes and systems evolve, OSHA is turning to these general clauses to justify enforcement under nationally recognized consensus standards.”

The machine guarding clause states that “one or more methods of machine guarding shall be provided to protect the operator and other employees in the machine area from hazards such as those created by point of operation, ingoing nip points, rotating parts, flying chips and sparks.”]


Meeting the standard

Armed with the power of consensus standards, OSHA is expected to place new emphasis on machine safeguarding, in particular on control system reliability, lockout procedures, audits and risk assessments, and worker training. Lockout and safeguarding issues are normally found among the top violations cited. In response, proactive companies are moving beyond OSHA’s minimum expectations, “and working to apply the latest existing consensus standards before being required to do so by OSHA,” said Washam.

The task is not simple. Washam recommends employers obtain copies of all standards relevant to their operations, noting that OSHA can use failure to meet any of them as cause for citation. Examples include ANSI’s Performance Criteria for Safeguarding (B11.19-2003), which establishes the requirements for the design, construction, installation, operation, and maintenance of safeguarding systems. Risk assessment, an essential component of any machine safeguarding program, is covered in at least five consensus standards, including those of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA 15.06: Industrial Robots and Robot Systems) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 79: Electrical Standard for Industrial Machinery).

Employers know it is too risky and costly not to act,” said Washam. “They don’t want the litigation and negative publicity that goes with an accident that results in employee injury or death.” And with all the issues directly related to employee safety, there is a good chance OSHA will use consensus standards to issue citations under its general duty clause.

“OSHA is currently developing programs that deal with the newest technologies and advancements in safeguarding systems,” he says. “Some are already offered at its training institute. Some vendors, as well, offer classes that help educate customers on how to safeguard equipment and establish safe work practices.”

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