OSHA and machine guarding: Greater enforcement

Increasing OSHA enforcement, greater use of consensus standards shape future of safety compliance


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. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration appears to be stepping up its activities, moving away from the atmosphere of cooperative programs that once characterized the agency and adopting a harder line.

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

“The priorities are changing,” says 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.

Devising a work-around

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 Established some 40 years ago by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA today faces applying outdated standards to advanced technologies.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agency, it can make changes only through an elaborate, time-consuming process that would likely find any new standards outdated by the time they were adopted.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, warns Washam, 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. And 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),” points out Washam. 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. [OSHA’s general duty clause requires that every employer “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” 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.”]

What’s an employer to do?

Armed with the power of consensus standards, the OSHA of the future can be 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, observes Washam, “and working to apply the latest existing consensus standards before being required to do so by OSHA.”

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,” continues 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. For example, although OSHA does not cover many issues related to control reliable safety circuits, it may enforce infractions under ANSI B11.19 Performance Criteria for Safeguarding.

Washam foresees an OSHA that will not only look hard at compliance with ANSI and other recognized consensus standards, but will also promote education and training in these areas. “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.”

Take advantage of every opportunity, stresses Washam, and know and use the consensus standards that apply to your machine guarding needs. Those who are proactive now will be ready for OSHA… and for the future.

For additional information on OSHA, safety standards, and machine safeguarding, visit these websites:

www.ansi.org American National Standards Institute

www.dol.gov U.S. Department of Labor

machinesafetyspecialists.com Machine Safety Specialists, LLC

www.nfpa.org National Fire Protection Association

www.osha.gov OSHA

www.osha.gov/dte/oti OSHA Training Institute

www.robotics.org Robotic Industries Association

- Control Engineering tutorial, www.controleng.com

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