Ask any manufacturer to rate the importance of operator safety, and nearly all will say it’s a top priority. At the same time, the features and processes intended to keep people safe are rarely put to the test until a crisis occurs. It’s only when safety fails—when there is an injury or a near-miss—that companies question whether they are doing enough to protect workers.
The better a safety feature is at doing its job, the less likely it is to be noticed. When safety features work, they draw no attention to themselves. Yet more than 420,000 manufacturing workers were injured on the job in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting for 15% of all nonfatal injuries in the private sector that year.
Safety planning starts by imagining the unimaginable. Testing systems, whether they’re conducting tests for product development or quality control, are inherently risky. The system’s job is to put maximum strain on a product, even to the point of failure. That means equipment doing its job can expose workers to dangers like shrapnel, moving parts or sudden electrical discharge.
Companies are understandably focused on what their equipment can do and how they can maximize its productivity. At the same time, it’s critical to play devil’s advocate and ask what could happen that shouldn’t, and how both the equipment and the operator will respond if it does. This exercise might lead to designing features that prevent the failure in the first place, or to creating safeguards that reduce the risk to people if the failure occurs.
If a failure scenario seems particularly far-fetched or the level of risk is acceptable, there may be no measures taken at all. At least the danger was identified and can be monitored. When safety is treated as an afterthought, it’s only a matter of time until a preventable accident happens. Most manufacturers upgrade their safety systems only as part of a larger testing equipment upgrade or when it is demanded by an outside agency.
Here are five red flags that indicate a safety upgrade is overdue.
1. Operators can access hazardous areas while the hazard is present. Systems that require hands-on operator involvement, like testing systems, have built-in risks. In a test cell, someone needs to load, move or manipulate the product to simulate how it works in the field. Making these systems safe may mean containing the hazard behind guards or designing the machine so it won’t run until the operator is clear. Whether the danger is readily apparent, like moving parts, or invisible, like electrical current, the best safeguards make it impossible for the operator to even get near.
2. People are bypassing the rules. Safety depends on people choosing to follow the rules. Administrative controls like signage are the lowest level of risk reduction. They are only effective if people in the area know about the rule, understand it and choose to follow it. Even well-trained people can be lulled into a false sense of security and start taking shortcuts to make work faster or easier.
Sometimes, a safety device like an automated door latch is bypassed by an operator who found it getting in the way of needed observations or adjustments. If people are looking for ways around a safety system, it’s probably not well aligned with the operation. Rather than disabling the mechanism or retraining the operators, analyze the entire system and find a way to marry safety with the way the process really works.
3. Alarm systems don’t distinguish between emergencies and non-emergencies. Today’s test equipment may be capable of sending out alerts for everything from imminent danger to software updates. It’s a case of the machine who cried wolf—if the system treats everything like an emergency, workers will treat nothing like an emergency. Frequent false alarms will lead workers to ignore the warning signs or circumvent them.
4. Safety features are outdated. A test of older fail-safes may find they no longer work—if they ever did in the first place. Technology advances quickly, and new safety products are introduced to the market every year. For example, there are now safety scanners that can enable and disable safety functions as the operator moves through hazardous zones. This new technology allows a single device to cover a larger area and can prevent nuisance shutdowns.
Companies might find there is a new, affordable solution to a risk they were living with because it was too expensive or just not practical to mitigate. Maintaining a safe work environment means ongoing risk assessment. Safety professionals should perform regular audits of the equipment on the shop floor and keep an eye out for advancements that could make it safer. An effective audit identifies potential hazards in testing equipment, determines the level of risk, and assesses the working condition of the equipment.
5. Safety features are not regularly tested and validated. Just because an emergency stop circuit worked when it was installed does not mean it will continue to work three, five or 10 years later. Just like schoolchildren perform fire drills and the government tests the emergency alert system, the systems that keep workers safe should be checked on a regular basis.
Functional testing is especially important. Some manufacturers will set the required testing interval for a safety component based on the safety system’s performance level. The best way to test a feature is to actuate it. That’s not always practical, since some emergency-stop features will damage or destroy the machine. If it’s not possible to activate the actual trigger, it should be possible to simulate an emergency and make sure the system is prepared to respond appropriately. It can take experience and innovation to develop an appropriate test setup or scenario.
The return on investment in safety is hard to measure. If a company invests millions in safety upgrades and there are no near-misses, was it a waste of money or did the upgrades do their job? A better question is what might realistically happen without safety upgrades.
When making upgrades, it’s important to remember that safety is holistic. Manufacturers need to look at how safety measures impact the entire process, not just the piece the safeguard touches. Upgrading one part of a system without examining how it affects the whole could unintentionally create new risks.
The biggest threat to safety features is often the people they’re trying to protect. When safeguards are added after the fact instead of being integrated into the way the system works, they often seem like a hindrance. Workers will find ways to work around features they think are slowing them down or making them work harder.
This can create a rival mindset between equipment operators and safety officers. Manufacturers can defuse this mindset by viewing workers as an integral part of the system rather than a problem to be solved. The most effective safety measures are fused so seamlessly into the system that workers benefit from them without ever thinking about them.
Matt Thiel is director of facility planning and integration and a principal, and Dan Idzikowski is a senior instrumentation and controls engineer at ACS. ACS engineers, integrates and builds technically complex equipment, controls and facilities for industry-leading companies in markets including automotive, aerospace, energy, chemical, manufacturing and more. ACS specializes in control systems, custom machines, testing solutions, automation and production systems, as well as the design and construction of integrated facilities.