Why isn'’t it safe?

There are a lot of options to consider when addressing machine safety issues, but as Control Design Editor in Chief Joe Feeley learned at the virtual corner tavern, the end result can be worth it.

By Joe Feeley, former editor in chief

Joe Feeley

If you follow Control Design with any regularity, you know we pay a lot of attention to machine safety issues. Dan Hebert’s cover story this month ("Mix and Match Machine Safety") takes a practical look at the convergence of safety-related devices and networks with their machine control counterparts and discusses what it means when assembling a safety system that doesn’'t follow traditional hard-wired circuit guidelines. There are a lot of options to consider, but the end result can be worth it.

This article and similar themes upcoming in some of our sibling brands spawned some corner-tavern disagreements among a few editors about the resolve—in this case, the lack thereof—of companies to be proactive about machine safety, process safety, or facility safety overall. We all agreed that new safety technology should be deployed far more than it has been. What holds it back?

This is a sensitive topic, and the people we normally interview in the user community are more than a bit reluctant to talk about the shortcomings in their companies’ safety activities.

Our discussion ended up creating several camps of thought. One believes companies that embrace safety do so solely because they’re afraid of potential liabilities in a highly litigious society. There’s nothing noble or caring about employee welfare in their decision making.

A second sentiment is that most companies’ cost-accounting systems still are too prehistoric to identify actual cost reductions that result from a world-class safety system that keeps machines running without interruption, without damage, without employee injury, training of replacements, and so forth. These companies might embrace better safety systems, but have a terrible time defining, let alone selling, the ROI.

Another point of view turns back toward the cynical, but is counter to the liability argument. This large set of companies determines the potential likelihood and financial burden of safety incidents, and decides that the cost of employees/people getting hurt and equipment/facility/community being damaged still is the fiduciaries’ more “responsible” route.

A last, overarching view was that safety isn'’t what it should be because of a deeply rooted lack of personal responsibility by all parties involved. The remedy is that the operators who know a plant is unsafe must raise that issue—by whatever means necessary—to decision makers and/or regulators. The concerned COO must ignore the short-term mindset of boards and shareholders and enact needed reforms—the bonus be damned.

Why, we asked, is it that Europe’'s mindset seems vastly more advanced in its approach to most measures of commercial safety? Is it superior personal/cultural responsibility or is it Europe'’s “screw up, go to jail” regulatory posture?

That led us to a touchy area that can’t be adequately addressed in this space. What is the proper role of the government in issues such as commercial/industrial safety in a capitalism-driven economy? It’s not very good at writing and monitoring regulation. Should it enforce a “you figure out how to do it, but you better do it right or else” mentality? Should it let the system seek its own balance point of human safety and consumer-demanded price containment? If neither are good ideas, what’s the middle-ground where good things actually can happen?

It became clear we need you and your company in this conversation, even if it has to be communicated anonymously.

Are you in one of these camps? What about your customers? Are you too consumed by the day-to-day to believe you can do something? Is that a rationalization? Are we missing something? Can we do more to help?

I think we should assemble at our virtual corner tavern and see where this goes.


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