Safety Dance: Safe to Dance?

April 3, 2012
Why is Safety Still Not a Leading Concern for Machine Operators?
About the Author

Aaron Hand is Managing Editor of Control Design and Industrial Networking. He joined Putman Media recently after almost 20 years covering high-tech industries, including semiconductor, photovoltaics and related manufacturing technologies.

Safety's been on my mind lately because, well, it's everywhere. It seems every interview we do these days has some safety component to it. And that makes sense. Safety should be an integral part of pretty much every automation conversation.

And yet, from what we hear, safety is still not front of mind for many machine operators or even plant managers. It's a classic struggle, it seems, between safety and productivity; safety and cost; safety and convenience.

A machine that is stopped when it shouldn't be stopped is the most dangerous kind of machine, contended Derek Jones, safety business development manager for Rockwell Automation, at Rockwell's Safety Automation Forum a few months ago in Chicago. "You'll find that somebody did something completely well meaning, trying to get production back on track," he said. "But the guy hadn't gone through all the proper steps." Next thing you know, the machine starts up again while somebody's arm is still in the danger zone.

Some of the first products I saw demonstrated when I joined Control Design were new ways to keep operators from slipping into a running machine to make a quick — but dangerous — adjustment. The focus seemed to be on products designed to force operators into responsible action.

Reporting on arc flash issues last month, the same concerns were expressed there about operators or maintenance personnel who choose productivity over safety. In a presentation about arc flash mitigation, Patrick Ostrenga, compliance assistance specialist for OSHA, kept coming around to one key piece of advice: "Just turn it off." Arc flash safety is simple: De-energize before an employee works on or near electrical contacts. Too many manufacturers, as Ostrenga put it, interpret their own situations as exempt from the de-energize guideline. "Most people confuse ‘continuous industrial process' with convenience."

Safety strikes me as one of those things that you might want to pay extra attention to even when you're not sure you need it; kind of like looking out for the environment even if you don't believe CO2 emissions have anything to do with global warming. But telling operators that they have to shut everything down seems to be exactly what's going to make them take chances in the first place.

So it's reassuring to see more safety solutions that work hand in hand with productivity, which is the case as integrated safety becomes more prevalent. The trend seems to be moving away from forcing operators to shut things down to instead keeping machines running within safe parameters.

Safety is utterly important, and I don't want to give the impression that I think otherwise. But I also class some of what's reported within what I consider the Stuxnet realm. Like safety, cybersecurity is important, but when all the information we can get about what a threat cybersecurity is comes from network security providers, we have to stop and think about the claims.

As I reported on arc flash last month, I worried there, too, that the statistics so often quoted about the direness and ubiquity of electrical accidents came only from those companies trying to sell arc flash protection. I tried to make sure I had backup from other sources, but I'm sure I didn't do as well as I could have to make sure that, for example, "tens of thousands of electrical accidents occur each year in industrial environments."

I still need to address an email that was sent to me a few days ago, but I wanted to share a bit of it here. It comes from Kim Ground, senior electrical engineer, controls, for the Surface Finishing Technologies division of Technic, who understands the importance of protective gear and de-energizing, but questions the stats.

"In my 40 years of experience as an industrial electrician, licensed electrical contractor doing only industrial work including some MV work, and controls engineer in the industrial machinery industry, I have witnessed one arc flash incident 25 years ago where an untrained non-electrician worker using a $9 multimeter tried to test for blown fuses on a 480 V system," Ground writes. "The results were spectacular, and he was temporarily injured but fortunately had no lasting injuries. His eyeglasses (non-safety) probably saved his eyesight. Compliance with OSHA regulations in place 10 years or more ago would have prevented that accident, as would common sense."