Death seems almost inevitable in the first few days of the New Year. WorkSafe Victoria statistics show at least one Victorian has died at work in the first week of January for the last five years. And tragedy strikes early in manufacturing's shutdown period too. Last year, nearly a quarter of the state's deaths at work happened in November and December. Now, heading towards Christmas once again, the authority has launched a campaign to attack the season's killer hazards: those associated with maintenance, repair, installation, servicing, and cleaning of machines (MRISC).
WorkSafe’s Manufacturing, Logistics and Agriculture Program Director, Trevor Martin, said a separate review was needed to ensure safety during MRISC work even if a machine was risk-assessed to be safe for day-to-day use.
"In the past year, nearly 5000 people were seriously hurt and nine people died in machinery-related MRISC work in Victoria’s manufacturing industry,” he said.
"This work is often the most dangerous, because guarding might be faulty, removed or otherwise exposed, particularly when testing is underway or when the machine is running while routine cleaning is done."
Aside from the terrible potential human costs when machines start unexpectedly during maintenance or setting, the legal consequences can also be serious.
What the law says
Australian state laws do not spell out exactly how workplace hazards must be controlled. Instead, they accommodate all sorts of circumstances by setting benchmarks for safety. Among the most important safety regulations in Victoria, for example, are the Plant Regulations, which stipulate the need to identify workplace hazards, assess the risks and control those risks.
Similarly, the Victorian OHS Act says you must eliminate the risk, or if it is not practicable to eliminate it, reduce the risk so far as is "reasonably practicable".
What "reasonably practicable" means
'Reasonably practicable' is defined by the likelihood of hazard or risk eventuating, the degree of potential harm, knowledge of risk and controls, availability and suitability of controls and cost.
Freehills lawyer Barry Sherriff said courts gave varying weightings to the different elements of the definition.
Although cost does have an impact on what is deemed reasonably practicable, Mr Sherriff said it should "rarely be a sufficient consideration to justify little or no action – it is more relevant to justifying the choice between various options. Cost is only relevant for unlikely, low harm risks."
"The degree of harm will always be heavily weighted," he said, "and knowledge is what you know and someone in your position should know. Available controls should be considered in terms of feasibility, effectiveness and overall operational considerations."
The good news is that there certainly are plenty of controls available that are feasible, effective and manageable – even for situations where workers need to enter hazardous areas to maintain or adjust machinery while it is running. Because the need for these controls is spelled out in legislation, codes and Australian Standards, courts will also expect they are understood by employers and others held responsible for machine design.
The hazards and the solutions
During maintenance or breakdowns, workers often face a host of hazards, including turning wheels, moving robots or chains, linear moving parts, cutters or hot sealing equipment.
Normally, safety gates offering access to these areas trigger a shut down of the matching zone as soon as they are opened. When these need to be suspended (bypassed) so that workers can interact with the machine in operation, a second tier of safeguards is vital.
Working on safety gate bypass, the logic governing the safety system involves five steps:
- Choose operation mode: maintenance
- Plug in a maintenance safety device at the segment or door you want to open. This device must over-ride the standard controls and be part of the appropriate safety control system.
- Open the door at the plugged segment
- Use the maintenance safety device to run the machine (safe slow, limited inch, jog etc, are common safe run modes for this application)
- If a door opens in another safety segment, the machine must stop since the maintenance person, who is operating safely, could now unwittingly injure another person who is unobserved and unprotected.
There are two broad categories of 'maintenance safety devices': those that constrain the user and those that constrain the machine.
The first group aim to keep the worker from the hazard by only operating when the user's hands are placed on the controls, such as two-hand controls and hold to run or 'deadman' switches. The second group make the hazard more readily avoidable and include safe speed controls and inching timers.
The bottom line
Safety is no less important during a breakdown or maintenance than at any other time. In fact, because the operator is even more exposed to hazards, safe design is more critical than ever. Equally, the responsibility of everyone who designs, manufactures, supplies or modifies plant and machinery to make it safe extends to the occasions where safety gates must be legitimately suspended or bypassed.
WorkSafe's Trevor Martin said, despite the pressures of business, safety must always remain a high priority.
"As one judge once said, you need to take an ‘active, imaginative and flexible approach to potential dangers in the knowledge that human frailty is an ever-present reality'."
"Excuses like ‘there isn’t time’, ‘we’ll take the short cut just this once’ or ‘we’ve always done it this way’, are no use after someone is hurt. You have to know it will be safe, not simply assume it will be.”
We should never depend on human behaviour if we have a way of minimising the risk by engineering. The greatest tragedy of the New Year death toll is perhaps that although it may seem inevitable, the truth is that it's also largely preventable.
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About the author: Frank Schrever has 30 years’ experience in the instrumentation and automation markets and established Pilz Safe Automation, now Australasia’s leader in safe automation products and services. Mr Schrever also sits on the AS 4024-1 review committee (SF041).