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What’s New in Machine Safety?


What’s New in Machine Safety?

Machines are the source of numerous accidents in Quebec. The CNESST reported that in 2016, machines caused some 2,500 occupational injuries in the province. Of this number, close to 1,000 accidents occur each year on average when work is performed on machines where a hazardous energy source has not been controlled or not properly controlled. From 2010 to 2014, the CNESST reported four fatalities a year that could have been avoided with better knowledge of lockout and other energy control methods. Machines that are better designed, before they are built, could also help prevent tragedies.

Lockout News

The IRSST, in conjunction with Polytechnique Montréal, has been conducting lockout research for over 10 years now. One of its most recent studies, Bilan sur la pratique du cadenassage sur des machines industrielles [Assessment of Industrial Machinery Lockout Practices] (R-1073), is part of this research.

“We looked at lockout in industry, which is an area we hadn’t examined so far,” said Yuvin Chinniah, researcher, professor and Director of the Department of Mathematical and Industrial Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal. “The Quebec regulations governing lockout were strengthened in 2016, so it was a good time to report on the current situation in Quebec industry,” he noted.

The Polytechnique Montréal team and IRSST researcher Damien Burlet-Vienney began the study by visiting 14 hand-picked Quebec companies. They conducted semistructured interviews with workers and managers at the companies and then inspected their facilities and collected documentation on lockout. When possible, they also observed a simulation of a lockout procedure and alternative methods.

What these companies all had in common was a lockout program. “They had an accident prevention officer, placards were filled out, we even noted that recommended best practices had been implemented, such as using indicator lights to check that machines aren’t powered up,” said Yuvin Chinniah.

Shortcomings and a Tool

While, as a general rule, the companies applied the basic principles of lockout, a few shortcomings were found, nevertheless. For instance, although lockout placards were in place, workers did not check them systematically. Another example: Alternative methods to lockout were poorly understood and even when they were understood, prior risk assessments were either incomplete or not done at all.

“The regulations specify that a machine can be exempted from lockout under certain conditions, such as when a power source is required to detect certain faults. But use of these other methods is predicated on structured, rigorous risk assessment, which wasn’t always the case in the companies we visited,” Prof. Chinniah noted.

Second, the research team developed a lockout self-diagnostic audit tool to enable Quebec companies to audit themselves and improve their practices. The tool was designed based on data collected for the study in question, but also using the results of previous IRSST and Polytechnique Montréal research projects. The CNESST and ASPs [joint sector-based OHS associations] were also asked for their input.

One feature of the new tool is that it introduces a preparatory stage prior to the lockout application audit, which consists essentially in making sure the necessary equipment is available and the placards are compliant. “This pre-audit stage is new: it establishes the idea that a number of points have to be met, at a minimum, before the lockout practices audit may proceed,” said Chinniah.

Nevertheless, he makes no claim that the self-diagnostic tool can be applied universally. On the contrary, he urges companies to adapt it to suit their reality. “It’s an excellent starting point that fills an obvious gap in the industrial sector. But it’s not an end in itself,” he noted.

A Necessary Exploratory Study

Over the years, the IRSST has published a number of studies on machine safety concerning aspects like lockout, risk assessment and equipment user practices. However, it has never before examined the practices of some 850 machinery manufacturers located in Quebec.

“The Quebec Act respecting occupational health and safety gives top priority to eliminating hazards. What’s referred to as inherently safe design represents an ideal: the focus is on eliminating danger areas, nip points, the moving parts of machines, etc. ,” said Chinniah.

By definition, a machine uses energy to transform materials—making it difficult in many cases to achieve the objective of prevention at source. Manufacturers therefore strive to make their equipment as safe and reliable as possible. “This is one aspect that hasn’t been studied much so far, just like manufacturers’ relationships with their customers and buyers, and the standards they try to meet,” said the researcher.

To address this lack of probative data, Yuvin Chinniah conducted an exploratory study in conjunction with Prof. François Gauthier and his team at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR) and IRSST researcher Sabrina Jocelyn. Their conclusions can be found in the report Étude exploratoire sur les pratiques des fabricants de machines au Québec en lien avec l’intégration de la sécurité des machines dès leur conception [Exploratory Study on Quebec Machinery Manufacturers’ Practices Related to Integration of Machine Safety into the Design Process] (R-1082).

A Source of Inspiration

The team of researchers met with 52 respondents from the design teams of 17 Quebec manufacturers of industrial machinery. Beyond their specialization in the design and fabrication of manufacturing production equipment, these small, medium-sized and large businesses differed from one another in many respects. “Also, the sample size was too small to draw any definitive conclusions,” said Chinniah. Nevertheless, trends can be glimpsed on the basis of the collected data.

Overall, there are good reasons to be fairly optimistic. Most respondents are aware of the need to properly identify the hazards associated with using their machines and take appropriate steps to conduct a rigorous risk assessment. In addition, all manufacturers interviewed install guards on their products.

Still, Yuvin Chinniah was surprised by some customer practices reported by representatives of participating companies. “According to what we were told, buyers sometimes bypass the guards. Manufacturers are intent on finding ways to prevent this bypassing, right from the design stage, but it’s obviously no small ask,” he admitted.

Another striking example is the search for a hard-to-find balance between safety and cost. “The customer often tries to bring the cost down, whereas the manufacturer is committed to ensuring its products are safe. In an effort to find common ground, some manufacturers go to the point of having buyers sign liability waivers when selling machines without certain safety devices normally deemed essential,” said Chinniah. This is illegal under existing regulations.

This exploratory study shows that it is possible to comply with high standards of safe machine design. The authors urge Quebec manufacturers to take inspiration from the best practices set out in the report. “I’m not comfortable saying that our study is representative of the situation across the province. It should be seen more as an opportunity to draw comparisons with a view to improvement,” the researcher concluded.

By Maxime Bilodeau