Electronic machine safety provides the highest level of protection to workers against exposure to workplace hazards but comes with many challenges. Overcoming these challenges can be a grueling process and potentially catastrophic without the proper education and support from the expertise of specialists in this field.
Safety Managers have an obligation of protecting their assets every day, including their employees. This can be accomplished through machine safety guarding defined as a physical barrier, an electronic safety device, or a hybrid of both to minimize or prevent exposure to hazards between person and machine. However, a machine guard is not a true safety guard until an electronic signal is added, virtually bringing the barrier to life by communicating with the machine on how to react based on human interaction.
Safety Mangers are faced with a staggering number of scenarios to work through, but unfortunately the solutions are not black and white. Each situation requires a different solution, but still requires the same outcome of improving workplace safety. Electronic machine safety is most effective when done correctly but requires specialized knowledge of each electronic option as it relates to the functionality of the machine and how the worker interacts with the equipment. The most common options are safety switches, safety light curtains, safety laser scanners, and safety mats. Each device requires a specific infrastructure of safety relays or safety controllers, power supplies, reset switches, and remote emergency stop buttons built into a safety control enclosure. All four of these devices make up electronic machine safety, but the right device needs to be chosen based on each individual application to be done correctly.
Safety switches are one of the most common electronic safety devices. They are used in conjunction with a door or removable panel of a physical barrier. The switch stops the machine when an employee opens a door or removes an access panel eliminating the risk. The next device is safety light curtains, which consists of a transmitter and receiver which send invisible beams across a work area. Another type of device is the safety laser scanner, which are also invisible beams programmed as warning and hazard zones scanned in a 2D plane. Both the light curtains and laser scanners prevent anyone from passing through to the machine hazards once the invisible beams are broken. The other common device is the safety mat adding electronics to an ergonomic floor mat and placed in the area of concern. This mat is activated when a person steps on the mat and interrupts the electronic circuit internally. All four of these scenarios are integrated through a safety control enclosure then tied to the machine e-stop circuit essentially stopping the entire machine. Without these devices, employees can walk or reach right into the hazardous areas creating unsafe conditions.
Another challenge the Safety Manager needs to be conscious of are the costs. Electronics inherently add cost to the project due to the electronic products themselves along with the skill level of the controls technician required to properly integrate the devices into the machine controls. These higher costs are justified as a part of improving worker safety and should be looked at as an investment of asset protection. This may require some explanation when requesting approval which should be based on worker’s comp rates, age of machine vs buying new, and one thing you can’t put a price tag on is worker safety. If the cost of upgrading a machine is not justified based on the cost of a new machine with the right safety features, then the machine should be replaced. Otherwise the cost of doing nothing could have severe consequences.
To aid in helping Safety Managers, it is imperative they collaborate with a third-party company specialized in turnkey safety guarding solutions with a strong understanding of the standards & regulations. This type of company can provide an objective approach when creating initial concepts built around the answers to the above questions. When using a company with turnkey services, communication can be tighter, value can be improved, lead-times from start to finish can be reduced, workplace safety attitudes can be improved based on a comfort level with the knowledge and execution, all resulting in building a stronger, long-term relationships working towards achieving the safety goals for each facility.
There is a multitude of questions the Safety Manager is faced with to narrow down which solution is best for the project. Does this machine have a dynamic braking system? How often are you changing parts? How often do you maintain the machine? Does the material need to be contained by physical barriers preventing a thrown objects hazard? Do the machine controls have the current infrastructure to allow modern safety devices to be integrated or do the machine controls require upgrading? Do I need to prevent employees from bypassing the safety devices? Am I trying to achieve a certain safety category level? Any one option initially can work, but the choices are reduced based on the answers to these questions.
“Safety first!” and “Employees are our greatest asset” has lost some of its meaning due to these challenges Safety Managers are faced with daily. Due to the vast number of industrial facilities and custom processes, it’s understandable to be overwhelmed but not justified in taking shortcuts, choosing the wrong solution, or doing nothing. There is great value in the knowledge of available options, the how’s and why’s of choosing the right solution, and finding the right support structure to accomplish your safety goals. Safety is everyone’s responsibility and must be prioritized at the highest level.
Co-Authored and published by Shawn Mantel, Owner / Operator at PowerSafe Automation and Professional Safety Journal
Shawn Mantel is the owner and author of the @powersafeautomation blog posts, where he helps to educate and spark ideas with workers on how to improve workplace safety through turnkey safety guarding solutions.
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