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Machine safety: Evolving to meet today's needs

18 July 2016

Machine safety is a key consideration in all modern plants, at every stage of a machine’s lifecycle: design, manufacture, installation, adjustment, operation, and maintenance. Martin Walder, VP Industry at Schneider Electric, explains more


Machine and plant safety has undergone a shift in recent years. Of course, the moral obligation to avoid harming anyone remains, underpinned by a legal and regulatory framework. However, the implications of a safety breach are becoming increasingly widespread, ranging from sick pay for injured employees, to increased insurance premiums, lost production, lost customers and even a loss of reputation and brand image.

As such, today’s safety components and systems are no longer installed only to satisfy the minimum requirements and laws. Optimum safety and zero risk is the aim, but more often than not this proves impossible to achieve. However, there are steps that can be taken to reduce risk to a minimum:

Risk assessment

Risk assessment is an essential step in machine safety, but it’s no precise science. There are various techniques. The various national, European and international standards available offer guidance in this subject and often specify general principles, but do not specify exactly what should be done in every case. That is because the risks that might be reasonable in a plant employing skilled workers might be unacceptable in an environment where members of the public, including children, might be present. Any risk assessment that takes place should identify the limits and potential hazards of the machinery; ascertain who would be harmed by the hazards identified; and prioritise the risks according to their severity.

Risk reduction

Beyond risk reduction, elimination can sometimes be achieved by removing hazards as part of an inherently safe design. Furthermore, automating some tasks, such as machine loading can eliminate some risks. 

However, businesses should also make sure that they don’t end up substituting one hazard for another. For example, air-powered tools provide a safer environment when dealing with electricity, but they can introduce other hazards from the use of compressed air.

Case for safeguarding 

Where inherently safe design is not practicable, safeguarding is the next best step to prevent people from coming into contact with hazards. This can include fixed guarding, interlocked guarding, and presence sensing to prevent unexpected machine start-up. This helps facilitate an industrial environment where safety is at the centre of all operations. 

Thankfully, industrial workplace accidents have reduced over the years. The UK reported a downward trend in the rate of fatal injury over the last 20-years, although in recent years this shows signs of levelling off. While the issue of machine and plant safety continues to evolve, OEMs and end users alike face a number of big decisions as they juggle the need to keep people safe, with the pressure to create an optimal and lean operating environment. Combining thorough risk assessment and reduction processes with safeguarding practices and the latest technology, goes a long way to ensure much better performance and protection of the industrial environment.