Machine safety: finding your way out of a legal minefield

Monday, 07 July, 2003

Engineers, electricians and machine designers are often unaware that they personally have legal responsibilities under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Plant Regulations. We spoke to Frank Schrever, Pilz Australia managing director, about the legal principles surrounding safety in Australian manufacturing.

Safety Solutions: How would you characterise the Australian approach to safety?

Schrever: The legal approach to occupational health and safety in Australia is world-class. Australian workers are very well protected by the law.

The problem is that although there is a growing safety culture in Australian manufacturing, there are still many sites where the reality of machine design falls a long way short of minimum requirements and safety standards.

Safety Solutions: What should be done to raise awareness of safety issues?

Schrever: Everyone involved in machine and plant safety issues should be fully aware of the requirements of the plant regulations in their state (these are now mostly in alignment), the Australian Standard for Safeguarding of Machinery AS4024-1 and the various machine-specific standards that apply.

We all should pressure educational institutions to include a mandatory component in every trade and degree course on OH&S, legal, standards and safe machine design requirements. Otherwise, ignorance will continue to cause serious accidents, damaging the lives of many thousands of Australians every year.

Safety Solutions: Why are standards not being met?

Schrever: It's got a lot to do with education and the need for a change in attitude. Engineers, electricians and machine designers are often unaware that they personally have legal responsibilities under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Plant Regulations. Occupational health and safety is generally not part of the curriculum in engineering degrees or electricians trade school.

In some cases, safety measures are still regarded as an evil necessity that disrupts production or, in the worst case, an expense that offers no tangible returns and is impossible to justify.

Safety Solutions: Companies are not willing to spend money on safety?

Schrever: Most companies do put a very high priority on safety and are willing to invest in it, because they realise that, apart from the ethics involved, scrimping on safety devices is a false economy.

Companies that don't comply with safety standards often give cost as the reason why more has not been done - adding compliant safety controls may not increase productivity. Generally, though, the cost of making machinery safe and compliant is not very high.

The cost of an incident, however, is always high, both in emotional and financial terms. Consider the emotional cost of a lost finger to the maimed worker, the pain of family members, the trauma of colleagues who witnessed the accident and the stress involved when staff members are called to account in court.

The bottom line also suffers from lost production when WorkCover shuts the plant down, plus there's the cost of legal action, fines, adverse publicity and so on. These costs far outweigh, often many times over, the original cost of designing the machine to be safe in the first place.

Besides that, the idea that safety slows the production line down is dated. Our safety products can actually save money, because in addition to safety, they offer cost-effective functions such as diagnostics for rapid troubleshooting.

Safety Solutions: What can be done to increase acceptance of safety devices?

Schrever: A high safety rating on machinery does not guarantee acceptance and maximum safety unless it's part of a solution that allows users to do their job without interference and with the highest level of safety.

If workers are comfortable with the system, you avoid potential attempts at manipulation and circumvention. Systems need to be adapted to suit local conditions and to the specific requirements of the workplace and its environment, which is why ours are easily programmable and very flexible. When designing a plant, it's also a good idea to involve users and the responsible service personnel.

Safety Solutions: What advice would you give somebody who was responsible for safety management on production plant and machinery?

Schrever: Be there when the machines are commissioned, carry out your own risk assessment in accordance with AS4024.1, provide a compliant, safe, control systems design and keep educating yourself so that you are up to date with new standards and new technologies.

Frank Schrever has a Bachelor of Applied Science from the University of Melbourne and has over 24 years' experience in the instrumentation and automation markets. He has managed a number of subsidiaries of multinational companies, establishing the Pilz subsidiary in Australia, now Australasia's leader in safe automation products and services. Mr Schrever sits on the AS 4024-1 (Australian Standard 'Safeguarding of Machinery') review committee (SF041), which is in the process of a major rewrite of this standard. He is also on the CFSE (Certified Functional Safety Expert) Governance Board providing international certification of safety engineers and regularly trains Worksafe and WorkCover inspectors on machine safety and AS 4024.

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