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Designers, manufacturers, importers, suppliers all face safety laws
About the author: Frank Schrever has 24 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) and regularly trains WorkCover inspectors on machine safety and AS 4024-1.
For years, employers have been in the spotlight when it comes to the enforcement of workplace safety, but as regulators begin to look further up the supply chain, designers, manufacturers and suppliers are coming under pressure.
The new focus on those 'upstream' of the workplace starts at a national level but will affect every local jurisdiction. The elimination of hazards at the design stage is one of just five priority areas identified in The National OHS Strategy 2002-2012, which was signed by the Australian state authorities. According to the matching Safe Design Action Plan timetable, the period from 2006 to 2012 will see the focus shift to enforcement. Key deliverables for the period are:
"National strategic enforcement plan for safe design implemented by jurisdictions, which informs priority areas requiring strategies to improve compliance, including specific education and information needs of duty holders."
Designers, manufacturers and suppliers all accountable
While the definition of "duty holders" varies between jurisdictions, there are many similarities: all persons who design, import, manufacture, install or supply plant have responsibilities under the legislation.
Take action now to avoid legal and economic penalties
Those upstream like designers and suppliers need to act immediately to protect themselves and their companies from costly legal action and meet new demands from customers.
WorkSafe Western Australia executive director, Nina Lyhne, said the various jurisdictions were already taking action to reinforce the duties of designers, manufacturers and suppliers.
"We're addressing the industries one by one," she said. "There's already an enforcement drive on that targets the supply of machinery into the agriculture sector and we're working with architects to make the construction industry safer."
"The approach is holistic. In construction for example, we expect architects to consider the safety of all phases of a building's life, from construction through to maintenance."
The precedents have already been set in court. While in her 2004 paper, A Responsive, Contextual and Networked Approach to Enforcing Safe Design of Plant, Liz Bluff points out that: "to date, Australian OHS regulators have, in the main, taken an ad hoc approach to enforcing upstream," there have been some landmark cases.
Among them is the 2003 prosecution of South Australian company, which was found guilty of failing to ensure the design of a machine was safe for use in a workplace. A Western Australian worker became a quadriplegic when he fell from a grape-picking machine while attempting to clear a blockage. A fine of $20,000 and $9900 in costs was imposed. The man's employer was also fined for failing to provide a safe workplace, and by that failure, causing a serious injury.
Interestingly, early indications from new industry research by Liz Bluff due out later this year shows that while many upstream duty holders remain unaware of their obligations, that the value of the relationships between employers and their suppliers is making a difference.
"Some companies are intrinsically committed to health and safety and have been following safe design principles for years but it's fair to say that there's not a high level of awareness at this stage," Bluff said.
"My research does suggest though that manufacturers are beginning to respond to customer demand - that is, employers are asking specifically whether equipment meets safety standards."
Why safe design is so important
Safety measures are most effective when included at the design stage rather than retrofitted at the workplace. Research by Australia's peak workplace safety authority, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC), highlighted the role of design in safety. Analysing the cause of fatalities from 2000 to 2002, the study found 95% of deaths involving machinery and fixed plant were due, at least in part, to design issues. Poor design was slated as the primary cause of 42% of workplace fatalities.
While the desirability of "safe design" is clear, its meaning is not quite so straightforward. The NOHSC definition comprises five core principles:
There is an understanding of the health and safety requirement of the design.
There is systematic hazard identification and risk evaluation.
Interaction occurs between people involved in the life cycle of the designed-product.
Contractual arrangements and procurement systems operate to minimise purchased OHS risk.
A sustainable designed-product results.
How to achieve safe design
Sharing the NOHSC view of safe design, Pilz Safe Automation finds the same principles apply whether designing a single machine or a line of plant.
Ideally, the hazards are designed out during the machinery's early development phases. Realistically though, a lot of imported equipment either does not comply with Australian safety standards or the machinery needs to be integrated into a larger system that demands its own design safeguards.
This means the modifying engineer joins the list of people with legal obligations that already includes the machine's designer, manufacturer, supplier and owner.
Because there is a plethora of local and international standards applying to safety, designers choosing the right safeguards and employers assessing the safety credentials of equipment offered by suppliers face a difficult challenge. In general, Pilz Safe Automation advises clients to use standard AS 4024.1 for the Safeguarding of Machinery as a yardstick. AS4024.1 is referenced in the National Standard for Plant that is the basis of state plant regulations and sets out a practical guide for engineers based on the risk of an injury, its severity and the ability of workers to avoid injury.
The solution for reasonably complex plant is often either an automated safety system integrated with the operations controller that monitors and controls the safety response across large production areas or a local safety controller.
Pilz programmable safety systems (PSS) or safety PLCs feed diagnostic and status information into the standard PLCs and/or information displays for swift diagnostics.
Rather than relying on workers to follow protocols, sensors check everything is safe before access is granted to hazardous zones. Sensors are also tested for functionality continuously and backed-up in the event of failure to provide the redundancy specified for Category 4 hazards under AS4024.1. If something does go wrong, the message goes directly to the operations PLC, so the fix is immediate and safety remains intact.
And what makes for truly safe design? The system must operate reliably and safely without relying on people doing the right thing every time - it is only human to make mistakes and we should design with that in mind.
The bottom line for designers, manufacturers, suppliers and installers is that if they are not already familiar with their obligations under the various Australian laws, now is the time to get advice from machine safety specialists.