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5 Ways to Improve Industrial Safety Through Signage

ATEX_Sifter_GERICKE.jpg Image courtesy of Gericke USA
An easy, inexpensive way to prevent potentially deadly injuries is to shine a spotlight on machinery signage and labeling.

The current spotlight on personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace and the corresponding investment in the latest respirators, face shields, harnesses, and other safety gear are proving essential for instilling confidence in today's workforce.

While this attention is certain to minimize the extent, impact, and level of damage incurred in the event of workplace accidents, even the finest dust filtration mask and the hardest hat cannot actually prevent accidents from happening. PPE provides worker protection after the fact.   A relatively easy and inexpensive way to prevent potentially deadly injuries from occurring that many owners, plant managers, and others responsible for industrial safety and hygiene may be overlooking is to shine a spotlight on machinery signage and labeling. Enforced under OSHA Standard Number 1910.145 as specifications for accident prevention signs and tags, clear, descriptive, multi-lingual labeling of machinery and equipment and their associated pipes, electrical conduits, and ductwork will directly contribute to accident prevention, promote OSHA compliance and help reduce worker's compensation claims and costs. In fact, OSHA considers poor and missing emergency signage a serious safety violation. Following are five considerations for improving industrial safety through signage:  

Hot Temperatures
While a curious child may learn the meaning of too hot by touching a stove, this is not an appropriate method of training in an industrial environment where equipment operating temperatures commonly approach 1,000°F and a single, inadvertent touch can cause permanent scarring. Workers running ovens, dryers, and other heating equipment typically understand and respect the heat and manufacturers typically provide proper warning signage. But many other types of process equipment generate heat internally as a byproduct of their operation without significantly warming the ambient air or the machine housing. Consider a milling machine grinding dry material into an ultra-fine powder. The internal assembly may spin at very high RPMs 24/7. When the time comes for cleaning, it is easy for a worker focused on quickly returning the line to production to forget the interior has become dangerously hot and get burned. Proper, red warning labels affixed directly on the milling machine provide important reminders at just the right time to alter behavior. The same concept may be applied to mixers fitted with heating jackets and to other equipment that workers may not always associate with potentially dangerous temperatures. In cases where a repair is needed, the technician performing the repair may not be responsible for its day to day operation and a visual reminder may signify the difference between a quick repair and a workplace injury.

Pinch Points
Whenever two objects are joined in a way that can catch a part of the body, it's called a pinch point. These pinch points invite thousands of painful injuries per year and may include permanent damage such as lost fingers and hands. In a powder processing facility, common pinch points include hatches, covers and doors on mixers, tanks, and bag-tipping stations, plus conveyor rollers, bag sealers, and palletizers. The ubiquitous, mundane, and simplistic nature of manually opening and closing a door several times per day contributes to the complacency among workers that leads to injury. Proper signage and labeling on the machinery at the pinch point helps bring this risk to the top of mind at precisely the time it may avoid an injury.

Electrical Safety Hazards
It is common to see bold red and black signage on or near powered machinery and equipment, alerting workers to high voltages present and the danger of electrical safety hazards. And given the relatively large number of workplace injuries and fatalities due to electrocution – 4,000 injuries and 300 deaths annually, according to the CDC – most workers know to exercise care in the vicinity of electrical safety hazards. What many overlook, however, is the importance of labeling both the interior of the electrical panel and the corresponding cables as they wind their way through the facility to each machine. Proper labels need to not only use an appropriate color scheme to capture attention but they also need to provide key information such as the voltage and to which machine the cable is powering. In the event the machine needs to be shut down for maintenance, there can be no margin for error in determining the correct cable and panel for engaging the lockout – tagout. In addition, when repairs or upgrades are performed, proper electrical labeling helps ensure compatible parts are used by eliminating guesswork. Using replacement parts designed to handle less voltage than being drawn may quickly overload and damage the part while risking greater damage due to fire. Failure to legibly mark circuit breakers is an OSHA serious safety violation.

The significance of communicating the importance of electrical hazards to workers has only increased due to the global nature of manufacturing. Consider a multi-national company based in the US that acquires a company based in India. The company may consolidate plants and ship its Indian equipment to a plant in America, or it may expand its Indian plant with new equipment from America, for example, or it may send equipment from both India and America to an entirely new plant. The motors and other electrical components specified for American machinery are typically designed to run at 230/380/460 voltage, yet those specified in most Asian machines are designed to run at 230/460. This renders Asian machines a danger to run in America and vice versa unless the circuits are switched and made compatible. Since this is not common knowledge among maintenance technicians worldwide, labeling the voltage requirements on each machine helps ensure vital safety information is visible directly at the site before startup.       

Commissioning
Anytime is the right time to assess and address safety signage on and around machinery. But the ideal time is at commissioning when trained engineers are verifying the design and manufacturing meet the required specifications and that the installation has been completed effectively. This is a time when each system can be safely exposed and easily accessed for quick and accurate placement of appropriate signs and labels. Once installed and in operation, there may be no easy way to access the proper location to add signage after the fact. Commissioning batch mixers, for example, offers a singular opportunity to verify and mark the rotation direction of the mixing tool and/or paddles since the direction becomes difficult to verify once operational. If the mixer is run in the opposing direction, the error will typically surface as degraded product quality. It is far easier and less costly to set proper labeling marking the rotation direction on the mixer, the motor, and even on the axle. Similar issues apply to sifters, lump breakers, and other rotating equipment.  After the machinery is up and running, proper labeling installed at startup helps new workers understand the system and manage preventative maintenance safely and effectively in the event of personnel changes.

Safety Signage Supports Productivity 
Inspectors from OSHA, USDA, and other organizations tour a large number of different facilities and do not always know exactly what specific type of machinery is under review. An array of proper, OSHA-compliant signage creates a clean, professional look that instills confidence during inspection that the plant is well managed with intent to comply with regulations in all facets of the operation. It also presents a similar, safety first image to employees that conveys caring and concern for the workforce.

Conclusion
From a quick review of hundreds of our process equipment orders, I feel safe stating there seems to be a correlation between management attention to proper machine safety labeling and machine uptime. These companies appear to buy fewer spare parts, need less engineering support, and experience less unplanned downtime. Of course, it's likely that managers who pay close attention to labeling individual motors and electrical conduits are also more likely to attach the proper manuals and documentation to their machines, keep clean maintenance logs, and train their workers on the proper use of the machine. Taken together, all of these contribute to a safe, productive workplace.

Rene Meira Medina is executive VP, Gericke USA. For more information, email rene.medina@gerickegroup.com, call 855-888-0088, or visit gerickegroup.com.

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