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Getting Lockout/Tagout Compliance Right

A top OSHA enforcement target, LOTO is a rule too often misunderstood by employers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) rules for industrial equipment are among the least understood and most-often violated by employers. And probably no rule is as costly if you get it wrong.

One of the most common misunderstandings arises over the fact that the LOTO standard does not cover normal production operations. Instead, the requirements apply to servicing and maintenance, or any production activity that requires an employee to remove or bypass a guard or other safety device.

It also applies if an employee is required to place any part of his or her body into an area on a machine or piece of equipment that is used to perform processing of materials. Otherwise, a different OSHA machine guarding standard requires employers to install and maintain appropriate guards for protecting employees who only operate the machines.

The LOTO and machine guarding standards tend to complement each other. One protects employees during normal production operations (guarding), while LOTO protects employees during servicing. Technically, OSHA cannot cite the same conduct as a concurrent violation of both standards.

The workers who service machinery risk serious injuries and even death, if what is termed “hazardous energy” is not properly controlled. The most common of these injuries are amputations or lacerations to body parts, in addition to electrocutions, burns and crushing/struck-by incidents.

OSHA says that craft workers, electricians, machine operators and laborers are among the three million workers who service equipment routinely and face the greatest risk. Workers injured from exposure to hazardous energy lose an average of 24 workdays for recuperation. Failure to control hazardous energy accounts for 10% of the serious accidents in most industries.

“In other words, amputation injuries—often because of failure to implement LOTO—occur frequently, and when they do occur, employers must proactively notify OSHA about them, and OSHA is very likely to respond to the report by conducting an enforcement inspection,” says attorney Eric J. Conn of the law firm Conn Maciel Carey LLP.

Since updated reporting requirements covering amputations became effective in 2015, more than 2,500 amputation injuries have been reported to federal OSHA each year. Reporting data also shows that in 2015, 2016 and 2017 OSHA responded to these reports by initiating an on-site inspection 59%, 49% and 47% of the time, respectively.

Low-Hanging Fruit

Each year OSHA publishes its list of the Top 10 most frequently cited standards. Although the ranking changes slightly from year to year, LOTO violations are always among the top citations. Last year—just like previous years—LOTO violations ranked in the Top 3 in general industry, and Top 5 overall. “Year in and year out, employers make the same mistakes and compliance officers scrutinize LOTO programs to the tune of thousands of individual LOTO violations, with 2,877 such violations issued in 2017 alone,” Conn notes.

In addition, the list has become a bit self-fulfilling, he observes. Because these standards are frequently cited, OSHA compliance officers specifically seek out the same violations of the LOTO standards during their inspections.

One of the main reasons LOTO violations remain high on OSHA’s frequently cited list is that for 12 years the agency has been implementing an enforcement National Emphasis Program (NEP) on amputations with a stated purpose of reducing machine and equipment hazards that cause amputations. The result is targeting of violations of OSHA’s Lockout/Tagout and Machine Guarding standards.

Last year, federal OSHA conducted more than 3,500 inspections under the Amputations NEP, constituting more than 10% of all federal OSHA inspections. It found about 7,800 violations and assessed more than $55 million in civil penalties. Employers in industries subject to the Amputations NEP should proactively audit their LOTO programs to find and fix deficiencies in both their written programs and in any gaps that exist between the written programs and what is being implemented, Conn recommends.

The cost of violations can be high, including qualifying as a target for OSHA’s dreaded Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). One way to join this circle of shame is to have committed two or more willful or repeat violations related to a “high-emphasis hazard,” which includes amputations. This one enforcement category is responsible for pulling in nearly 70% of all SVEP-designated employers.

If your firm enters this elite group, it can be the subject of inflammatory public press releases branding the employer as a “severe violator,” your company’s name added to a public log of Severe Violators, face mandatory follow-up inspections at the cited facility, and up to 10 inspections at sister facilities within the same corporate enterprise.

Consequences also include enhanced settlement terms, such as corporate-wide abatement, and requiring third-party audits. In addition, LOTO violations are among the most frequently used for OSHA criminal prosecutions. The criminal penalty for willful violations causing loss of human life is set at $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations.

Although relatively rare, criminal charges stemming from serious injury and death due to LOTO accidents top the list of those brought (sharing that spot with deaths resulting from improper trenching in construction). “The risk of criminal charges, including potentially charges against individual managers, is another fine reason that employers should focus resources on LOTO compliance,” Conn emphasizes.

What to Do, and What Not

Keep in mind that LOTO requirements apply only to servicing and maintenance, and production activities requiring removal or bypass of a guard or other safety device. This includes general industry workers who perform maintenance on the equipment, and who can be exposed to the unexpected startup (i.e., “re-energization”) of those machines.

Servicing and maintenance activities typically include tasks such as lubrication, cleaning, unjamming, making adjustments or tool changes. Typically, these activities are distinct from an employee’s normal—routine production—activities, Conn says. “Of course, if an individual is employed as a maintenance worker or repair-person, then performing servicing and maintenance is part of that employee’s normal activities.”

A common mistake employers make in applying the LOTO standard is to focus too narrowly on one type of hazardous energy, he adds. “Specifically, we have found that employers do a very good job of addressing hazardous electrical energy in their LOTO programs, but LOTO applies to every type of hazardous energy, including mechanical, thermal, hydraulic, pneumatic and gravity.”

That means employers must ensure employees who are performing servicing or maintenance on an industrial oven are protected from heat energy, that employees repairing a power press are protected from the gravity forces of a press in the upright position, and employees fixing a piece of air-powered equipment are safeguarded from an unanticipated release of air, Conn explains.

Inspections must be performed at least annually to ensure energy control procedures continue to be implemented properly, and affected employees are familiar with their responsibilities. Conn says another issue arises because many employers neglect to carry out LOTO inspections each year. However, employers more often fail to conduct them in the manner expected by the standard.

Once the periodic inspections are completed, the employer must ensure any deficiencies or deviations are corrected and certify, in writing, the inspection was performed. This certification must include the machine or equipment that was inspected, date of the inspection, employees included in the inspection and the name of the inspector.

“Unexpected Energization”

Confusion also surrounds the application of LOTO regarding “unexpected energization,” according to Conn. The OSHA standard does not apply if workers are not exposed to unexpected energization. That means that even while an employee is performing maintenance in the guts of a machine, LOTO is not required if employees would otherwise become aware the machine was about to energize.

For example, if the machine automatically sounds an alarm or flashes strobe lights for several seconds before a piece of equipment begins to operate, and there is no mechanical way for those warnings to be defeated, then it cannot be said that the energization was unexpected.

Conn points out that while many employers do a very good job of training those employees tasked with performing service and maintenance (called LOTO authorized employees), they often forget to train other employees covered by the standard. OSHA expects employers to provide training to employees who operate the equipment being serviced and to anyone else who may be present in areas where LOTO may be applied.

To satisfy the LOTO standard, he says training should ensure affected and other employees understand the purpose and function of the energy control program and procedures, know when the procedures are being used, and to be aware of the prohibition against attempting to restart a machine that is locked out.

Employers also often overlook the importance of training temporary workers before exposing them to workplace safety and health hazards. “If it is necessary to assign temporary workers to perform service or maintenance tasks, it is essential that those workers receive the same training given to permanent LOTO authorized employees,” Conn stresses.

He warns that, “Employers should never assume the staffing agency sending the temporary workers provided that training; instead, the host employer should trust and verify, or provide the training directly.” Even if the staffing agency provides training to temp workers, the host employer is presumed to have knowledge of unique, site-specific hazards, and is generally expected by OSHA to provide additional training specific to its workplace and equipment.

There is one more vital step employers need to take. To reduce the likelihood that OSHA will find fault with your company’s LOTO program, Conn urges employers to proactively audit every aspect of their LOTO policies, practices and procedures, and seek advice from an expert safety consultant or experienced OSHA defense attorney, and then act quickly to correct any program deficiencies.

David Sparkman is founding editor of ACWI Advance, and a contributing editor to EHS Today.

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