Using Machine Safety to Improve the Results of Your EHS Program

April 1, 2011
Shifting focus from avoiding negative outcomes to achieving positive results will improve safety.

Most organizations use two fundamental metrics to measure the success of their environmental health and safety (EHS) program: regulatory compliance and reduced incident rates. While these certainly are valid and important performance indicators, they only measure past results. Moreover, the organization's primary focus is on avoiding negative consequences rather than striving for greater performance by improving safety, productivity, competitiveness, sustainability and overall profitability.

That's not surprising, considering industry historically has viewed safety practices as punitive actions or compliance activities rather than as opportunities to deliver value or gain a competitive edge.

It also is becoming easier to understand why safety should be considered a sustainable business imperative, much like product quality, since a single significant failure dramatically can change customer and investor perceptions of your brand.

Increasingly, company stakeholders are realizing that automation technology, including machine safety equipment, can deliver positive, business-enhancing benefits for EHS programs while mitigating risks and reducing costs.

Machine risk mitigation has a recognized hierarchy:

  • Eliminate the risk — Design the hazard out to reduce unnecessary motion and exposure.

  • Physical barriers — If the hazard cannot be designed out, install fixed guarding to provide a barrier to the hazard and reduce exposure.

  • Monitored access — If a physical barrier cannot be installed, then monitor access to the hazard to prevent unsafe conditions from occurring.

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) — If exposure to unsafe conditions cannot be prevented, then personnel must be protected from injury.

  • Training and procedures — If personnel cannot be protected from exposure and potential injury, then administrative controls regarding work procedures must be in place to minimize the potential for injury.

EHS professionals often initiate hazard assessments to look for potential points of exposure beyond the administrative controls. For best results, EHS staff should partner with others in the organization or with third-party machine safety specialists to implement solutions that best address the identified hazards.

In many cases, the application of automation technologies improves organizational behavior and serves as a bridge to other practices to help boost productivity, increase efficiency and improve overall safety, sustainability and business performance. This includes financial returns, such as from improved manufacturing output, energy savings and reduced waste, beyond the benefits of reducing costs associated with accidents, medical expenses and regulatory noncompliance.

Recent research shows that manufacturers with mature, executive-endorsed EHS programs see benefits that go well beyond compliance, according to Matthew Littlefield, senior research analyst at Aberdeen Group. The analyst group surveyed nearly 200 organizations and found on average, these organizations enjoy a 4 percent higher OEE, a 71 percent lower injury frequency rate and 50 percent larger reduction in energy use.

“Clearly, these organizations see EHS as a strategic enabler of operational improvement and support these programs with automated and integrated tools that enable more than just compliance management, but also risk management, performance visibility, analytics and reporting,” Littlefield said.


At the plant floor level, many of today's assembly and machine operating stations employ technology and safety practices that focus more on reaction than anticipation. In worst cases, some applications were developed with a blind eye toward safety — relying only on the operator and maintenance technician to be alert to hazards. Others were deployed as an afterthought — in response to an accident or new industry standards.

Also contributing to this reactive approach were the limitations of safety technology, which often required machines to come to a full stop to be considered in a “safe state” for repair, maintenance or anytime operator access was needed. Because this downtime due to a safety event decreased productivity, operators and maintenance personnel often bypassed safety systems, risking their own safety in the process. Still other systems were developed with safety in mind, but were not implemented properly, causing the equipment's productivity level to be impacted.

Such risks no longer are acceptable or necessary, thanks in large part to progressive, enforced global standards; significant technological innovation; and risk management. When deployed properly using a proactive approach, today's safety automation devices allow the best of all worlds — a safer environment for employees, reduced environmental impact, better processes and optimized productivity.


Though safety standards have continued to change throughout manufacturing history, the most recent wave of revisions improves the way machine safety systems will be designed. These commonly are referred to as “functional safety standards.” A key difference in these global standards is they add a time element to the “performance level” rating of safety devices. Known as the probability of dangerous failure, this time element adds a confidence factor that the safety device will perform well into the future.

A fundamental shift in two essential and related areas has helped make this new functional approach to safety possible. The first is major developments in physical guarding and safeguarding control technologies (i.e. light curtains, safety relays) — most notably the advent of new microprocessor-based technologies in lieu of electromechanical or hardwired control. The second is the evolution of global safety standards to allow these new electronic technologies to be incorporated into industrial safety systems.

This holistic approach can lead to opportunities for designing out hazards where possible, based on detailed risk assessments in the early stages of any new machine installation or upgrade. It also can help speed maintenance processes.

For example, safety guidelines historically required employees to perform lockout/tagout on all sources of energy from a machine in order to gain access to the machine to perform maintenance operations. Plant maintenance personnel often bypassed lockout/tagout procedures to avoid time delays.

With changes to safety standards and the advent of new, more sophisticated safety controls, production line managers can create safety zones in applications that can be managed independently based on the specific operational or maintenance task at hand. This design flexibility helps reduce the time required for plant personnel to restore the machine to working order after performing the necessary maintenance, which improves productivity. It also reduces operator motivation to bypass the safety system, improving plant safety.


Where hazards cannot be removed through design, plant safety or maintenance, personnel typically will install a fixed physical barrier — such as a plastic or metal shield — that protects users from the hazard. When users require frequent access to the hazardous area, maintenance staff will install non-fixed guards, such as removable, swinging or sliding doors. In areas where non-fixed guards are impractical, safety personnel can employ guarding solutions that monitor the presence of the operator — rather than the status of the gate.

While relays and other devices prove effective, many safety applications require a level of programming or more sophisticated safety logic that is best met through a safety controller. Safety controllers offer significant benefits in multistep shutdown or ramp-down sequences, such as transfer line applications, because of their excellent reliability and ease of use compared to hard-wired relays. An integrated safety controller is an ideal solution for any discrete application requiring advanced functionality, such as zone control.

With properly designed safety controls and guarding, designers reduce access time for maintenance tasks while helping improve machine safety and efficiency.


Risk assessments give safety managers a method for identifying specific hazards on a machine or work station; quantify the risk these hazards present to employees; and evaluate practices that can help mitigate the risk. In addition, the process will specify the most appropriate safety circuit architecture required to mitigate the initial risk rating determined by the assessment team.

An effective risk identification process analyzes employee activities and the risks they have through defined work practices, or they could bring to the facility due to limited training or experience. Risk analysis also should identify risks inherent to workers, plant equipment or the environment through potential environmental exposure or limited safety protection measures in the event of improper installation or failures of the equipment.

The magnitude of potential loss is reviewed from the most severe scenario, (i.e. a major injury and machine downtime), to the least severe scenarios, such as at-risk behavior and lower production levels. From there, the probability of a given loss occurring is calculated.

Once the risks are fully defined and understood, they must be designed out or mitigated to the greatest extent possible. Risk mitigation measures physically improve the machine and production process to reduce the potential of personal injury, environmental or property damage. A variety of effective measures can accomplish risk mitigation. For example, using safeguarding equipment — such as light curtains, safety relays and cable pull switches — helps reduce risk to employees.

Using a formal risk assessment process also provides the benefit of documenting any identified risks, the protective measures and safeguards implemented to mitigate them and the residual risk remaining once these mitigation methods are deployed. Illustrating due diligence and good engineering practices in providing a safer work environment potentially can help a company lower its risks of litigation in the event of an incident.

After implementing and documenting the process, managers need to provide appropriate training and supervision. This is critical to make sure operators understand all pertinent safety measures, including proper use of personal protective equipment and how to effectively operate the machines and safely perform their work. It also includes clearly defining and delineating their tasks and processes from those tasks to be implemented by specialized and trained maintenance personnel.

Measuring the effectiveness of training is a process, not an event. Ongoing activities, including behavior-based observations and simple performance evaluations, are effective tools in helping to confirm the effectiveness of training. The result of effective behavior changes and appropriate safeguarding designs is a reduction in incident rates and the associated cost impacts of them to the corporation.

By understanding the elements of risk management and the methodology of a safety investment analysis, EHS professionals can shift the metrics and focal point of how management views their job performance from a negative focus (incident reports) to a positive measure, such as cost savings, increased productivity and improved morale. This helps turn the weekly conversations between the EHS professional and their managers into a more constructive, upbeat discussion, rather than a run-down of the latest negative outcomes.

By implementing a holistic approach to safety program design — which emphasizes proven automation technology, trained personnel and ongoing risk assessment, all working together — companies have a best practice template to help achieve the highest level of safety possible.

Steve Ludwig is safety programs manager at Rockwell Automation, where he is responsible for the development of global communication and customer programs supporting Rockwell Automation's safety portfolio. Prior to his current position, Ludwig was a solution architect in Rockwell Automation's Cincinnati sales office, where he worked with a wide range of customers to deploy effective automation strategies. In his 29-year career, Ludwig has held positions of increasing responsibility in the military, engineering, sales and marketing. He can be reached at 440-646-4013 or [email protected].

Majo Thurman is the director of environmental, health and safety. In this position, she is responsible for the Rockwell Automation environmental and safety management systems, performance and global compliance. Thurman began her career with Rockwell Automation as an environmental engineer supporting the Milwaukee manufacturing location. In 1996, she was among the initial team that created the headquarters environmental and safety organization and has held positions of increasing responsibility within HQ environmental and safety. She can be reached at 414-382-3640 or [email protected].

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