I’ve been discussing the details of Lockout/Tagout programs in this space for the past few months (“Lockout/Tagout: The Devil is in the Details,” March 17, 2011; “Lockout/Tagout: When and How?” April 21, 2011; “Lockout/Tagout Mistakes Lead to Injury, Death,” May 19, 2011). But even when a company has LO/TO programs in place, workers may skip LO/TO procedures that seem too burdensome or inconvenient. Many supervisors compound the problem by recognizing the difficulty and overlooking LO/TO lapses.

Most lapses happen when the LO/TO location is inconvenient. For instance, suppose a worker must walk halfway across the plant to reach the electrical lockout location, and then go a considerable distance in another direction to lockout the pneumatics. How long will he continue to perform LO/TO?

One variation of this is the position of the LO/TO device itself. If the switch is too high, too low, or behind other equipment, chances are the worker will skip the LO/TO step. I recently investigated an accident that would not have happened if a switch had been in the “off” position. The worker involved was a short woman who had to drag a chair over to the switch in order to reach it. It didn’t take long for her to neglect the inconvenient LO/TO procedure and get injured as a result.

Workers who have multiple, varied duties often find LO/TO cumbersome and decide to ignore it. Consider a forklift or front-end-loader operator also tasked with loading a machine. When the machine jams during loading, he must unjam it. This means getting off the vehicle, finding the LO/TO locations, performing LO/TO, unjamming the machine, reversing the LO/TO provisions, and remounting the vehicle. It is much easier and faster to ignore LO/TO, especially if supervisors are not diligently enforcing it. Then, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously injured.

When part of a machine-operator’s duties include cleaning up around the machine during slow times, LO/TO can also suffer. This most often happens around conveyors, in my experience. Conveyors are often allowed to continue running during slack times because the switches that control them sit some distance away. So the operator lets the conveyor run while he or she cleans around it despite the risk of getting caught in the equipment by approaching nip or pinch points.

Temporary workers also face safety risks from ignoring LO/TO. In most cases, supervisors skip most of the safety training for workers who are only expected to work in a plant for a short time. Instead, temps are told to call experienced workers for help with LO/TO if problems arise. If they can’t find the experienced people in a timely manner when they need help, they decide to correct the problems themselves without following proper LO/TO procedures.

It’s not enough to have LO/TO provisions for industrial equipment or to have documented procedures. Companies need, at minimum, a yearly review that looks for inconveniences, productivity pressures, and insufficient training that can cause workers to ignore LO/TO and other safety measures. If a company doesn’t have its own qualified safety or human-factors experts, as many do not, it should regularly consult a qualified third party to ensure workers aren’t unnecessarily exposing themselves and coworkers to hazards. MD

Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at lannyb@comcast.net.

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