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Stay on Top of Conveyor Safety

Contributed by: MHI’s Conveyors & Sortation Systems (CSS) Industry Group

Performing regular risk assessments of conveyors will help identify hazardous conditions. © navintar – stock.adobe.com

One of the essential pieces of equipment in your facility, conveyors come with their share of safety hazards. Here’s how to prevent them.

Back in 1908, a little-known inventor named Hymle Goddard patented the first conveyor. As often happens in the annals of history, however, he didn’t receive the glory for his efforts. Instead, it was Henry Ford who put conveyors on the map, using them a few years later in his auto assembly plant. Ford did contribute to the machinery, however, by working to improve their abilities.

Conveyors have come a long, long way since those early days. Today’s conveyors are automated, smart and customizable. They are essential in any warehouse operation, playing a role from receiving on through to shipping. They are not risk-free, however.

Conveyor safety hazards are varied, and the most common type is contact with the moving belt or other parts. These can include abrasions, pinches and cuts that result from inattentive operations. Other hazards are less direct and include the less frequent flying object tossed from the machine.

Despite all their advancements, safety is always going to be a factor when using conveyors in warehousing operations. That, too, has improved substantially, but staying up-to-date and on top of conveyor safety should always be a priority.

Safety Standards

As with all industrial equipment, the manufacturers of conveyors must follow safety standards, for a variety of reasons. “They exist to provide consistent guidelines and best practices,” says Chris Woller, Safety Product Manager at Beckhoff Automation. “When it comes to conveyors, there were many parties with skin in the game who took part in designing the standards.”

The committee that created the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) conveyor safety standard includes representatives from many related aspects of conveyor manufacturing.  The result is the ASME B20.1 safety standard.

Published in 2021, this is the latest set of guidelines that addressees all aspects of conveyor building.  “The committee included machine builders, component manufacturers, engineers and consultants, among others who contribute to the building of conveyors,” says Woller. “It’s a diverse set of backgrounds with a variety of priorities.”

Jeremy McCullough, Senior Product/Application Engineer of Corporate Electronics for SEW Eurodrive, says that setting standards allows makers to come to a consensus. “If you’re designing a machine, they give you something to look at,” he says. “It means you’re not out there on your own.”

It also means that if ever there is an incident with equipment, the manufacturer can point to its adherence to the set standards in building the conveyor. “Safety in conveyor manufacturing can be a scary topic for some if they are unfamiliar with the process of designing safe equipment, and the standards are beneficial in making that less so,” McCullough adds.

While the ASME standards address the making of conveyors, they are somewhat limited in scope compared to European counterparts. “In Europe, the laws dictate how manufacturers build equipment and they’re ultimately held responsible for safety,” explains Woller. “Here, the onus for safe operation of conveyors falls to the end users and the standards guide users and manufacturers to identified hazards.”

This is where OSHA comes into the picture. OSHA has two standards specific to conveyors, its 1910 standard applying to general industry. “Employers want to make sure their equipment is safe to operate,” says McCullough. “They’re not always exposed to the design considerations, so safe operation is the portion companies must understand.”

End user considerations

It’s easy, as a company, to get passive about the equipment you’re buying and its subsequent safe operations. But it’s essential to stay informed about the standards and regulations that apply to the operation of your equipment.

You also want to stay on top of its condition. One way to do this is to perform regular risk assessments of your conveyors. “If you have a good relationship with your OEM or integrator, ask them if they are willing to evaluate your equipment to identify hazards and associated risks,” says McCullough. “You can also form a safety team within your organization and evaluate new equipment to determine what preventative steps you should take to keep it from becoming a hazard.”

This could lead to the addition of safety equipment, such as guarding, emergency stops, light curtains and signage. “After you’ve put the risk reduction measures in place, assess what other risks might remain, validate it and document it,” says Woller. “Risk reduction measures are a team process, and you need management buy in, safety experts, and the staff that will be using the conveyors to be part of this process.”

In general, the larger the facility, the better the organization is at putting in place the right safety teams, risk assessments and adherence to safety standards. But conveyor safety should be an issue for every operation, no matter how big or small. “The standards come with a price tag,” says McCullough. “But if you look at the value they bring and the prevention they offer, they’re a good investment.” WMHS

About CSS

The Material Handling Institute’s (MHI) Conveyors & Sortation Systems (CSS) Industry Group is advancing the material handling industry through the optimal use of conveyors and sortation systems for the benefit of its members and their end users (www.mhi.org/conv).

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