By Aaron Conway, Contributor
Employees need to be protected at the workplace; safety equipment is installed throughout material handling facilities to protect them. Some of that safety equipment, like machine guarding or netting, is designed to be a more permanent solution—they are stationary, while employees do their work.
In many instances, employees are required to operate the safety equipment at work. Material handling can be a tiring job; workers are often required to lift heavy items, move heavy loads, and/or reach above or below to grab or place items. These movements frequently are repeated throughout the day. Repetitive motions can increase an employee’s risk for injury, especially in the muscles, joints and nerves; back pain and injury was one of the most cited reasons for missing work in the last few years. Constant motion and working on one’s feet can also contribute to fatigue, another factor for injury.
Keep it Simple
Given all of the risks to employees on the job, it’s important to ensure safety equipment is installed. But, before installation of any safety equipment, make sure it doesn’t create new hazards while guarding against others. In this regard, the famous quote “First, do no harm” applies to protective guarding in material handling. Safety equipment should not only protect workers, it should optimize performance; no extra effort or strain should be exerted to use the safety equipment. And, the process to use it should be as simple as possible.
As a manufacturer of guarding products, we are involved in many projects in which employees work with pallets of material that are loaded up to the elevated platform. They either pick this material from these pallets or move them to another location. In this type of application, workers are exposed to falls from ledges of the platform.
Fall protection is an area OSHA regulation 1910.23 for Guarding Floor and Wall Openings and Holes that requires that, on platforms 4ft or higher, a barrier be in place to guard every open-sided floor and that the barrier be in place when the opening is not in use for handling materials. ANSI MH 28.3-2009 in section 6.4.3 requires a barrier to be in place to secure pallet drop areas at levels of 3ft or higher at all times—even while the area is in use for handling materials.
It’s one thing to add safety equipment to meet OSHA or ANSI codes, but if that safety equipment is too cumbersome to operate, your employees won’t use it and will go unprotected.
Safety systems for fall protection—any protective guarding—should not depend on someone to make efforts to move, open or close the device. Instead, in the case of fall protection, safety systems should always be closed through the use of a dual-gate system, so when one side of the device is opened, the opposite side closes. This helps maintain a safe environment at all times.
Ergonomics and Safety Gates/Guarding
The term “ergonomic” doesn’t mean “do nothing;” employees will often need to operate safety systems—they just need to be easy and effortless. With the set-up for fall protection and dual-gate safety systems, the employee on the platform will raise or lower the gate depending on the work that they are doing, so the safety device must be easy and ergonomic to operate. Installing heavy systems that employees need to move throughout the day does solve the problem of fall protection, but it also creates a new risk if employees have to move the heavy device.
If the safety gates are manually operated, use counterbalanced gates so the gate closing on one side helps to raise the gate on the other side. With a well-designed, counterbalanced gate system, efforts to open and close the gates are minimal.
However, even with the counterbalanced gates, there are certain applications where the gates are custom widths or the operator needs to stand off to the side of the unit to operate. In such situations, add additional mechanics to aid the manual operation. In this case, designs may include a hydraulic damper that opens the gates; this allows the gates to be operated with a fingertip and controls the speed of the gate, so it opens and closes in a slow, controlled fashion.
Another option to ensure safety gates are ergonomic is to add power operation to the system. There are many different ways to configure power and technology, from push-button stations to remote-control operations, and power can be added to existing safety gates.
With power operation comes a few more points to keep in mind. First, you must ensure the motor has adequate cycle rating to accommodate the use of the safety gate. If your application is very repetitive, you’ll want to make sure it can provide speed as well. Size and placement of the motors can also be an issue, so it’s important to discuss before choosing a motor. Also, ensure the motor that you use is able to operate within any conditions that may be present in the facility. Motors are available in water- and explosion-proof options, and numerous controls, such as flashing lights and caution alarms, can be added.
These ergonomic practices should be followed when installing any safety device, not just fall protection systems. Make sure that the safety device is not creating new issues for your employees. Speak with a manufacturer who specializes in safety products for the material handling industry, who has knowledge in ergonomics and has provide solutions for similar applications to yours. Discuss the operation of the gate with the manufacturer to determine if the gate will be easy to operate and provide no extra wear on your employees. WMHS
Aaron Conway is President of Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc., which can be found at www.mezzgate.com.