Worker campaigns seek tough enforcement of machine guarding regulations
Picking amputated fingers out of equipment at her machining plant was part of Heather McFadden’s role as a first aid attendant. The resulting nightmares and seeing too many co-workers maimed from unguarded equipment prompted McFadden to drive five hours through a snowstorm last fall to meet with Ministry of Labour (MOL) officials about their proposed guidance notes on machine guarding for health and safety inspectors.
Other health and safety activists were quick to express their concern too since their reports also show workers continue to be injured and killed in machine guarding incidents in numbers too great to ignore.
By law, Ontario employers have general duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act
to inform their workers about and protect them from workplace hazards. More specific provisions for machine guarding are found in the Industrial, Mining, Construction, Window Cleaning and Health Care Regulations.
Sections 24 and 25 of the Industrial Regulations require machinery, transmission equipment and other devices to be equipped with a guard or other device that prevents access to moving parts or pinch points. Enforcement of these provisions has been the subject of recent debate.
In 1999 the Ministry of Labour launched a tough machine guarding enforcement campaign citing eight machine guarding related fatalities the previous year, three of which were young workers.
In 2002 though, the Ministry introduced proposed guidelines for administering these regulations. While no one dismisses the importance of and need for consistent interpretation and enforcement, many view the guidelines as undermining existing law.
“Workers’ lives would be saved if the Ministry of Labour focused on proper enforcement of existing regulations rather than creating loopholes for employers to avoid putting effective safeguards in place,” says Vern Edwards, health and safety director for the Ontario Federation of Labour.
At issue among other things is the guideline’s proposed use of risk management principles to identify and control machine guarding hazards; its use of distance as a barrier to safeguard workers; and allowances for awareness means, such as visual, audible and/or sensory signals with accompanying procedures and training, as methods of protecting workers from dangerous equipment.
Nancy Hutchison, national health and safety representative with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), reports machine guarding is still a ‘huge’ problem in their workplaces. After widely circulating the MOL’s document to their membership, the USWA District 6 health and safety committee drafted a strongly worded response and requested face-to-face meetings.
Other activists like McFadden, a member of USWA Local 9143, felt so strongly about the issue she made her own appeal to the Ministry. McFadden, a Workers Centre-qualified instructor, recently taught the Centre’s six-hour lockout program at a Wallaceburg area plant. “I was shocked,” she says, “walking through the plant I could see guards were missing from all kinds of equipment and only a few maintenance workers had locks to safely lockout machinery.” It takes her back to the late 1980s when her own workplace had few safely guarded machines prompting McFadden to call the Ministry of Labour. They issued 47 orders. McFadden is currently working fulltime at her workplace preparing work procedures, including those for machine guarding and lockout, for all areas of her plant.
Describing the Ministry’s draft document as “disturbing” the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), through meetings and in a written submission, raised concerns about the Ministry’s direction and further questioned its legality. “….risk management has no statutory or regulatory foundation….There is no legal authority for ‘managing’ risks. Rather, employers must remove them,” the CAW’s submission states. The CAW also questions the Ministry’s timing since the Canadian Standards Association Code of Practice for Machinery Z432-94 is currently being revised. The Standard is one the MOL relies upon in enforcing machine guarding issues.
Four years ago the CAW launched their own machine guarding and lockout campaign partly in response to the 12 CAW members killed in 1998, several of them, like Joel Murray, were the victims of lax machine guarding. Murray, 39, a 14-year employee at the General Motors components plant in St. Catharines, was killed while changing tools in a multi-head vertical lathe. Six switches for the perimeter gates around the machine, designed to prevent access to the moving loader, were bent and inoperable. GM pleaded guilty to one charge of failing to maintain an interlocking device in good condition and was fined $325,000, the largest fine in its 92-year history.
Despite this, five years after Murray’s death the campaign for safe machine guarding is ongoing. John Pula is a fulltime health and safety representative for CAW Local 199 in St. Catharines. Recently, in the same department where Murray worked, a supervisor authorized a worker to remove a danger tag from a machine even though a latching mechanism, a repair ordered by the Ministry, was inoperable.
After Murray’s death Pula says the joint committee, through a special energy control committee, began to identify and make recommendations on all machine guarding and lockout hazards throughout the facility. The committee has since been disbanned.
Even though some employers are content to issue fines to workers for in-plant guarding and lockout violations, Pula thinks a ‘common sense’ approach would prevent more injuries. This would involve a thorough investigation of the incident to discover the root causes. Then he says provide workers with hands-on training using workplace equipment because computer-based training just doesn’t measure up.
Others still, like Mario Cordeiro, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 175, have challenged the Ministry’s existing level of enforcement. He’s appealed an inspector’s order he believes doesn’t adequately protect workers from machine guarding hazards. Cordeiro, a worker certified health and safety representative at a chicken processing plant, says several workers have been injured on a processing line where workers are exposed to a moving chain conveyor.
Through subsequent inspections, guard railing was installed around the conveyor, along with an emergency stop. Since these measures were installed however Cordeiro says a worker’s hand was caught in the conveyor and injured. This served to further strengthen his resolve, “The only way to protect workers is to prevent access to moving parts altogether. Guard railing and emergency stops are not guards and we know they do not prevent access, workers are still getting hurt.”
The Steelworkers’ Hutchison draws this parallel. “Every year Canadians are killed at railway crossings. It’s a known hazard, the risk is if you get hit you’ll likely be killed. Yet despite flashing red lights and a barrier arm people continue to be killed because they still have access.”
Edwards says it’s all about eliminating risk. If machine hazards can’t be removed at the design stage he says then employers should be required to install devices like interlocks that prevent the machine from operating when a guard is not in place.
According to Ministry of Labour officials the guidance notes are still under review.
The Workers Health and Safety Centre offers machine guarding and lockout training programs. A Resource Lines
hazard bulletin on machine guarding is in development. For copies, contact a WHSC regional office or visit the publications section
of the Workers Centre web site.