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Forensic Clues: Machine Guarding Accidents - Who is Responsible?

As Originally published by M.A.S.E. LLC, August-September 2013.

By: John Ryan
Tel: (855) 627-6273
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Machine guarding accidents cause many accidents and fatalities every year, despite the availability of modern safety technology. In the years from 1992-1996, one study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported annual injuries due to workers being caught in machinery of 34,350. In 2012 contact with an object or equipment had the second highest workplace fatality rate at 712 deaths.

At Mechanical and Safety Engineering (MASE) we investigate many industrial machinery accidents. Identifying the cause of an accident is of utmost importance. Attorneys who are approached by a client who is injured by a machine would be well advised to determine the cause of the accident. This will determine if there is any potential for damage recovery.

What's the Cause?

Determining the cause of your client's accident will normally require the help of a professional. At MASE, we take whatever information is available, including witness statements, hospital and doctor reports, injured party statements, accident reports, photographs, and citations. A site inspection of the machine is highly recommended. Normally based on the injuries and witness statements a basic idea of what occurred can be developed.

Typically an industrial machinery accident is due to lack of proper guarding. There are stringent standards covering most machinery that requires the most effective safeguards available. Sometimes machines are so old that they predate these standards. Then it becomes a discussion of the responsibility of manufacturers to retrofit their equipment with modern, more effective safeguards as they become available. The employer can also be held responsible for these older machines, because even though at the time of machine manufacture it may have been state of the art, employers are required to provide a safe workplace, which includes protecting them from machinery hazards, using modern safety techniques that have been developed since the machine was built. The machine may have had proper safeguards on it at one point, but they were removed or bypassed. The worker may have temporarily disabled safeguards, or otherwise performed an act that led to his own injury.

What is the State of the Machine Now?

Determining the state of the machine at different points in its history is critical to establishing liability. One of these is determining the state of the machine presently. This is typically accomplished with an inspection of the machine. This is critical to establish to determine if the machine currently meets appropriate safeguarding standards. A machine inspection will also show if there may have been safeguards on the machine at a previous time by looking for unused holes in the machine frame, paint pattern inconsistencies, as well establish if the facility is utilizing proper lock out / tag out procedures.

What is the State of the Machine at the time of the Accident?

Determining the state of the machine at the time of the accident is the most critical piece of information to gather. If the accident just occurred, an inspection of the machine will show if there are appropriate safeguards on the machine, and if there is any signs of tampering with or removal of safety devices.

If the accident occurred a significant amount of time ago, the best source of information is often photographs taken immediately after the accident. These may come from rescue organizations, police, co-workers, or the facility itself. Photographs can establish the state of the machine at the time of the accident. Without photographs, witness statements must be relied on. The victim or his/her co-workers may be able to tell you accurately what, if any, safeguards were on the machine at the time of the accident. There may be written accident reports filled out by the facility, OSHA, unions, police, or other organizations.

What is the State of the Machine at the Time of Manufacture?

Determining the state of the machine at the time of manufacture is critical to determine if the manufacturer initially provided the proper safeguards and warnings to the machine. This can be difficult to obtain, but the best places to look include operator's manuals, service manuals,

Who is Responsible?

If the machine was not produced with adequate or appropriate safeguarding at the time of manufacture, the manufacturer of the machine can be held liable for the damages to an injured worker. If the manufacturer provided the necessary and available safeguards, the responsibility will usually lay elsewhere. Expensive machinery can be bought and sold numerous times over the years. Breaking the machine down and reassembling it elsewhere can result in lost guards. If photographs of the machine show that the machine did not have adequate safeguards on at the time of the accident, but the machine was provided with guarding from the manufacturer, then the guards were removed or altered. The employer has responsibility under OSHA to make sure machines are guarded properly, but employers are usually protected through workers compensation. Sometimes guard removal can be traced to a single person, but usually it will be unknown why guards are missing. High production rate demands can result in removing safety devices in an attempt to increase production, either by management, or by individual workers.

Cleaning Machines

We often see accidents occur during cleaning operations. Cleaning of some machines requires cycling the machine, performing cleaning, the cycling the machine again. Short-cuts to this laborious process are frequent, and can result in serious accidents. Manufacturers should design machines with necessary cleaning operations in mind, and provide adequate safeguards, interlocks, jog controls, or other methods to minimize risk during these operations.

John L. Ryan, BSME, P.E. is a Mechanical Engineer who provides general Mechanical and Structural Engineering expertise. Mechanical and Safety Engineering (MASE) provides full service analysis and accident reconstruction of products involved in accidents. Mr. Ryan's services have been requested for attorneys and insurance companies needing forensic engineering expert witness testimony to determine whether machinery and products involved in injury cases were adequately designed or whether they have a Design, Manufacturing, or Material Defect. All products are lab-tested on site to determine adherence to industry standards and engineering design protocol. Alternate preventative designs are developed when none exist commercially.

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