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Safety's bottom line

Like motherhood and apple pie, safety is something that most U.S. manufacturers, if asked, would likely declare to be sacrosanct within their plants.

Unfortunately, however, when it comes to automation safety systems, not all manufacturers necessarily put their money—or their priorities—where their mouths are.

“I’ve been at companies where they have robots running and they don’t even have cell guarding. They don’t have a fence or even a rope going around the robot work area, and they think that it’s perfectly fine,” says Tina Hull, a U.S. application engineer for Pilz Automation Safety LP (www.pilzusa.com), a German-based automation safety controls and systems vendor. In reality, Hull says, such a situation is more like “a death trap.”

Death triggers

Unlike much of Europe and parts of Canada, where laws require safety inspections of automation systems before they can be used in production, compliance with most safety standards is not a legal requirement in the United States. “Here in the U.S., our safety standards are usually not enforced unless there’s some type of severe injury or a death,” says Hull. Most U.S. companies use safety standards as guidelines, she says, but safety is not always their top priority.

Some U.S. manufacturers may fall short on automation safety due to a lack of knowledge about safety equipment and systems available. But for others, the issue is economic; they are unwilling to pay the added up-front costs associated with safety.

By some estimates, the use of safety relays and other safety-related components can add from 2 percent to 5 percent to the cost of an automation system. The premium for some individual components can be much higher. According to one maker of programmable logic controllers (PLCs), for example, the redundancy and self-monitoring circuitry added for fail-safe operation in a Safety PLC can boost the price by 25 percent to 30 percent, when compared to standard PLC pricing.

In a paper presented at the International Robots & Vision Show in early June in Rosemont, Ill., however, and in a subsequent interview with Automation World, Hull makes the case that the added investment in safety can often quickly pay for itself. Among the bottom-line benefits of safety, she cites the potential for reduced worker compensation rates, less lost time due to injuries and a lower probability of federal inspections and fines by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), among others.

OSHA inspectors can appear at any time, but they are more likely to show up at plants that have a large number of injuries, or if a serious injury or death occurs. OSHA fines for serious safety violations can amount to $7,000 each on first occurrences and up to $70,000 each for willful or repeated violations, Hull notes. When a death or injury occurs, OSHA typically mandates a shutdown of the system —and sometimes the plant—until the necessary safety corrections are put into place, she adds.

No fear

Safety in automation systems can not only enable manufacturers to avoid profit-draining costs, but it can also contribute to increased production rates, Hull contends. Reliable safety systems can boost employee morale, which has been known to increase production, she says. And when employees have the confidence to perform their jobs without the fear of being hurt, they can often get more work done. Hull cites one example of a company that saw increased worker production rates when an improved safety system was installed, leading to additional net income of $4 million annually at each of several plants.

While there are still manufacturers out there that don’t pay enough attention to automation safety issues, Hull says the situation is improving. “I definitely see a bigger trend in companies being more aware of safety, and taking more initiatives to have safe facilities for their workers.”

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