Lockout and tagout procedures are widely implemented and used in several Australian companies, especially large mining companies and some power stations. However, there are many workers who still put their lives or health at risk in their daily work by not using lockout systems or devices.
Most people will agree that it is necessary to turn off or isolate an electrical circuit from the electrical supply system before working on it. Dangerous machinery usually gets ‘shut down’ during maintenance and cleaning. It is also important to close a valve to a high pressure steam pipe, or hydraulic pressure system, before working on the pipe or associated equipment.
Accidents are caused when the electrical switch or the isolation valve is turned off, but not locked in the proper position, so it can unintentionally be turned on by someone unaware of the work situation in progress.
A lockout system in its basic form involves simply attaching a padlock to, for example, a circuit breaker, fuse or valve to prevent it from being operated.
Both employees and employers however, give a wide range of excuses as to why lockout devices or danger tags are not being used such as the hassle of using it, not having the right devices or having a false sense of safety from not having had accidents earlier. Employers are wary of the costs involved in using lockout devices or are simply not aware of available solutions. Often there are no workplace lockout procedures in place to follow or guide workers.
Many of the reasons or excuses for not using lockouts are very similar to the excuses used years ago, when safety glasses and hardhats were being introduced compulsorily in most workplaces. The same hardhats and safety glasses are now part of today’s workplace safety practices.
A culture or ‘attitude’ of lockout/tagout use on all energy sources must therefore be encouraged in all Australian workplaces.
Accidents do happen – but don’t have to…
Energy sources include electrical circuit breakers, fuses, high pressure valves and hydraulic systems. Potential hazards also include booms or machine parts that will move when pressure is lost, or brake systems that will release if power is removed. Every year many workers in Australia are either killed or seriously injured, resulting from preventable accidents caused by energy sources, including stored energy.
In 2005, a maintenance worker was killed when a large roller on a paper-making machine fell on him; this could probably have been prevented by simple use of wooden blocks to take the weight.
In 2006, an employee suffered fatal crush injuries while cleaning the inside of a large mixer, when it was accidently activated during the cleaning process. A simple locking device could have prevented this accident. According to court records most employees knew that the task was unsafe.
Where electrical isolation was confirmed through unsafe methods just a few years back, an electrical contractor today would insist on placing their personal lock and danger tag on the main isolation switch to the equipment in question, and do the correct tests before starting any work.
The equipment is available
Lockout and tagout equipment is readily and easily available today, and include a wide variety of lockout devices that enable workers to place padlocks on circuit breakers, fuses, plugs, hoses, valves and machine parts. Not only available as standard items, these lockout devices are also easy to use and cheap to buy, when compared to the cost of a life or a bad injury.
Lockout devices and danger/warning tags are being produced and marketed by several companies. Cirlock is an Australian company that produces most of its lockout parts in Australia. Lockout equipment can be obtained from most electrical and industrial wholesalers as well as a large number of safety shops, and even online.
What to do about it.
Legislation can be used to encourage companies and workers to implement safer work practices. Current legislation put in place by some states in regards to lockout use is very vague and needs to be ‘toughened up’ to have real impact. Queensland seems to be on the forefront with an actual requirement that lockouts must be used at least in the electrical and mining industry.
The use of lockout/tagout practices should be part of all apprenticeships and technical training courses.
This article is written by Erik Larsen, who has been involved in the development and implementation of lockout systems across Australia since 1992.