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Health and Safety with Regards to Buttons and Switches


A control panel featuring many buttons and switches on it

The dawn of the electrical age not only brought about a wide range of machinery and equipment to both assist and speed up production processes and other business operations, but with it came a multitude of buttons, switches, levers and control panels to operate this new-fangled machinery.

Whilst voice control functions are still a bit in their infancy, with programmes still a bit too prone to misunderstandings and errors to be relied upon when safety in concerned, electronic machinery still relies primarily upon controls that require a person to press a button, flick a switch or pull a lever.

With regards to health and safety, a number of issues need to be kept in mind by those using the equipment, some of which are talked about below. Those designing and making the controls for this machinery also have a significant part to play as well. Even a seemingly small detail, such as the exact position of an emergency stop button for example, could make all the difference between a serious incident occurring or not.

Emergency Stop Button

One is the presence of one or more emergency stop buttons. In the event of an incident, hitting an emergency stop button can bring the machinery to an abrupt halt, and can prevent, or at least limit, the damage to a person's health and well-being. Examples include people getting clothing or hair caught up in moving parts, or machinery where the pressure is building up and threatening to explode if it continued.

These emergency stop buttons should be clearly labelled and easily accessible so that they can be activated quickly in the event of an emergency. This may mean they are bigger than other buttons so they can be operated easily, and may be located in positions such as the floor. There may even be more than one so that at least one emergency stop button is close at hand should the need for its use arise.

Preventing Accidental Operation

Another issue is the accidental operation of a switch or button by a person. Although this can never be totally eliminated, as humans will always have the potential to inadvertently press the wrong button, particularly if they are trying to work too fast or are under too much pressure, certain measures can be introduced to prevent accidental operation of a button or switch.

To prevent such an occurrence, the switch or button can be indented so that it needs to be deliberately pressed in rather than just caught by someone brushing past it. They can also have covers that need to be opened before the button or switch can be operated. Obviously not all of the buttons or switches on a control panel will need to protected in this way, but the ones that can have serious consequences for people's health and safety if they are operated accidentally by just this one press will be good candidates for this extra protection.

Bacteria and Viruses on Buttons and Switches

Control panels and buttons can also be perfect breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses, and the subsequent transference between people if the controls are used by different people. If possible they should be cleaned and disinfected regularly, provided that this does not damage the equipment or cause a danger such as an electrical short circuit from the liquid, or a fire risk.

The dangers of contracting illnesses in this way has been known for many years, but it came to particular prominence at the beginning of 2020 with the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, with the transmission of the virus from surfaces onto hands believed to be one of the main ways in which the virus could be caught by another person.

If Control Panels are Labelled is Training Required?

Many control panels for pieces of equipment and machinery will have labels by each switch or button which states what the button does. This therefore begs the question of whether training is required or whether the person can simply be placed at the controls and left to get on with it.

The simple answer in virtually all cases will be a resounding yes. Whilst the individual switches and buttons may be labelled, a worker will require training to be aware of the consequences that each one will entail. The label is also likely to relate to a specific process, which may mean absolutely nothing to a person without a thorough and detailed knowledge of the equipment and its function.

The Labels Themselves Often Won't Be Much Help Without Knowledge

Quite often with so many buttons and switches grouped together on a control panel, with space often at a premium, it is simply not possible to have a lengthy description above or next to each individual switch or button. They will more than likely be significantly truncated or abbreviated. This means that unless an operator has received training, they will not no what all these shortened words, letters and symbols mean! In this situation, labelling without any training makes the labels themselves practically useless, and shows why training is so important.

Commercial Decisions and Using Controls Correctly

Along with the health and safety implications that come with the operation - or failure - to activate a button or switch, a worker will also need to receive training to be informed and made aware of the commercial consequences of the action.

For example a worker who is instructed to shut down a production process may need to complete a specific sequence to shut it down properly, in a way which allows for a quick restart. If they just hit the big red button marked "stop" which is intended only for emergencies, it may require a lengthy procedure of resetting certain parts which will cost the business both time and money.

Other industries such as nuclear power generation will have shut down procedures that have steps which need to be followed precisely. Just shutting down could not only be financially costly in terms of restarting, but may actually create a dangerous situation that threatens the health and safety of everybody in the area, as well as the environment.

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