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  7. Machinery Guards for the Health and Safety of Workers

Machinery Guards for the Health and Safety of Workers

A person using a handheld grinding power tool with protective guard in place

Protective guards on machinery and equipment can greatly assist in the prevention of injuries and accidents caused by part of a person's body accidentally coming into contact with dangerous parts of the machine. These parts can be dangerous for one or more reasons, including being sharp, being hot, being extremely cold (e.g. cryogenic storage), having a risk of entanglement, trapping or crushing to name just a few.

However, whilst guards can greatly improve the levels of health and safety within a workplace, if they are poorly designed or implemented incorrectly then they can actually contribute and increase the risks to workers, which completely goes against the reasons for having them at all.

As a guard will be there to prevent contact between the danger area and part of a person's body, a number of guards will partially block or obstruct the view of the operator which may make them more likely to make a mistake and have an accident. Many guards will only partially prevent the opportunity for incidents, as for example in a disc cutter there needs to be a gap to get the wood or other material to the blade which a person could still put their fingers through. A guard which prevents clear sight may force the operator to get their eyes or fingers closer to the blade in order to carry out the work, with the subsequent increased risk of injury.

Guards which are in place on machinery involved in industries such as food preparation or medicine production will require regular cleaning and sterilisation, otherwise they risk introducing harmful bacteria into the products if this was allowed to grow unchecked on the guard. The material that the guard is made out of will also play a part in overall health and safety either to the operator of the equipment or to the consumer purchasing the finished product. If it is not strong enough to cope with the strains and stresses placed on it then it may be unfit for purpose. If the guard reacts with the material or ingredients being processed it could contaminate or damage them.

The protective guard must not interfere too much with the cooling of the machinery. Although measures such as meshing will affect the cooling to a small but acceptable degree, too much of an affect may cause the machine to overheat with the subsequent risks of fire and explosion that could ensue.

Although not relevant to most types of equipment, guards added to portable machinery may significantly add to its weight and/or dimensions. This can increase the potential for manual handling related injuries caused by the lifting, carrying and moving of the equipment.

Guards which are loose or are not fitted correctly to machinery which vibrates or has high speed rotating parts my cause excessive noise which could damage the hearing of the operator and those nearby, especially if they are exposed to it over a long period of time.

The safe use of work equipment including the importance of protective guards are covered in health and safety training courses such as the NEBOSH Diploma, NEBOSH General Certificate, NEBOSH Construction Certificate and CITB SMSTS and SSSTS courses. Please use the "Health & Safety Training" tab at the top of the page to find out more information regarding these courses.

Many types of machinery and pieces of equipment are powered by motors. Whether they are powered by fuel or run off electricity, these motors will contain spinning or revolving parts, and can get extremely hot. There may be other parts of the equipment which can present a danger to people if they were to come into contact with them such as cooling fan blades and drive belts.

The exact dangers and potential injuries that could be inflicted will depend upon the type of machinery and the part that the person comes into contact with, but typical examples include:

  • Cuts, lacerations or possible amputation from blades
  • Burns from hot surfaces, steam or hazardous chemicals
  • Impacts from loose parts which fly off
  • Crushing injuries from getting a part of the body trapped between moving parts

To prevent this, guards should be fitted where practicable wherever there is a danger, as well as the presence of warning signs and providing workers with health and safety training courses to make them more aware of the dangers that they face from the various pieces of equipment that they work with or around. The features of these guards should prevent injury whilst still allowing the machinery to operate correctly, for example fan casings with holes which allow air to move freely but are not big enough for a person to get their finger through them.

Some workers may be tempted to remove the guards on occasions, for example to try and make the equipment lighter if it needs to be manually handled or to fix an issue which is preventing the machine from working. This removal of protection can present a serious risk to their health and welfare, but can be combated by locking the guard into place with specialist tools that are not available to anyone other than suitably trained individuals i.e. competent maintenance people.

Guard Strength

A guard can be vital in preventing severe injuries to a person who is using a piece of equipment or machinery. Whether it is a fixed guard or an adjustable one, these guards can help to stop the dangerous parts of the machine coming into contact with the person's body such as their finger, or their clothing becoming entangled or drawn in to the moving parts. The dangers posed by work equipment and items of machinery are so great that they are covered on numerous health and safety training courses such as the NEBOSH General Certificate and associated regulations such as the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations (PPER) and the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER).

Due to the fact that guards can play such a pivotal role in ensuring the operator of the machinery does not come to any harm, it is vitally important that they are suitable for their intended purpose. Initially this will be the responsibility of the manufacturer who will need to have conducted stringent testing to ensure that the guard is strong enough to withstand the likely forces and substances that it may encounter through normal operation. Once the machinery is being used by the business it will be up to them to provide suitable maintenance and carry out regular inspections to determine whether the condition and structural integrity of the guard has been compromised insofar as it will no longer provide the required protection for the operator. This maintenance should only be carried out by trained personnel who can not only carry out the work safely, but also know what to look out for concerning potential hazards from a faltering guard.

Fixed Guards

Anyone working with or around machinery will face risks to their health and safety. The extent of these risks will vary greatly according to the types of machines that are present in their place of work, and also how they interact with them; for example are they the operator, maintenance person, cleaner etc?

In many countries throughout the world health and safety legislation exists which makes it a legal requirement for employers to take measures that safeguard the safety and welfare of their workers. This can include providing them with health and safety training and reducing the danger posed by equipment in the workplace, including machinery.

One such way of making machinery and equipment safer is to introduce fixed guards onto them. These barriers will prevent the person accidentally placing their hand or other part of their body into/onto an area where the equipment could cause a serious injury to them, and are often fixed into place to prevent them being moved, either accidentally or deliberately, which would then render the guard ineffective in its intended purpose. Ideally, the guards should only be able to be removed by qualified and competent maintenance personnel who have been fully-trained for the task to avoid suffering an injury; for example only they have the key/specialist screwdriver to remove the screws.

Fixed guards must not only be suitable at preventing accidental injury, but they also need to be able to withstand the particular stresses and working environment in which they will be operating. This can include extremes of temperature, water (including salt water which can quickly corrode metal), and hard knocks/rough treatment.

In order to be viable, fixed guards need to provide the desired protection without having a significant adverse effect on the performance of the equipment. For example, a fixed guard which cuts off cooling air flow and causes the machine to overheat and shut down after a few minutes of operation will not be practical.

Health and safety with regards to the safe operation of work equipment and tools is an important topic on health and safety courses such as the NEBOSH Construction Certificate and the NEBOSH General Certificate. For more information on NEBOSH courses and qualifications, please click here.

Adjustable Guards

Adjustable guards are ones that can be moved into place by a worker or even self-adjust according to the situation such as the passage of wood made up of different thicknesses through a circular saw.

The advantage of adjustable guards is that they allow for the accommodation of different sizes of material, as having a circular saw which could only cut one specific thickness of wood for example would not be very practical. Adjustable guards are usually installed on equipment where there will still be some access to the dangerous part of the machinery required such as a saw, where a fixed guard that completely enclosed the hazardous area would not be a practical solution as the operator would not be able to use it effectively.

On many pieces of equipment a worker can adjust the guard themselves, without having a wait for a qualified person such as an engineer or maintenance person to do it for them. Whilst this saves time, it does greatly increase the probability of the worker suffering an injury if they fail to put the guard in place correctly. It is therefore imperative that only employees who have received appropriate health and safety training in its correct use are allowed to operate it.

Not only is there a risk that an adjustable guard is not put into place correctly, but it is also more likely to wear out or break from its constant adjustment and re-fixing than a guard which is constantly fixed in place and is an integral part of the machine's design. This means that regular maintenance inspections are required to ensure that the adjustable guard is still working properly and providing the protection that is expected of it.

Entanglement With Machinery

A serious health and safety risk as far as machinery is concerned comes from entanglement with a rotating part, where material such as long hair, loose clothing, ties etc get caught in a rotating part and draw the person into the machine. This can often cause severe injuries or even death in some cases if the machine cannot be stopped in time by someone cutting the power or hitting an emergency stop button.

Everyone has heard horror stories, seen the warning signs near/on equipment, and probably been told numerous times on health and safety courses and other training sessions, but there are still instances of this avoidable incident happening in workplaces across the world each year. This is primarily due either to insufficient or missing safety features such as guards, or simply because of carelessness or forgetfulness by a person near the machine and getting themselves tangled up and caught in the moving parts.

Tremendous strides forward have been made since the Victorian era when it was common for small children to be seriously injured through entanglement with a machine whilst working in a factory. However, despite all the improvements in safety of machines and health and safety legislation, the risk of death or injury through entanglement with moving machinery still exists and is an issue which needs to be kept in mind by workers when they are operating machinery.

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