Maximizing Employee Safety with Lockout

Maximizing Employee Safety with Lockout

A lockout/tagout system is essential to any safety program.

Many hazards can exist across a facility or plant of any size—whether it be electrical, chemical, pneumatic, thermal, gravitational or other energy that can harm personnel. Exposure to hazardous energy is preventable when putting effective safety procedures and training in place that safeguard employees and comply with OSHA’s 1910.147 lockout/tagout (LOTO) standard.

OSHA’s 1910.147 standard covers the servicing and maintenance of machines and equipment in which the unexpected energization or start-up of the machines or equipment, or release of stored energy, can occur. While the number of LOTO violations has decreased over the last year, it remains one of OSHA’s top-ten most frequently cited violations year-over-year, with 2,606 violations being reported for fiscal year 2018 vs. 2,923 violations reported in fiscal year 2017, according to two Safety + Health Magazine articles from Sept. 2019 and Nov. 2018.

Implementing a best practice LOTO program is an ongoing process that requires routine training and a continuous commitment to safeguarding personnel from the unexpected release of hazardous energy. One commonly used method when isolating energy for maintenance is tagout. On its own, tagout involves the placement of “Danger: Do Not Operate” tags at the energy isolation points to indicate that the equipment is undergoing servicing or maintenance and cannot be operated until the tag is removed.

While tagout is a valid method under OSHA regulations for the utility industry, facilities can better safeguard employees by implementing “lockout,” which is the placement of a safety lock and a lockout device on the energy isolation points of a piece of equipment to render it inoperable. Lockout uses a safety padlock to hold an energy isolation device in a de-energized state and prevents the re-energization of the machine or equipment until removed.

Facilities already utilizing a tagout program can enhance employee safety by implementing hazardous energy control that involves both lockout and tagout.

Common Challenges of Implementing an Effective Lockout Program

An effective lockout program is a crucial step in ensuring employee safety, as employees can be seriously or fatally injured if machinery unexpectedly energizes, starts up or releases stored energy. However, only a small percentage of companies have effective lockout programs in place.

An effective lockout program is defined as “meeting or exceeding compliance requirements with lockout being practiced routinely each time it is indicated by the hazards of the tasks being performed.” It has also been observed that many employers have no lockout program at all—even though companies who implement a lockout program are more likely to eliminate the potential for incidents involving hazardous energy isolation compared to those who utilize only a tagout program. While lockout/tagout elements are critical to safety program, businesses face many challenges in implementing them. These include:

Lack of knowledge/experience. The early stages of lockout program development and implementation can be challenging due to inexperience or lack of familiarity with 1910.147. Hiring safety leaders experienced in the 1910.147 standard, or working with a third-party safety consulting company, can help facilities develop an effective and compliant lockout program, write procedures for de-energizing and locking out machinery, and train employees in the execution of safety lockout.

Perceived efficiency barriers. Some companies view lockout as an activity that affects productivity. However, productivity concerns can be overcome by implementing comprehensive and visual lockout procedures at the point of application, effective training of both authorized and affected personnel, and executing thought out equipment deployment strategies that maximize access to lockout equipment by authorized personnel.

Case in Point: How Southern Company Implemented a Best Practice Lockout Program to Improve Worker Safety

As noted, compliance with OSHA 1910.147 is a necessary component of any safety program, and any company can proactively make the jump to a comprehensive LOTO program that will result in long-term benefits. In fact, one of the leading utility companies in the U.S. improved overall worker safety and operations by switching from a tagout to a LOTO program.

Southern Company, a nationally recognized provider of energy, fiber optics and wireless communications solutions recognized as one of Fortune’s annual “World’s Most Admired Companies” for electric and gas utilities, recently switched from a tagout-based safety program to a LOTO program.

After reaching out to colleagues in the utility industry and understanding their safety programs, a Southern Company safety leader concluded it could improve overall safety by implementing a LOTO program that involves the use of lockout devices that prevent the start-up of machinery while maintenance activities are occurring.

Southern Company worked with The Master Lock Company to evaluate its safety needs, and the recommendation was made to implement lockout devices and safety padlocks to increase the efficiency and safety of maintenance tasks.

The following are solutions and procedures put in place to address Southern Company’s safety challenges:

Access to lockout equipment. To implement LOTO across its generating facilities, Southern Company evaluated all areas where tagout was previously applied and determined the types and quantities of physical lockout products needed across facilities. More than 170,000 safety products were ordered as a result, including safety padlocks, group lock boxes and other lockout devices, making it easier for employees to access lockout equipment and perform lockout procedures.

Increasing safety efficiency. In a time-intensive industry like utilities, it is important for Southern Company to maintain efficiency when conducting LOTO procedures. With more than 170,000 safety devices being implemented across 95 of its facilities, this meant finding safety solutions that accomplished the following: kept lockout devices organized and readily available, were identifiable by work department or maintenance task and ensured any new padlocks ordered would not create a key duplication situation within the facility, thus maintaining the ‘one person, one lock, one key’ principle.

To maintain efficiency across Southern Company’s facilities, the following solutions were recommended:

1. Organizing safety padlocks with newly-developed group lock boxes. Understanding the need to keep its thousands of safety padlocks organized and readily available for employees, Southern Company implemented group lock boxes across its facilities. The lock boxes have a stackable, portable design that makes it easy to store and easy to transport to facility locations where lockout is needed. The lock boxes feature a clear, impact-resistant window that allows participating employees to visually see that the keys to the equipment locks are secured inside the box.

2. Easy identification with color-coded & laser-engraved safety padlocks. Color-coded safety padlocks were recommended to designate padlocks specifically to an assigned maintenance person or group. Using six different padlock colors, the safety padlocks provided Southern Company with visual recognition to the function and purpose of each padlock. For example, red safety padlocks were chosen specifically for locking out energy sources while blue padlocks were assigned to individual employees who, at times, participate in lockout activities across multiple facilities.

Additionally, padlocks were laser engraved to designate which departments and facilities within Southern Company own the locks. Each lock was also engraved with the key number to the lock. This helped Southern Company to keep the locks organized and help facilitate the replacement of locks, if needed.

3. Managing safety padlocks via key charting. Padlock keys were charted to mitigate any unwanted key duplication. Keys for equipment locks and locks assigned to departments or specific facilities were charted at the individual facility level. Because employees worked across facilities, employee locks were charted at the corporate level. This enabled employees to participate in lockout activities at different facilities without introducing key duplication.

Employee training. As part of the LOTO implementation, Southern Company conducted training for employees across 95 of its facilities. The three-day training ensured employees involved in relevant utility maintenance tasks was trained on LOTO procedures and able to perform maintenance tasks using lockout devices.

The Benefits of Implementing A Lockout Program

While there are several noticeable, short-term benefits of implementing an effective lockout program, such as improving overall worker safety and maintaining operational efficiencies, there are also many long-term advantages associated with implementing lockout. Although there may be concerns about the investment necessary to implement lockout, OSHA fines, worker compensation claims, insurance expenses resulting from incidents, and the resulting negative public relations can quickly become more expensive than the initial implementation costs.

Above all, the most important benefit of an effective lockout program is safe and satisfied employees. By putting safety first, companies can attract more qualified and more motivated employees who come in ready to get their work done, without worry of potential injury.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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