Some day in the near future, all LOTO procedures will be digitally developed and stored on networked portable devices. (ESC Services, Inc. photo)

Lockout/Tagout Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond

Some companies see LOTO as a burden. But it is a competitive advantage to those willing to develop a program that is not only safe and compliant, but also highly efficient.

Today

For the last 22 years, lockout/tagout has been at the forefront of issues U.S. companies face when seeking to make their workplace both safer and complaint with federal and state regulations. In the United States, lockout/tagout (LOTO) is defined as the process of isolating all forms of energy that could pose hazards to employees while servicing equipment. To achieve LOTO compliance, companies must develop a program that consists of five essential elements:

  • Corporate policy with means of enforcement
  • Machine-specific LOTO procedures for all equipment that has more than one energy source
  • Annual auditing of every procedure
  • Training for both authorized and affected employees
  • LOTO designated locks, tags, and devices

Recently, the fines associated with LOTO have nearly doubled from the previous years to a record high of nearly $6.2 million. And that represents only about half the states that are reported under the federal jurisdiction. When individual state totals are combined, the fine total for all 50 states is nearly double that figure, totaling more than $10 million just for LOTO in FY2010.

Why are the fines so high this year? Two theories often are discussed among the safety community. The first is that OSHA has redoubled its focus and is looking harder for the non-compliances. The second theory is that some companies have increased their non-compliance when they reduced their safety staffs and thus their ability to achieve and maintain compliance.

OSHA's goal of zero workplace incidents is encouraging the inspectors to focus on the top 10 historically most cited regulations. Due to the OSHA inspectors' limited time on site, during an inspection they find it necessary to target the typically weak areas of a company's safety program that will yield the highest rate of safety increase when the compliance gaps are closed. Because LOTO has been in the top 10 most-cited regulations since OSHA has been keeping electronic records (more than 15 years now), you can see why it would be beneficial for an inspector to target this regulation.

The second theory, that some companies have fallen out of compliance or failed to achieve compliance due to lack of resources, may be true, as well. While the fine amount has gone up by nearly 100 percent from FY2009, the number of citations and number of inspections have remained relatively even at around 2,000 inspections and 4,000 citations. This would indicate no additional companies are falling out of compliance, but the fines levied against the companies OSHA inspects are higher and thus are having a greater impact on the annual totals.

LOTO citations are not a new phenomenon for companies, and it doesn't appear that just one factor is contributing to the increase. The most likely explanation for the sudden increase of LOTO fine amounts is simply OSHA's new focus and enforcement on what is required for minimum compliance. What they may have let slide before is not the case any longer.

Tomorrow
As many companies are spending money by hiring the additional staff required to write individual procedures or outsourcing the creation of their entire LOTO program to engineering firms, they are realizing it's not a program you can just implement and then forget about.

The factor that most affects the life of a program is the frequency by which equipment changes. When new equipment is brought in, expansions or renovations take place, or existing equipment is modified or retrofitted, the LOTO program must be updated to reflect these changes. Ideally, this is done real time as the changes occur, but that's not always the case in real life. Fortunately, OSHA requires an annual LOTO program review that is designed to catch any discrepancy that might have cropped up.

Let's imagine two different companies and how their LOTO programs will differ. Company A has 100 procedures under one roof and has the program fully implemented. Company B has 4,000 procedures in 20 locations around the United States and it, too, has the program fully implemented today. Company A's safety manager or maintenance manager will review its 100 procedures annually and take about a week to do so. Company B will need to choose one of three options to maintain its program: hire a full-time team of in-house LOTO experts, push the burden of safety and compliance out to each site, or outsource its compliance to a third party with a full-time team dedicated to maintaining this program.

Obviously, Company B will benefit from one homogenous system and a consistent corporate policy that all 20 sites can look to for guidance and benchmark. But that isn't enough. What's going to happen when Company B gets cited for lack of compliance at one of the 20 sites? That puts all of the other sites at risk of a repeat citation, which carries much heavier citation amounts and potentially jail time for future offenders. Fair or not, bigger companies have a much different burden with LOTO, and understanding the requirements is essential to ensure both compliance and safety.

As the large companies are probably realizing, allowing each individual site to run its own safety program and have its own way of doing things may not be the best solution. The procedural formats, training, auditing practices, and upkeep will be different at every site, and thus the parent company will feel very disconnected from the control of compliance -- yet it bears the full burden of ensuring each site is compliant, according to OSHA.

The Future
Written in 1982 and finally put into law in 1989, LOTO is still a widely applicable regulation. It has aged especially well over the years, considering the advance of computers, PLCs, guarding, interlocks, interconnected equipment, remotely controlled equipment, and fully autonomous equipment. What hasn't aged well are the techniques for how to maintain programs on a large scale. Companies like aforementioned Company B have a much larger burden to maintain their programs across all of their sites.

Luckily, help is coming by way of technology. Some day in the near future, LOTO procedures will not be printed, laminated, and mounted at the point of use. All of them will be digitally developed and stored on networked portable devices. These devices will allow the authorized employee to scan the machine they are about to service and view not only the LOTO procedure, but also any other relevant procedures, such as confined space, Material Safety Data Sheet, Standard Operating Procedure, and more. By handling all of the data digitally, updates will be easy from one central location, and LOTO procedure audits will be tracked electronically. The main corporate office will receive real-time readings showing the status of each site. Additionally, interactive training programs will be available on the device to allow for real-time training as needed, when needed.

When Company B wants to know which of its 20 sites are compliant, it simply will sign into the server and see a dashboard that displays where every site is in real time. If there are sites that are lacking compliance, Company B can send notices to the sites to become compliant or face penalties from their own company, rather than OSHA policing it for them.

This technology is here; it's only a matter of time before it is integrated into the safety routine and the huge efficiency increases are realized. When the brave first few companies take that step, many more will see the fruits of this decision and follow suit. That will be the future of lockout/tagout.

Some companies see LOTO as a burden. But it is a competitive advantage to others who are willing to take that extra step and develop a program that is not only safe and compliant, but also highly efficient.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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