Door and Window Manufacturers and Machinery Suppliers Share Their Stories of Success, and Even Failures, in Regards to Machine Safety

By Tara Taffera

It was April 18, 2017. Employees walked into Vinyl Window Designs in Toronto, just like they had every day before. An employee was working on a machine that performed welding, fabrication and corner cleaning—a practice that takes place at every vinyl window plant in North America, in some cases thousands of times per day. There was a problem with the machine’s operation, when another worker was summoned to troubleshoot the situation. The worker that was summoned never made it home that evening.

According to a court bulletin released on April 24, 2019, by Canada’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, the machine was surrounded by a fenced enclosure, but the worker entered through a gate. The line wasn’t running in operation mode at the time, but the worker asked the operator to activate the machine in order to advance a window through its infeed. While the worker was spraying oil on parts of the machine, the transfer arms cycled, crushing the worker against its frame. The incident claimed a life.

The event at Vinyl Window Designs left the management and employees there in deep remorse and soul searching. No amount of retrospection would ever undo the tragedy.

“This accident brings to the forefront the importance of constant and diligent training, and enforcement of safety protocols. At no time can a company take this responsibility for granted,” said Philip Spatafora, owner and president of Vinyl Window Designs.

One thousand seven hundred and seventy-three. That’s the number of OSHA machine guarding citations reported for FY 2019. What about those OSHA never found? What about the ones happening in Canada as well? According to the Ministry of Labour, every year approximately 2,000 people are injured because of machine-related accidents. Approximately 17% of these
are related to inadequate guarding and lockout.

But what can companies—window manufacturers specifically—as a whole do to help ensure that an incident like this doesn’t reoccur industry wide? From consulting with machinery suppliers and high-level safety personnel, to suppliers of machine guarding devices and combing through OSHA procedures for answers, I sought every possible expert source. I also investigated past incidents involving door and window machinery at various manufacturing plants across the country. The goal: to educate the industry on what can be done – and what some door and window manufactures are doing – to prevent future accidents.

What Guarding is Required?

Here in the U.S., OSHA regulations require machine safeguarding “but it is up to the end user to provide it,” says Phil Reuter, director of machine safeguarding for Rockford Systems.

OSHA Standard 1910.212 for machine and machine guarding states: “One or more methods of machine guarding shall be provided to protect the operator and other employees in the machine area from hazards such as those created by point of operation, ingoing nip points, rotating parts, flying chips and sparks. Examples of guarding methods are barrier guards, two-hand tripping devices, electronic safety devices.”

The Standard also states, “The point of operation of machines whose operation exposes an employee to injury, shall be guarded. The guarding device shall be in conformity with any appropriate standards therefore, or, in the absence of applicable specific  standards, shall be so designed and constructed as to prevent the operator from having any part of his body in the danger zone during the operating cycle.”

The machine at Vinyl Window Designs was guarded by a gate—a gate that was taped back with plastic to keep it open—proving that, although such safety measures are required, they don’t always remain in place.

“We go to hundreds of facilities a year and 90% of the safety equipment isn’t guarded properly,” says Reuter.

The OSHA data supports this claim as machine guarding appears at the number nine spot on the administration’s list of top ten violations for fiscal year 2019 with 1,773 citations reported.

Though Reuter tours manufacturing facilities of all types, those in the window industry confirm it happens here as well.

Donald Johnsen is one of the founders of Sturtz Machinery USA. As a seasoned engineer, he is quite candid about all the precautions to protect the operator that his company puts into place while building its machines. But there is only so much suppliers can do, he and others suggest. Once a machine is in the plant, safety features can be removed or overridden without the supplier’s knowledge. If Johnsen sees this, he immediately takes action.

“If we ever go into a plant and see a machine with our name on it, and we see a safety system has been overridden, we will put together a letter to let them know it is not safe,” he says. “Maybe the people don’t realize what has happened so all we can do is let them know in writing. If we are there and see it, we always ask them if we can remove the circuitry they have overridden.”

Johnsen says no one has ever refused his request but adds a caveat.

“I have never been told no, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was bypassed again,” he said. “Putting it in writing is our best avenue.”

Ultimately, machinery suppliers and door and window manufacturers work together to ensure that end users stay safe. In many cases, employees at a particular company will travel to the machine supplier to undergo training before the machine even arrives.

“We do the training before it even ships,” says Todd Tolson, director of sales for Pro-Line Automation USA. “They come to us. We want to get them out of their element and control the situation as there are a lot of important things covered, especially in maintenance. We then go to the facility and reinforce everything we already went over and do the operator training.”

Tolson believes, however, that not all window manufacturers put the importance on safety that they should. Despite the implications, he says not all window companies are willing to send employees to his facility at the outset.

“If I owned a company and was making the investment that my customers make, I would ensure my key people were there to run off that machine,” he says. “I would want them to have as much knowledge as they could possibly get.” And he says there are plenty of compelling reasons to do it offsite. “They don’t want the person out of the plant, but it has to happen at our factory,” he says. “If you have a busy plant they are constantly being pulled away and then they miss the whole thing.”

Tolson says that when companies don’t take advantage of this opportunity, it shows in their operations.

“If I look at what I have done in 30 years, the sales and installations that have gone perfectly or really well involve that customer spending time at our plant with their maintenance people on their machine. If I have problems after installation at a customer’s facility, 95 percent of the time those guys haven’t been to our plant.”

All of the suppliers with whom we spoke host training sessions at their facilities as part of their services.

Ensuring Use of Machine Guards

On June 28, 2018, an employee at Aluminum Window Designs Ltd. (AWD) in Woodbridge, Ontario, was critically injured while trying to remove a piece of aluminum from a punch press.  Following a guilty plea, AWD was fined $90,000 in December 2019 at the provincial offences court in Newmarket. The court also imposed a 25% victim fine surcharge, as required by the Provincial Offences Act. The surcharge is credited to a special provincial government fund to assist victims of crime.

According to a news release from the Ministry of Labour, the worker attempted to remove the piece that was jammed. “While pulling at the part, the top die section of the machine moved downwards. The worker suffered critical injuries,” according to the report.

“An inspector from the [then] Ministry of Labour attended at the scene and determined that the punch press was a machine with an exposed moving part that endangered the safety of a worker and was not guarded by a guard or other device that prevented access to the moving part. Specifically, the die section of the punch press was not guarded to prevent worker access,” the release stated.

Preventing incidents like this in manufacturing plants starts with the buying process for machinery, according to many suppliers.

“We have a great maintenance staff and we ask the company [machine supplier] to see what they have planned for safety,” says Mike Yoder, director of performance excellence at ProVia. “When  it is set up on our shop floors, we will talk through and evaluate it to make sure it is properly guarded. We do an evaluation of that machine and a full training.”

MI Windows and Doors starts with a management of change program—a process that covers safety, quality and productivity.

“The management team, maintenance, quality all sit down and go over the management of change together,” says Allison Mendibles, regional human resources/safety manager. “This allows us to develop training before the machine is even put into place. Once the machine is installed, we create a job instructional training (JIT) and Hazard Assessment. Every team member that will run the machine goes through each, then we have specific training for the technician.”

PGT Innovations has an extensive checklist (see page 17) that spans five pages for each equipment installation.

“That sheet is what we live by,” says Bruce Wesner, vice president, engineering services and safety, PGT Innovations, Southeast business unit.

Why Safety Devices Get Turned Off

“Let’s look at why people tend to defeat safety devices,” says Tolson. “The reason is its doing its job but it makes their job more difficult.” Wesner recalls an incident that happened late last year where “an employee thought they were doing something really good.” He says the employee thought if they held one button down, they could work faster. “It was a longer term employee, yet it was an immediate discharge,” he says. “Those decisions are hard, but we have a policy and everyone signs off on it. If we didn’t do that, people would think ‘well they aren’t serious about safety.’”

Tolson says just because you may be able to defeat a safety device, doesn’t mean you should actually consider doing so. “There is always a way around an electronic gate or a mechanical gate. And that’s where people can get hurt,” he says.

PGT Innovations is so committed to preventing those choices that they have a program called Serious Six, consisting of six Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) programs. Those measures are in place, because, “PGT Innovations considers this serious due to our team members’ exposure to the potential risk involved with these programs and the severity of potential incidents that could result if the rules, regulations, trainings and safe guards established for these are not strictly followed by all.”

The Serious Six Program Elements include:
1. Electrical and Arc Safety
2. Lockout/Tagout (LOTO)
3. Machine Guarding
4. Powered and Mobile Equipment
5. Working at Heights
6. Hazardous Communication (HAZCOM)

The company has developed trainers for each program internally so it has the ability to train team members directly on each topic. This includes: development of formal EHS policies for each program; training courses administered by online learning and/or live instructor; a new-hire training section to explain the program on each team member’s first day of employment with a signed agreement by the employee stating they will adhere to the rules, trainings and regulations; Updated banners to be displayed across each facility indicating visual pictograms and wordings for
the Serious Six Program in Q1 of 2020.

“If anyone in the plant has a behavior that goes around any of these [measures] we take that very seriously,” says Anthony Rickles, environmental health and safety manager. “It goes all the way up to the president as we have no tolerance for those types of actions.”

As much as manufacturers try, there is no such thing as a foolproof situation—especially as employees become wise to equipment.

“The more an employee understands the machine, the more there are ways they can be overridden,” says Johnsen. But on the flipside, those instances can also be used as a learning experience.

“We have heard customers tell us that someone took off a guard and did this,” he adds. “We try to learn from that any chance we get. So maybe we can put on a different type of fastener or something that involves a special tool or an electronic lock.”

But that type of involvement can occur only when the manufacturer knows about it.

“The customer may not even tell us. If they are overriding a safety feature they aren’t going to tell us about it,” says Morgan Donohue, vice president of sales and marketing at Erdman Automation Corp.

All of the suppliers interviewed for this article agree that any device can be defeated if workers try hard enough. Further, they suggest that you can only go but so far in policing it.

“You have to make a reasonable and strategic decision about guarding,” says Donohue. “There is almost no guard that can’t be overcome. For example, if you run your safety gates up to 10 feet someone can get a ladder and jump over it, but that is not a normal action.”

Bill Briese, R&D/engineering manager for GED Integrated Solutions, says redundancies are necessary.

“Within the control system, there should never be a single failure point,” he explains. “There should always be a redundancy in case of a primary fail.”

What About Older, Existing Machines?

In November 2018, a worker at CGI Windows and Doors, (which is owned by PGT Innovations) suffered a “partial finger amputation.” As a result, the company faced OSHA fines following the accident. According to OSHA officials, the incident occurred while the employee was operating a punch press without proper protection. CGI was also cited at that time for other violations, including “a lack of machine guarding on several pieces of equipment.”

Officials didn’t recoil from the incident. Instead, “We immediately sent our team down to do more audits of equipment,” says Wesner. “I think this is one of those cases where our legacy machines were not being fully evaluated.” As a result, 2019 was when the company “really stepped [its] game up even more, he says. “From an environmental health and leadership standpoint, we did have some deficiencies there in terms of being proactive and have made some changes and have better resources in place. We have gone back and instituted a lot of things like using OSHA sticks to measure openings to see if there are gaps to make sure we are not putting people at risk.”

Similarly, many window manufacturers said they do focus on their existing machines and how they can improve them in terms of safety.

“There are always improvements that can be made,” says Allison Mendibles, regional human resources/safety manager at MI Windows and Doors. “We are always improving things, like guards and personal protective equipment (PPE).” Furthermore, “We always touch base with the machinery manufacturer before we make upgrades to make sure we aren’t hurting the integrity of the machine,” she says.

This all goes back to MI’s participation in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (see sidebar, page 20).

Machinery suppliers agree that manufacturers should evaluate older systems on a continuous basis.

“I look at some of the older machines that are on the floor and you wouldn’t be able to sell those today,” says Donohue. “You walk in a plant and see old cutters [and other machines] that should be guarded.”

He uses the analogy of owning an old house and bringing it up to current codes and standards.

“If our customers are going to make an improvement, a lot of times, they will look at the safety part of it,” he says. “Do they put a cage around it? Do they
add light curtains or scanners?”

While you might expect new automated and robotic equipment to help protect workers, Donohue says new equipment could present different types of challenges.

“The catch is when an operator becomes reliant on the machine protecting them [such as robotic equipment] instead of protecting themselves,” he says. Likewise, “When you are dealing with newer equipment, if the operator becomes dependent on that, and then goes to work on an older machine, then their expectation is different and therein lies the difficulty.”

For this reason, he stresses that—with or without automation—manufacturing companies must continue to be diligent.

“You are dealing with fatigue, and other issues, and people make mistakes,” says Donohue. “So it’s hard for that employee to stop and think: ‘I am working on a 1960 machine instead of the 2010 machine,’ because you are still doing the same job.”

Wesner agrees, pointing out that, “All this stuff interacts with humans and every human looks at things differently.”

He adds that the company does have some 20-year equipment and continually enhances those machines. “Last year we found some near misses in guarding,” he says. “It hadn’t caused an issue but it could have and we made the necessary upgrades.”

For this reason, PGT Innovations conducts audits in the plant throughout the year, Rickles says.

“We have a team that has been trained to know what they are looking at [and looking for],” he says. “They are looking at it all to make sure it is guarded properly.”

Learning to Improve

When an incident occurred at one of MI’s sister plants involving guarding, Mendibles says the company looked at all of its guards, including its plants in Arizona. The door and window manufacturer has a company-wide incident reporting system.

“If an incident happens in Arizona, it goes across the whole company, up to corporate safety,” she says. “We all can learn from an incident. If it is something that has to be changed we will do that, and if we are making an adjustment the other plant will look at that same adjustment.”

A similar philosophy is in place throughout PGT Innovations.

“We don’t want to be looked at as the traffic cop,” says Wesner. “We just want a different set of eyes looking at the process and continually evaluating. As a result, “We have done a lot of work on job hazard analysis regarding how the operator interfaces with the equipment to make sure that there is a connection between the machine and the operator and that we are addressing that issue proactively,” he says. “That has been critical.”

ProVia has a similar philosophy when it comes to enforcing safe practices in the plant.

“Our safety coordinators are not policemen,” says Yoder. “We are here to train and make sure everything is done correctly. We rely a lot on our director of manufacturing and supervisors as well. We want to make sure they are trained and follow proper protocols. We want to make sure the info they need is in front of them.”

“We work together as a team,” says Yoder. “We can get a lot more accomplished if we work that way. It doesn’t work if safety and production butt heads.”

One issue that poses a risk for working against safety is employee turnover.

“The better companies, when they onboard, will have the employee shadow the job for a few weeks, then participate for a few weeks, then they are left alone,” says John Ryba, senior technical specialist at Quanex Building Products. “But there are those customers who need that guy on that job right now. They are glazing the insulating glass 48 hours after being hired. That is the reality at some plants.”

To help streamline those processes while ensuring safety, Mendibles says the process at MI starts with a skill matrix, and lists every position a team member could possibly do. Every position then has a Hazard Assessment.

“There is a step-by-step process for every machine that involves pictures and safety hazards, so when a new person is transferred in or learning that machine, they do the Just-in-Time,” she says. “A trainer for that area then signs off on them before they relinquish them to ensure that the standards have been met.”

A similar situation plays out at ProVia.

“For every employee who gets assigned to a machine, we go through a training with them,” says Yoder. “When they are done and trained they sign off on it. So if they move around, we make sure they are set up, and the shop supervisors are involved.”

Always Exercise Caution

No matter what is put into place, everyone agrees that caution must always be taken when working around machinery—or anywhere within a plant
for that matter. Perhaps no one knows that better than Ryba.

“We lost an employee a few years ago. He was a neighbor and a friend,” recalls Ryba. “We were always focused on safety before this happened and even so much more now.”

“At Quanex, it is safety first—no matter what,” he says. “Our saying is that when you go to work, your family wants you home from work. That is our number one thought process.”

Quanex doesn’t supply automated machinery but it does work with window manufacturers who come to the company for its spacer products. As a result, the company has relationships with machinery suppliers, to which it often refers customers.

As the middleman, Ryba’s job often has him traveling to window plants when machine installations are taking place. And that is where he says extreme caution must be taken.

“There is always glass moving, and you are not always familiar with the facility you are in. My techs know that they need to be very careful,” says Ryba.

His friend, Quanex technical service manager Tim Harris, was visiting window manufacturing company Avanti Industries in 2015 when a heavy rack of vinyl window framing fell off a forklift and struck him resulting in his death.

“To this day it sickens me,” he says. “I will never have that happen to one of my techs. They know it— we preach it at every tech meeting.”

That being said, he acknowledges how easy it is to get comfortable.

“I do bring it up to someone at the plant if I see it,” he says. “They may give you that look or say it’s none of your business but for the most part our customers are of the same culture as we are … But I can look back and say ‘Tim would have wanted me to say something.’”

Be Vigilant

Steps to Ensure Safe Practices with Machine Guarding

If you see something say something. If you notice some guarding precautions have been overridden bring it to the attention of management. And don’t just say something—follow up by putting it in writing. If they don’t listen, you could report it to OSHA in the U.S. or the Ministry of Labour in Canada.

Make clear to employees that violation of safety procedures will result in serious consequences (like removal, in the case of one PGT employee).

Take advantage of training provided by machinery suppliers before machines are even delivered.

Make sure Job Instruction Training and Hazard Assessments are in place for each machine and that employees have been trained on these systems.

Have a checklist for safe procedures that must be signed off on.

Look periodically at existing older machines for precautions that may need to be put in place.

Conduct audits throughout the year to make sure  proper procedures are being followed.

Put a company-wide incident reporting system, such as the one at MI Windows and Doors, in place.

Robots to the Rescue?

How will the move to robotics help reduce accidents involving machinery? That’s where the good news lies, according to machinery suppliers.

“The more automated we get and the more we eliminate the human interaction, the safer a plant will be,” says Todd Tolson, director of sales for Pro-Line Automation USA. “That is not to say a plant isn’t safe or the machinery we build now isn’t safe. But getting people out of the equation naturally makes it safer.”

Bill Briese, R&D/engineering manager for GED Integrated Solutions, is among many who believe that robots are on the forefront of adaptive safety—most notably by removing humans from situations that present hazard.

“Anytime there is a robot doing a task with a sharp tool, we are taking that out of the operator’s hand. We are eliminating it outright,” he says. “An area that is hazardous or would have been deemed hazardous is no longer an operator hazard.”

Robots themselves have also become safer to collaborate with, he says.

“Ten to 15 year ago robots needed to be caged and secure, and with proper system control, now people can work right next to them safely and do shared tasks,” says Briese.

Volunteer for OSHA’s VPP

For those who want to take safety to the next level, OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) may be just the right vehicle. The program recognizes employers and workers who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages. MI and ProVia are both part of the program.

“One of the reasons we are involved is because it’s a great partnership with OSHA that allows you to network with the best of the best,” says Allison Mendibles, regional human resources/safety manager for MI Windows and Doors. “You can have safety policies but how are you enhancing them? How are you enhancing lockout/tagout procedures for example.”

She adds that the MI team rallies around the program and the promotion of safe practices in general.

“It’s a very good engagement program for team members,” she adds. “When safety improves, everything improves, including our quality.”

ProVia is also part of the VPP program, one Mike Yoder, director of performance excellence, believes in.

“Again it always comes back to the employees and the value we want to place on them,” he says. “We want to make sure we value them and their families and with VPP it does that, it works and that is our goal.”

Tara Taffera is the editorial director for [DWM] magazine. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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