The best safety system is the one attached to each worker's shoulders.
A recent forum discussion on www.gigposters.com concerned a request by a screen printer who wanted to know how to disconnect the safety bar on his semi-automatic press. Seems he kept bumping it when reaching underneath to retrieve a printed piece. This led to a lot of comments from other printers, probably the best one by a certain Mr. Smith: “If there's one consistently good idea, proven again and again throughout humanity's technological evolution, it’s that disabling safety countermeasures is an excellent way to save time and simplify tasks.”
To be perfectly clear, dear reader, that statement is an example of sarcasm. Don't try it at home, the shop, or anywhere.
If you've been in this business for any length of time, and had the joy of working on the wide range of presses we use, you will be familiar with safety systems—or the lack of them. Some older machines that are still in service have nothing. Newer machines use either mechanical safety gates, or infrared sensors. Their primary purpose is to stop the downward motion of the printhead and instantly reverse it if anything, including hands, arms, upper body or head, happen to be under or in the way when the screen comes down. Textile presses have similar guards to prevent workers from getting diced by rotating platens and heads.
The gory details
Veterans who have paid their dues operating screen-printing equipment can tell stories of getting hands or other parts of their body stuck under a press, with varying degrees of carnage. Some quick research on the subject turned up two stories of fatal injuries. They both occurred when a worker went under the printhead and the machine came down.
In Massachusetts, a worker who had no safety training and had been just two weeks on the job went under the press from the side at the end of a run to remove some tape, and the safety system malfunctioned—a deadly combination. The worker’s action was unexpected, and he was not instructed to take that action. Keep in mind, this occurred in 1994. Many things in our industry have improved since then, and in reading the full report, both company and the machine manufacturer immediately undertook remedial action to ensure this would never happen again. Based on what I have been able to find, it hasn't.
In the 1970s in California, a worker was killed after the safety bar was deliberately disconnected. The worker went under the press to clean it, and his head was crushed. The company was found at fault and was fined. As tragic as both these examples are, the screen industry as a whole, when compared to the rest of the printing trades, and then to other businesses, is actually pretty safe. Although my research was minimal, these were the only two examples I could find of deaths in a screen shop, and these incidents span 40 years.
What the statistics show
U.S. government stats show seven deaths in all the printing trades in 2010, (screen printing was not reported separately for fatalities) but not one was due to contact with equipment. Compared to other industry sectors, we have a very low fatality rate. Figures from 2010 indicate: fisheries 116 deaths per 100,000 workers; loggers 92; air crew 70; farmers 41. Print trades were 1.4. Overall, the average is around 3 per 100,000 workers for fatalities occurring on the job.
Looking at the U.S. Department of Labor charts on workplace fatalities, I was struck by something, and it wasn’t the screen coming down on my head. The leading causes of workplace fatalities in the USA are transportation related at 39%. The second biggest, and this is bizarre to me, are assaults and violent acts (18%). Of those seven deaths in the printing trades, four were from workplace violence. More than half the deaths in the whole year! This leads all the other categories: falls (14%), struck by object (9%), struck by equipment (7%), exposure to substances or environment (9%), and fires and explosions (4%).
Job safety is everyone’s responsibility. If you are a business owner or manager, you know the blame is going to fall on you if an accident happens at work. Although safety meetings are looked at as boring and there may be a tendency by employees to tune out the safety officer, somehow you have to impress on all the workers to maintain a clean workplace, be constantly aware of what’s going on about them, and take an active interest in reporting unsafe situations. We need to find solutions that protect everyone. Training workers in the safe operation of equipment and use of materials is paramount.
I still maintain one of the best safety systems in any manufacturing environment is the one attached to each worker’s shoulders. Unfortunately, like our friend at the beginning of the column asking how to disconnect the safety bar, if you don’t use it, all the work-safety programs in the world, and all the government rules and inspectors will not help.