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Solving a Safety Dilemma

Listening to the voice of caution when disagreements arise over machine safety.

You’re a maintenance electrician. A critical production machine has features that a production supervisor describes as “nuisance safety overkill” and that machine is behind on orders. If those features can be disabled, the company will meet its contractual obligations for delivery. If those features aren’t disabled, the customer depending on those shipments will receive them late. The sales department has been pushing for more rapid delivery.

The plant engineer discussed the situation with a senior operator, that person’s boss, and the plant manager. They all agreed that these features are helpful for protecting an inattentive operator. The senior operator said for a single run with a person on high alert temporary bypass would be safe.

So you’ve been instructed to bypass those features. Your coworker, Jim, has been an electrician at this plant for 30 years. He said, “I’ve heard this line of BS before. Once you bypass those controls, they’ll find a reason to put a junior person on the machine because that’s the pay grade they have assigned to that machine. Because of that pay grade, they must have the additional safety controls.” Jim also stated the plant would leave those disabled rather than just make the changes temporary.

You bring this up with your boss, who then tells you it’s not your decision. He says refusing to do this would be insubordination, since the safety concerns have already been addressed. Yet, Jim’s words ring true with you.

It could be that the people who want the bypass have rationalized both the need and the justification. Are they willing to believe what they want to believe to get the results they want? Or have they really looked at this and taken administrative measures (e.g., operator upgrade) to temporarily suspend “overkill” safety features?

To answer these questions, first determine if those features are actually optional. Contact the manufacturer and ask for a written determination from them.

Then try to get outside approval from an authoritative party. For example, suggest to the plant manager that the plant engineer obtain a letter of exception from your plant’s insurer “in case we are wrong about the degree of safety.”

If you can’t, in good conscience, disable those features then you’ll have to deal with the consequences your boss threatened. Pre-empt that by visiting your HR department to discuss your concerns.

Generally, it’s a bad idea to disable any safety features. But there are cases where other means are available to achieve the same end. Just make sure those other means do achieve the same end and will be implemented.

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