Why it’s critical to get Lockout/Tagout right

The Lockout/Tagout (Control of Hazardous Energy) standard is one of the most frequently cited standards of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA). For this reason and many others, says Eric Conn, Chair, OSHA/Workplace Safety Practice Group at Conn Maciel Carey LLP, companies should make compliance with the standard an area of focus. The firm, which specializes in OSHA-related matters, sees Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) consistently appearing in the top five on OSHA’s list of most frequently-cited standards.

A lockout/tagout on a pipe

“OSHA is paying a lot of attention to it,” Conn said during a recent webinar devoted to the topic.

“It’s known as the low-hanging fruit. When OSHA is in your facility, no matter what it is that caused them to be there, [LOTO] is something they can find and cite rather easily, and they do.”

The LOTO standard is designed to protect workers from hazardous energy and moving mechanical parts while they are performing service and maintenance duties. It is sometimes confused with OSHA’s Machine Guarding standard, which deals with similar worker protection efforts but only as they apply to machinery being used during normal operations.

National Emphasis Program on Amputations

An OSHA National Emphasis Program (NEP) launched in 2006 helps to keep LOTO on the agency’s front burner and represents another reason to pay attention to LOTO. The Amputations NEP targets industries with high numbers and rates of amputations, increasing the likelihood that employers in such industries will be inspected even if they have not self-reported an accident or been the subject of an employee complaint. According to OSHA, “Inspections will include an evaluation of employee exposures during operations such as: clearing jams; cleaning, oiling or greasing machines or machine pans; and locking out machinery to prevent accidental startup.” This program accounted for more than 10 percent of all OSHA inspections conducted in 2017.

Severe Violators Enforcement Program

LOTO violations can also serve as a fast-track into OSHA’s Severe Violators Enforcement Program (SVEP) more often that other standards. Employers enter SVEP through one of four categories, one of which is the commitment of two or more Willful, Repeat or Failure to Abate citations related to High Emphasis Hazards. There are nine such hazards, one of which is amputations. This particular category makes up almost 70 percent of active SVEP cases.

“Once you’re in the program, it’s bad news,” Conn says. “You’ve got mandatory follow-up inspections from OSHA and, worse than that, if you’ve got multiple facilities, OSHA could be out there at all [of them]. You enter SVEP through alleged violations, and once you’re in, even though it’s by allegations, OSHA holds you to different standards.”

Nasty consequences

SVEP entrants also face a heavy dose of public shaming, Conn added. OSHA publishes the SVEP list on its website, and every one of these cases carries with it “a nasty press release that dubs you as a severe violator. That gets picked up by local and national media.”

Companies would be wise to pay significant attention to LOTO compliance because it is also among the most frequent Occupation Safety and Health Act criminal violations, Conn said. “It is usually either the second- or third-most common OSHA violation that supports a criminal prosecution at the state or federal prosecutorial level.”

If LOTO is not one of a company’s highest-priority compliance items, it should be, Conn urges. “You ought to be really digging in to understand the nuances of the standard, [making sure] you’re complying, that you’re auditing your employees to make sure it’s being done correctly, and that you’re getting help if you aren’t 100 percent sure your program is up to snuff.”

Avoid common mistakes

Highlighting the most frequently cited sections of the LOTO standard, Aaron Gelb, a partner in Conn Maciel’s recently opened Chicago office, noted that the most common mistakes made by employers involve:

  • a lack of machine-specific procedures,
  • not conducting periodic inspections of those procedures,
  • failing to develop and implement an overarching LOTO program, and
  • neglecting to provide training to affected and/or authorized employees.

While developing procedures for each and every machine may appear daunting, Gelb explained that more than one piece of equipment can share the same procedure if they have the same hazardous energy source and have the same or similar methods for controlling that energy. To that end, employers should also make sure to remember that while protecting employees from the hazards posed by electrical energy, the LOTO standard applies to a number of different types of hazardous energy, including mechanical, hydraulic, pneumatic, chemical, thermal and gravity.

Complying with the LOTO standard’s training requirements presents a number of challenges, including making sure that employees who work in or around the area where LOTO takes place — in addition to those who perform the servicing and/or maintenance — must be trained on the purpose and use of the procedures as well as the prohibition against attempting to restart or reenergize machines or equipment that have been locked out. When conducting inspections, meanwhile, employers must assign the appropriate individuals to carry out the inspection in a manner that complies with the standard. Preparing and maintaining the appropriate documentation is also a must.

Other OSHA standards matter, too

While compliance with the LOTO standard is an essential part of an effective safety program, Gelb encouraged employers to remember that “a number of other OSHA standards have their own, unique, nuanced energy control requirements above and beyond 1910.147.” By way of example, Gelb noted that Permit Required Confined Spaces require LOTO before an employee enters certain spaces, even if they are not going to be performing any sort of service or maintenance in the space or on the equipment being locked out. The grain standard has similar requirements before entries into grain bins, and there are heightened energy control requirements when you are working directly on electrical equipment

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