Plants, refineries, offshore platforms, and countless other industrial workplaces have heavy equipment and machinery that must be properly serviced and maintained if it is to remain operational. Failures to service or maintain equipment can lead to incidents like explosions, fires, and other catastrophes. However, the workers who perform maintenance on industrial equipment face significant risks as well. They can be crushed, burned, electrocuted, or otherwise harmed if the equipment suddenly starts up before their work is done.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has specific standards that address the unexpected and unintentional release of hazardous energy (electrical, mechanical, thermal, chemical, hydraulic, or pneumatic) from equipment or machinery that is being serviced.
Lockout/tagout procedures protect workers from hazardous energy releases by shutting down and rendering inoperable equipment during cleaning, maintenance, or servicing so workers cannot be injured or killed if it should suddenly start back up again.
About Lockout/Tagout Procedures
Lockout/tagout procedures involve the locking and tagging of energy isolating devices on equipment or machinery. Energy isolating devices, such as disconnect switches or circuit breakers, physically prevent energy from being transmitted or released. According to OSHA 1910.147(c)(1), “the machine or equipment shall be isolated from the energy source and rendered inoperative.”
OSHA defines “lockout” as placing a lockout device on an energy isolating device. The lockout device holds the energy isolating device in the safe position and requires a lock, combination, or key to be removed. “Tagout” is defined as placing a tagout device on an energy isolating device. The tagout device is a prominent warning, like a tag, attached to the energy isolating device to show that the equipment or machinery it is connected to should not be operated until the tagout device is removed.
Lockout/tagout procedures may be required for equipment and machinery on or at:
- Chemical plants
- Oil refineries
- Offshore oil platforms
- Maritime vessels
- Construction sites
How Lockout/Tagout Procedures Protect Workers
Lockout/tagout procedures are meant to eliminate mistakes that could prove disastrous or deadly for workers who service industrial equipment. These workers need to be protected while they’re inspecting, repairing, installing, constructing, repairing, or servicing heavy machinery and equipment. This even includes cleaning, clearing jams from, changing attachments on, or lubricating parts of machinery.
There are hundreds of lockout/tagout accidents listed on OSHA’s website. All of these incidents, most of them fatal, involved situations where workers were harmed because the equipment or machinery they were operating, cleaning, or servicing had an unexpected energy release. In some cases, co-workers turned the machine back on while it was being serviced. In others, the workers were trying to clear jams or obstacles and were caught in the machines. In yet others, workers were electrocuted because the equipment was still energized.
All of these accidents could have been prevented by implementing proper lockout/tagout procedures.
- Prevent employees from unknowingly turning equipment back on while it is being serviced.
- Prevent workers from being electrocuted by energized equipment during repairs or maintenance.
- Prevent machinery from automatically restarting or reenergizing during maintenance.
Lockout Tagout Requirements
The risk of injury while servicing or maintaining machinery is extremely high if there is any chance that the machine may start before the work is complete. It is the startup or release of energy that can cause catastrophic injuries like amputation, severe burns, crush injuries, or electrocution. The examples are horrifying: a pneumonic press that suddenly starts up while a worker is cleaning inside, a jammed deck winch that suddenly starts turning while a worker’s hand is clearing the obstacle, or an explosion caused by a spark from a machine that starts up during servicing. Maintenance workers and anyone in the vicinity may be severely injured as a result of failures to follow lockout/tagout procedures.
OSHA requires lockout/tagout procedures when:
- Workers must remove or bypass a guard or safety device on a machine to clear a jam, perform maintenance, or service equipment.
- Workers must put a body part or their entire body in a machine or piece of equipment that could cause harm if the machine turned on.
- Workers are at risk of electrocution or electrical injuries if the equipment they are servicing should turn on.
Employer Responsibility for Lockout/Tagout Procedures
Employers are responsible for implementing proper lockout/tagout procedures based on the industry and the type of machine or equipment. Specifically, employers must implement energy control programs that include certain procedures, training, and inspections that ensure equipment is properly isolated and inoperative before any employee services, cleans, or maintains it.
Some of the individual steps and actions employers can take include:
- Completing an inspection of energy control programs at least once a year.
- Implementing policies that only allow the worker who applied the lockout/tagout device to remove it.
- Providing lockout/tagout training for all employees, so they understand what the devices mean and how they are used.
- Using tagout devices that identify each employee who uses them.
- Using lockout/tagout devices that are durable, easy to identify, and appropriate for the equipment or machinery they are used on.
OSHA estimates that proper implementation of lockout/tagout procedures would prevent 50,000 injuries and 120 fatalities each year.
What Happens When Lockout/Tagout Procedures Aren’t Followed
An estimated three million workers are at risk of suffering harm from hazardous energy releases, primarily laborers, machine operators, and craft workers. When lockout/tagout procedures are not followed, the results are often catastrophic. Workers who are injured from exposure to hazardous energy miss an average of 24 days of work while recuperating. Other workers’ injuries are so severe that they are permanently disabled or lose their lives. The traumatic nature of incidents involving hazardous energy releases can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other psychological trauma.
In spite of the particularly harmful consequences of lockout/tagout violations, these are consistently among the top 10 most cited OSHA violations every year. In 2021, there were 1,698 reported violations of lockout/tagout procedures, ranking 7th of all violations that year.
Lockout/tagout violations can cause:
- Crush injuries
- Severe burns
- Chemical exposure
- Fires and explosions
Ask a Work Injury Lawyer
Industrial workplaces like oil refineries, chemical plants, and factories have inherent hazards, it’s true. But these hazards can be reduced or eliminated altogether by employers who take the time and effort to properly implement OSHA standards like lockout/tagout procedures. This is not optional. It is necessary if workers, particularly those who are responsible for servicing heavy machinery and equipment, are to be protected from suffering unimaginable trauma.
At Arnold & Itkin, we hold employers accountable for upholding safety standards. When they don’t, and innocent workers are injured or killed, we stand up and fight to expose their wrongdoing. Our work injury lawyers have represented oil and gas workers, truckers, plant workers, and employees at factories, warehouses, and refineries who have suffered harm because their employers thought safety could come second to production. We have won more than $10 billion for the injured and wronged, and we won’t stop fighting for what’s right. No matter what.