With the incredible advances in safety equipment in and standards, one would think that punch press amputations would be a thing of the past. However, they still occur today, and manufacturers with press operations need to be vigilant both about their safety equipment and practices, as well as their record-keeping
Extremely large metal punch presses can range in strength from about ten tons to 50,000 tons. Larger presses that exceed something in the neighborhood of 150 tons can cost into the seven figures and present a tremendous capital investment burden, particularly for the small or mid-size metal component manufacturer. Because of the incredibly high cost of this equipment, and because of the long life of the equipment and the possibility of retrofitting with modern safety devices, many ultra-heavy-duty punch presses are still in use today. It is important that older equipment both be retrofitted with modern safety devices that comport with industry standards and that records of safety modifications or changes be maintained.
Scott Brooksby recently defended a mid-sized manufacturer that operated a hydraulic punch press that had been manufactured in approximately 1928 and was acquired by a client in approximately 1979. After fifty-one years of continuous use, the punch press was still in excellent operating condition. One day, for reasons that are not completely clear, the press descended and partially amputated the right hand of the manufacturer’s employee. In the nearly 30 years before this accident, there had never been a single accident reported on the punch press.
These situations are often complicated by the number of, and nature of, control mechanisms, which can include foot pedals, hand pedals, electronic switches, buttons, or pedals that provide for slow “inch mode” movement, etc. Often different operators will prefer different methods of use. In this case, the primary operator was stationed at the front of the machine and would activate the press using an inch mode to set dies and then produce product more quickly as the operator at the rear removed and inserted the die in a continuous cyclical fashion, while the front operator operated the machine with a series of hand and foot pedals.
Although the press was originally built some eighty years before the accident, the manufacturer had diligently retrofitted the press with up-to-date safety modification, including 360-degree light curtains. A commonly relied on safety device, light curtains are designed to stop descention of the press in the event that a hand or any object penetrated the light curtain. In this case, the light curtains were installed both on the front and rear. The light curtain appeared to have been interrupted at the time of the accident. The precise cause of the accident will likely never be known.
After the press was acquired by the manufacturer, some add-ons and wiring and safety modifications were made. The precise timing of the modifications was unclear. The press was retrofitted with light curtains which were designed to prevent inch movement when the light curtains were broken. The front and rear light curtains appear to have been installed at different times. At some point prior to the accident, the light curtains were replaced with updated versions. As part of routine maintenance procedures, the press was fitted with a new brake in 2004 or 2005. The new brake was not a safety add-on. The brakes on the machine were tested immediately after the accident and found in good order.
When the State Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigated, the accident maintenance records could not be located.
There are two important things to learn from this case:
1. Virtually every steel company, metal company, or manufacturer of component parts using these materials will have old (even decades-old) equipment that is working perfectly well and is perfectly safe by modern standards through the addition of retrofitted safety devices. However, it is critical that such retrofitting be documented and that the documents be retained indefinitely, or maintained in strict compliance with a formal document destruction policy.
2. In most states, the OSHA agency conducting the investigation will want to interview, and will be entitled by statute or regulation to interview, employees involved in the workplace accident outside the presence of counsel, even if counsel has been retained and requested to be present. This warrants the cost and discipline associated with diligent training. Management should consider including a training module so that workers who are interviewed outside the presence of counsel focus only on speaking about what they saw, what they said, or what they heard others say, all limited to a first-hand perspective.