Hydraulic Presses

On guard

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Sick’s floating blanking safety light curtain offers flexible, effective access protection for hydraulic presses.

Growing use of safety measures forges teamwork between fabricators, OEMs and safety solution suppliers

April 2014 - U.S. manufacturers contributed $2.03 trillion to the economy in 2012 and perform two-thirds of all private-sector R&D, says a National Association of Manufacturers report. The metalworking industry, its workforce and myriad machines is a core underpinning for what the association calls the eighth-largest economy in the world. The yin to this yang is the hazards associated with metal fabrication. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that workers who operate and maintain machinery—including hydraulic presses—suffer approximately 18,000 amputations, lacerations, crushing injuries, abrasions and more than 800 deaths annually. 

Bill Wilkerson, who joined OSHA five years after it was established in 1970, says regular inspections, education programs, workplace training and the sheer cost associated with accidents, are helping to push rates down and raise awareness. “The rate of injuries and fatalities has decreased dramatically over the last couple decades and is at one of its lowest points since the agency’s inception,” he says. “That said, it is crucial that employers remain diligent in protecting their workers with strong safety programs.” Wilkerson is area director of the Cincinnati Area Office for Region 5 of OSHA.

New awareness

Steve Aamodt, division manager, safety, for Minneapolis-based Sick Inc., has observed another trend that also is helping to raise safety standards in the metalworking environment and with the use of hydraulic presses and other machines. The North American subsidiary is a major manufacturer of factory and logistics technology with more than 1,000 patents for photoelectric sensors, safety solutions, machine vision, encoders and bar code scanners. The company specializes in opto-electronic safety solutions for hazardous machines and work areas. 


“After OSHA was formed, the bulk of responsibility for implementing and enforcing safety standards fell to fabricators and machine operators,” he says. “Early on, OEMs were not looking to build safety features into machines due to the added cost. Instead, products like safeguarding were offered as options fabricators could purchase along with the machine or have retrofitted.”

For the last decade, these roles have begun to shift and in the last five years, the trend has picked up speed. “Fabricators and machine operators have a greater understanding of safety measures today and the need for them,” he says. “As a result, manufacturers are turning to OEMs for one-stop-shop solutions because they don’t want to have to add these features later. OEMs are responding to this demand by designing safety elements into machines that are both cost competitive and have aesthetic value.”

Sick evaluates applications for safety measures at the point-of-operation or where human interaction with the machine takes place. The company works with OEMs to identify the best methods for integrating a range of safety features into machine designs. Sick also performs retrofits for end users that include a risk assessment, machine evaluation, installation and machine validation. “Our goal is to design safety solutions that don’t negatively impact machine productivity,” says Aamodt. 


In the power presses category, which includes hydraulic machines, OSHA standards cover types of machine guards from point-of-operation, hand controls and foot pedals, to hydraulic pump and motor arrangements. Point-of-operation safeguarding products generate a safety stop signal based on the detection of a finger or hand. Operators are protected from exposure to a hazardous motion where material is positioned and a process performed. Hard guards and gates also can limit access to dangerous portions of a hydraulic press. 

In addition to hard guarding, safety light curtains typically are used for hazardous point protection. Hydraulic presses, FFJ-0414-hydraulic-image2though generally slower than other press types, deliver full tonnage through the entire stroke. “When an operator pulls a part out of the press or loads a blank, you don’t want the press actuating,” Aamodt says. “Properly installed and validated safety light curtains guarantee that won’t happen.”

Sick knows something about safety light curtains, having built its reputation on photoelectric technology first developed by its founder Erwin Sick, who introduced the first marketable accident prevention light curtain in 1952. As safety standards continue to evolve, machine builders and OEMs are working to help fabricators comply with OSHA regulations by incorporating the right features into equipment designs upfront. “When safety risks are identified and assessed during the design phase, it also helps to reduce costs for customers,” says Aamodt. “Safety component manufacturers also are looking for ways to design safety offerings that better meet the requirements of lean best practices. We understand that fabricators are facing an increasing demand for engineer-to-order jobs, which means they need safety systems that have the flexibility to accommodate custom parts production and frequent part changeovers.”

For hydraulic presses, a floating blanking safety light curtain offers flexible, effective access protection. Machine integration is simplified and can be supported with a variety of interface and control architectures from a safety relay and safe PLC control to safety fieldbus. 

The payoff

“If a fabricator is running an operation on a hydraulic press, the production or work supervisor can program the light curtain to blank out certain beams to allow material to be fed into the press,” says Aamodt.  “Light curtain beams can be blanked out to allow material as thin as 1⁄4 in. yet instantly detect a finger or hand.” A floating blanking safety light curtain allows the production supervisor to blank out a set of beams that “float” anywhere within the length of the safety light curtain to allow material to pass through the safety device to the press operation. The feature can accommodate material variances associated with roll feeding while maintaining safety.

In spite of increasing acceptance of safety standards and regulations in the industry, Aamodt still encounters some resistance among operators during retrofit jobs.

“It’s human nature to resist change,” he says. “Operators who work on machines without certain safety features are sometimes concerned the additions will affect their productivity. I’ve actually timed operators while they were making the same part on a machine we just retrofitted and one without the safety retrofit. The difference was hard to determine on my watch. When you consider a couple lost seconds versus the costs associated with an accident, lost time, possible replacement of the operator or the potential for litigation, safeguarding becomes a no brainer.”

OSHA studies have shown a $4 to $6 return on every dollar spent on safety and health. Aamodt brings the need for safety and the value of investing in it closer to home. “If an operator loses fingers, a hand or arm, it can mean an end to his livelihood.” FFJ




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