Safeguarding press brakes without sacrificing productivity

Technology advances can keep the operator safe and the press brake running

Even though the U.S. has some very strict machine guarding regulations, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that press brake operators in this country suffer more than 350 amputations per year—and these are only the reported injuries. The question is why?

For one, by their design, press brakes are very dangerous machines, much more so without proper safeguarding equipment. Injuries result because of unguarded access to the point of operation at the front of the machine and the operator’s ability to reach around the safety device to get to the point of operation at the side or back of the machine. Also, the back-gauge system creates pinch points and poses a risk to the operator with its hazardous motion. Although rare, operators also can experience blunt force trauma after being struck by ejected materials.

But perhaps the greatest threat linked to running press brakes is having the operator’s hand trapped between the part being bent and the frame of the machine (see Figure 1). If the force is great enough or the part is sharp enough, impalement or an amputation can occur.

Another factor contributing to the dangers of press brakes is the metal fabricator’s failure to perform an upfront risk assessment. This type of assessment is the critical first step in any safeguarding project and, unfortunately, seldom completed. An overall risk assessment considers hazard severity, frequency of exposure, and probability of injury, as suggested by ANSI B11.0-2015. Risk or machine safeguarding assessments should be done before commissioning any new machinery, after upgrading existing machinery, after changing the work area, and after any accident or serious incident.

Yet another dynamic contributing to press brake injuries is lack of press brake maintenance, in particular testing safety devices to ensure they are working properly and in the correct position. An unmaintained press brake, especially one with damaged tooling, can put both the machine and operator at risk for serious injury.

All of these issues can be addressed in a few moments. It is time well spent to ensure that the machine is safe to operate. Having said that, not all shops will commit to that type of preparedness and maintenance. So it’s not a question of if an operator will get hurt by a press brake; it’s a question of when.

What Are the Safety Standards?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not specifically address mechanical or hydraulic press brakes, but the machines are commonly cited under the general duty clause 1910.212, which covers failure to provide adequate protection for plant employees from known machine hazards. Most commonly, the industry follows the ANSI standard for press brakes, ANSI B11.3, for safeguarding method guidance and then ANSI B11.19 for design criteria.

The original B11.3 standard was approved in 1973 and revised in 1982 and again in 2002. The current 2012 standard, ANSI B11.2-2012, includes the new topics of close proximity point of operation, active opto-electronic protective devices (AOPD), and a safeguarding means called safe speed.

Safe speed is protection for the operator when safeguarding is not provided by a light curtain, such as after the optical system is muted for the bending operation to occur. Safe speed must be monitored automatically, so the press brake ram does not exceed 10 mm/s and for the machine closing movement to be stopped if this limit is exceeded. To insert these new safe speed requirements into B11.3, the committee drew on experience with this requirement in Europe and its corresponding EN 12622 standard.

Does Safeguarding Hinder Productivity?
A widespread misconception in the industry is that safeguarding a press brake prevents or hinders employees from making production quotas. However, an Aberdeen Group research study (“Integrated Safety Systems: Ensuring Safety and Operational Productivity”) concluded that companies that have taken steps to invest in safeguarding not only improve plant safety, but realize superior operational performance and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). The 20 percent of best-in-class companies that had the highest OEE also had the lowest safety incident rate. The top companies typically had an OEE on average of 90 percent and an injury incident rate of 0.05 percent, while the bottom 20 percent of companies had an OEE of 76 percent and an injury frequency rate of 3 percent, which is 60 times higher. Top manufacturers were also able to achieve a 2 percent unscheduled asset downtime rate, versus a 14 percent rate for the laggard group in the study.

Figure 1
When it comes to older bending machinery, nothing really acts as a barrier between the press brake and the machine’s operator.

What makes these statistics possible is modern safeguarding tools. Some of these options are awareness and barrier guards, light curtains, two-hand controls, and laser AOPD.

First, however, a word or two about retrofitting. When retrofitting older machines, installers must take great caution to ensure that the new technology does not decrease the safety of the machine or add new hazards. Sometimes an older machine simply cannot be brought up to today’s standards. At that point the installer must evaluate the situation and ensure the full machine installation becomes safer overall than its original state with the new safeguarding. If not, he needs to step back and consider the options. ANSI B11.3-2012 gives direction on this topic.

Awareness Barrier. The backs of press brakes cannot be left wide open. Two hazards often lurk here: reaching the dies from the back and the possibility of a multi-axis back gauge moving and creating pinch points. As to exactly what is required on the back of equipment often depends on local OSHA interpretation. At the very least, an awareness barrier, like a railing, chain, or cable with a “danger” or “warning” sign complete with pictographs, not just verbiage, should be installed. Awareness barriers are bare-minimum methods in reducing risk.

Barrier Guards. Although not versatile, barrier guards on the ends of most press brakes are effective when used in conjunction with other safeguarding devices (see Figure 2). They also can be used to mount/support light curtains, adding to their value. Barriers can have openings for material to be fed into the die area, but do not allow for hands into that area.

Barrier guards reduce the risk of the operator getting his hands pinched when he reaches between the punch and die from either side of the press brake or reaches between the back-gauge system and tool. By OSHA’s definition, a guard must prevent people from reaching over, under, through, or around it. Guards must meet one of two measurement scales—the OSHA guard opening scale or the ANSI/CSA guard opening scale—to ensure that a small hand can’t reach far enough through any opening to get hurt.

Barrier guards can be fixed or interlocked. The interlocked design prevents misuse and is required to be either electrically interlocked or fixed in place using a fastener that requires a tool for removal. They’re often hinged or sliding to allow easy access to the point of operation for machine setup (access to limit switches or other levers and dials), tool change, or maintenance tasks.

Light Curtains. These safeguarding tools have been around since the mid-1950s. They consist of a vertically mounted transmitter and receiver with closely spaced beams of laser creating a flat sensing field. When fingers, hands, or arms reach through that sensing field, the press cycle is prevented or stopped to avoid operator injury.

One of the reasons that press brakes make a good application for light curtains is that they can be stopped midcycle very quickly. Hydraulic press brakes stop quickly if maintained properly. Mechanical press brakes may not. Air clutch machines have reasonable stop times, but mechanical friction clutch (MFC) machines are known for stopping very slowly. Quite often light curtains can’t be used on MFC press brakes because the safety distance can end up being 2 to 3 feet.

Like any safeguarding device, light curtains should be “function-tested” before every operating shift to ensure that they are continuing to provide protection. Make/model-specific function-test procedures are usually available on each light curtain manufacturer’s website.

Two-Hand Controls. These controls are considered a safer means of cycling a press than a footswitch because both hands must be in a safe position to use them. When a press is cycled with a footswitch, hands can be anywhere. It’s possible to use a two-hand control as a safeguarding device as well during press brake operation.

Figure 2
The barriers on the side of this press brake have light curtains attached to them, providing the press brake operator with two layers of protection.

Most operations require that the part be held when bending, so two-hand control is rarely used to cycle a press brake or used as the point-of-operation safeguard. The part would have to be fixtured and supported by a backgauge to use a two-hand control.

Laser AOPD. The newest entry into the press brake safety category is the laser AOPD (see Figure 3). Inclusion of laser AOPD technology in the B11.3-2012 is a welcome addition to the standard that now gives press brake manufacturers, dealers, and users a clear guideline to implementing this technology safely for retrofit applications (B11.3 subclause 8.8.7 —Close Proximity Point of Operation AOPD Safeguarding Device).

It is important to note here that AOPDs are an acceptable method of safeguarding hydraulic press brakes only per ANSI B11.3 and also following most manufacturers’ specifications.

A unique feature of AOPDs is that they are designed to be mounted with zero safety distance, unlike light curtains that must be mounted at a calculated safety distance (see Figure 4), as outlined in ANSI B11.3. Safe speed safeguarding is based on a ram speed of 10 mm/s or less, providing that speed is carefully monitored. Again, this new method of protection can be applied only to hydraulic press brakes (and potentially servo-drive press brakes). Because of their close proximity point of operation, AOPD systems are best-suited for applications such as box bending, bending with flanges, or where light curtain effectiveness is diminished due to excessive blanking or muting.

Press brakes are very dangerous machines, much more so without proper safeguarding equipment. When safeguarding equipment is engineered, installed, and operated correctly, it provides positive, business-enhancing benefits while mitigating risks and reducing insurance and energy costs. Metal fabricators also should recognize the payback of reducing costs associated with accidents, medical expenses, and regulatory noncompliance.

For more information about safeguarding press brakes, please contact us at 1-800-922-7533.


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