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Engineering team checking machine safety.

Reducing Health and Safety Risks in Machine Shops

July 20, 2022
Machine shops can be dangerous places to work, but the most common risk factors can be anticipated – and avoided – helping operators to work safely and effectively.

Machine shops are filled with skilled individuals working at the top of their games, but that doesn’t make these spaces free from risks to health or safety. What are the most common risks that machine shop employees face – and what are the best ways to reduce health risks?

Common Machine Shop Health Risks

Depending on its output, a machine shop’s loadout details will vary from one operation to the next. Still, many of the health risks are universal, appearing in every shop. What are the most common health risks in machine shops?

Crushes, pinch points and amputations. Equipment in a machine shop can cut through wood, metal, or other sturdy materials. Flesh and bone don’t present much of a challenge.

Damage to eyesight. Eye or eyesight damage can come in many forms in a machine shop. Improper eye protection could allow metal fragments to damage the eyes. Exposure to caustic or toxic chemicals also can damage the eyes and interfere with eyesight.

Toxic chemical exposure or inhalation. Toxic or caustic chemicals are often a regular part of a machine shop’s processes. Workers exposed to these chemicals are in danger of experiencing various health risks.

Poor air quality. Maintaining the workplace air quality is an essential part of running any machine shop. Regular machining practices can aerosolize oils, metal fumes, chemicals, and other solvents that could reduce machine shop air quality and present unique health risks to everyone inside the facility.

Electrocution. Machine shop equipment requires a heavy electrical load to keep everything running. Something as simple as a worn power cable can create an electrocution hazard.

Repetitive motion injuries. Repetitive motion injuries account for about 35% of workplace injuries. Any activities that require an employee to do the same task over and over throughout their shift can cause repetitive motion injuries.

A Closer Look at Air Quality

In addition to oil mist and debris, the equipment in machine shops can create a variety of different pollutants and fumes that could put workers’ health at risk.

Machining can release dangerous chemicals such as hexavalent chromium, lead, or manganese into the atmosphere, all of which are dangerous and can create significant health risks. Short-term exposure can cause irritation and dizziness.

Long-term exposure can cause damage to the nervous system as well as some organ systems. High levels of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or welding gasses, such as helium or argon in the air, may even cause suffocation without sufficient ventilation.

OSHA carefully monitors metalworking and machining facilities because of these risks, and it has strict regulations in place to assist with maintaining air quality. Bringing in building-envelope professionals, either as a third-party contractor or as part of the team, can make it easier to comply with strict OSHA standards while keeping everyone safe. These professionals specialize in improving and maintaining air quality in facilities.

Companies looking to hire their own building-envelope specialists should look for someone who has obtained some form of building envelope specialist certification. There are a variety of different certifications available – ranging from installation to inspection and investigation – depending on the company’s needs. Most require a certain number of education credits or units, as well as a certain number of verified work experience hours in the field.

Creating a Safety Culture

Creating an entirely injury-free workplace might seem to be an impossible task, but there are steps employees can take to reduce health risks in machine shops.

Safety training and protocols often aren’t enough to prevent injuries and illnesses in the workplace. Instead of piling new rules on top of more rules, consider creating a safety culture within the facility.

At its simplest, a safety culture means making workplace safety everyone’s responsibility and keeping it at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Everyone must be involved, from the highest level to the newest hire. Managers and business owners should be safety champions, setting examples rather than just naming expectations.

Installing air purifiers. It isn’t always possible to avoid putting chemicals or debris into the air during standard machine shop operations. Installing air purifiers can prevent health risks while creating a safer work environment. In addition to installing permanent purifiers in high-risk areas, portable air purifiers can improve ventilation where needed most without needing a permanent installation.

Investing in an oil mist collector. Oil mist generated by machine shop equipment creates a unique risk. In addition to creating an inhalation hazard, the material can accumulate on surfaces, creating slip-and-fall risks. Oil mist collectors can help remove aerosolized particles from the air, improving machine shop air quality while preventing the viscous substance from clogging up other air purifiers that might be designed to remove different contaminants.

Adopting IoT safety technology. Proximity is often the most significant risk factor that machine shop workers face. All it takes is a hand or finger in the wrong place at the wrong time, and injuries will happen. Adopting the Internet of Things (IoT) – including proximity sensors that shut down a piece of equipment if it detects someone too close to the cutting blades or die presses – could help prevent these injuries before they have the chance to occur.

Implementing repetitive motion prevention strategies. Repetitive motion injuries represent a substantial number of workplace-related injuries, but the steps to prevent them are often simple.

In the short term, encouraging employees to take frequent breaks can go a long way toward preventing this kind of workplace injury. Over the longer term, consider adopting automation to free up these workers to apply their talents elsewhere. Many mundane or repetitive tasks that might make someone prone to repetitive stresses can be replaced by robotics or other forms of automation.

Looking Toward the Future

Machine shops can be a dangerous place to work, but we shouldn’t go out of our way to make them more hazardous. Reducing health risks, including the risk of illness and injury in the workplace, can take a lot of work. Still, the cost and effort are nothing compared to the value of preventing devastating or deadly damage from occurring.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest industrial innovations.