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OSHA Inspectors Must Follow Own Regs When It Comes to Bandsaws
Citations Must Reference Federal Standard
By Ron Waechter
Date Posted: 8/1/2003
When Pallet Enterprise publisher Ed Brindley first spoke to me about writing an article about OSHA and the use of bandsaw dismantlers in the pallet recycling industry, his question was: Do we write about OSHA and risk irritating them, like swatting at a hornets nest with a stick, or keep quiet and hope they leave us alone?
By agreeing to contribute an article on the subject, I feel as if I just picked up the stick.
I will start by admitting that I am not a fan of OSHA. I was a federal employee once in my younger days and saw first-hand how badly the federal government affects something it is trying to help.
I have been through several OSHA inspections during my 30 years involvement with the pallet industry, and I never met anyone from OSHA who knew much about our industry’s machinery. They all knew about lathes, drill presses and air compressors, but beyond that they were scratching their heads at notchers, resaws and scrag mills.
During the last 10 years my company, Smart Products, has sold over 1,500 bandsaw dismantlers in the U.S. and abroad. During that time I have had many discussions with customers and OSHA inspectors about bandsaw dismantlers, and I worked with a customer’s lawyer to help win a case brought by OSHA. Beyond that, however, I have no credentials that make me anymore of an expert about OSHA than most of you in the industry.
As a machinery manufacturer, first I would like to clear up a common misconception that I hear a lot -- that is the term ‘OSHA approved.’ OSHA does not pre-approve machinery. Its staff must see a machine in the workplace being used by workers before determining whether or not it complies with OSHA regulations. A manufacture can claim that its machines comply with OSHA regulations, but the burden of compliance is on the company that operates the machine in its workplace. (In Europe, the regulatory burden falls on both parties -- the machinery manufacturer and the user.)
I think many OSHA inspectors view their agency as the proverbial hornets nest that is best not disturbed, and they count on not being challenged. I believe that many OSHA inspectors, faced with an uncommon machine, tend to make quick, incorrect assumptions about unusual equipment, and they count on an employer not questioning them because of fear of retaliation. Whether OSHA would retaliate or not, the fear is real. I know pallet company owners and managers are afraid of retaliation because they have told me many times.
In a recent advertisement in Pallet Enterprise, a pallet shop owner was quoted as saying that an OSHA inspector was "insistent on us having a brake" on a new bandsaw dismantler yet there was no reference to any official OSHA requirement.
OSHA spells out all requirements for machine guarding for woodworking bandsaws in OSHA publication 29CFR, Part 1910. OSHA inspectors cannot decide that a machine should require a particular safety guard because they think so. OSHA requirements originate with national consensus standards and established federal standards. Any citation from an OSHA inspector must reference this standard, and here is where I think that many OSHA inspectors count on not being challenged by a business.
Of course, our bandsaw dismantler is used to dismantle pallets. By every description and definition, it is a bandsaw. Yet, when an OSHA inspector sees one for the first time, they -- like others -- over-react at their first impression. When they check the OSHA requirements for bandsaws (1910.213 ci) and find that our machine conforms, they start looking for other general machine guarding standards they might reference.
I believe this is a violation of 1910.5(c) (1), which states, "If a particular standard is specifically applicable to a condition, practice, means, method, operation, or process, it shall prevail over any different general standard which might otherwise be applicable to the same condition, practice, means, method, operation or process. Such a standard shall apply and shall not be deemed modified nor superceded by any different general standard whose provision might otherwise be applicable."
Some OSHA inspectors may argue: this applies to a bandsaw in the woodworking industry. This is where I think OSHA inspectors count on businesses to pay the fines and not swat the hornet's nest. In my opinion, OSHA does not want disputes to go to formal hearings, where they may lose and a precedent would be set.
In the case of my customer who was cited for not having a guard over the blade, the OSHA inspector was going to require wrist grips connected to cables anchored up and behind the operator in order to prevent the operator’s hands from contacting the blade. My customer asked if OSHA would assume responsibility for injuries caused from pallets snagging on the cables and failing on the operator, and OSHA replied no. So my customer appealed the citation.
An informal hearing was scheduled for my customer, his lawyer and me. The OSHA inspector did not show up. A second hearing was scheduled., and we presented our arguments. OSHA dropped the citation but required my customer to train his employees to reach no closer than 12 inches of the blade without using a push stick to move the pallet.
Another issue that comes up is the uncovered portion of the blade that is not used when dismantling small pallets. It is important to point out the variety of size pallets that may go through the machine randomly and show the extra amount of blade required when angling a stubborn pallet through. When an inspector understands the logic behind the amount of blade needed to accomplish the task in the safest manner, it will make sense to him. We don’t make machines larger than they need to be.
There is no consistent theme to the objections raised by OSHA with some of our customers. In one state, an inspector was only concerned about the noise level. Noise levels are a concern mostly because of the surrounding environment; in other words, other machinery and equipment also are running, which adds to the noise level. In addition, it is difficult to control noise in metal buildings. I have seen Styrofoam panels used in noisy areas to absorb sound and it seems worth a try if noise is a problem.
A number of years ago I read somewhere that vertical bandsaws were one of the most dangerous machines in the woodworking industry. I can believe that because of the innocuous appearance. They don't throw things or push back at you, so you can get complacent using it. Pretty soon, cutting a small piece of wood, a finger or thumb is cut.
Smart Products has sold over 1,500 bandsaw pallet dismantlers in the past 10 years. I have received only a couple of reports of operators suffering a significant cut about the hands. I do not doubt that there are more accidents, but given the speed of the blade and the lack of sharp teeth, they would tend to be more minor than the type of cuts suffered in an accident with a vertical bandsaw machines common in most wood shops. When you consider the millions of board feet of lumber that are recycled by bandsaw pallet dismantling machines every year and the favorable injury rate, there is clearly a very good cost/benefit ratio, which is what we all use many times every day in our lives to justify everything we do.
I worry about the perceived power of OSHA on our industry. In my home town of about 80,000 population, almost every physician has sold his private medical practice to the one local hospital and became an employee. One of the reasons I heard several times was the fact that OSHA was leaning hard on private medical practices and most doctors did not want the extra burden of dealing with OSHA. The hospital offered to manage OSHA and employee headaches, among other things, so now all medical care in my town comes from one source. You can imagine what happened to the cost of medical care. It increased, naturally. I would hate to see the same thing in our industry.
During the course of writing this article it occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to suggest an idea for the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA). As a pilot, I belong to a couple of aviation organizations. Both offer a legal aid service that I can sign up for as a member for an additional premium. It has really become more important since 9-11 with the change in attitude towards aviation.
An optional legal service could be valuable to NWPCA members. The association’s role would be to retain a good labor lawyer who knows our industry and OSHA regulations. This may be old business with the NWPCA, but it be worth another look now.
I hope that my thoughts about OSHA and bandsaw dismantlers help persuade some of you to stand your ground when you believe you are right, because it has worked in the past for me.
(Editor’s Note: Ron Waechter is owner and president of Smart Products, which manufactures and supplies bandsaw pallet dismantling machines and other pallet recycling equipment.)