For decades, industry has, as a general practice, developed manufacturing processes and applied safeguarding after the fact. Most ANSI Standards, like the family of B11 General Industry Standards for machine tools, have focused largely on the operator, and upon point-of-operation protection, with little consideration for maintenance and breakdown work. However, the complexity of today's machinery is such that many of the skilled tasks cannot be performed because the work was not anticipated in design. For example, most companies specify lockout when doing maintenance work to protect against hazardous motion, but what happens when an employee needs power on for diagnostic work or adjustment? We continually see examples where machine designs and safety rules conflict. If employees followed all safety rules, industry would shut down within the hour and never run again.
General Motors Corporation has a long and proud history in occupational health and safety. In 1973, the first joint efforts with the United Auto Workers and other unions were established. However, serious fatal injuries kept recurring, and the parties set out to strengthen the lockout policies and practices. Ultimately, the concept of "zero-energy" came into being in the 1980's, continuing into the 1990's. Still, employees were seriously and fatally injured, especially during maintenance tasks. Throughout this period, GM was like much of industry - saying it wanted to apply the hierarchy of safety control measures, but not knowing how.
In 1986, the UAW and GM hosted a joint annual conference, the theme of which was "Design-In Safety." It was the cornerstone for future efforts. Ultimately, it came to be recognized that many maintenance tasks could not be performed according to stated policy due to machine and safeguarding design. Only by changing machine design and safeguarding could we allow risk to be reduced and concurrently improve production. The question was "how."
With the advent of GM's top management writing a new policy in 1994, safety became the Corporation's over-riding priority. The necessary momentum was in place, and the General Motors established a new Engineering for Health and Safety function.
The new GM activity was charged with developing a robotics specification that would provide common safeguarding for automated body shops in assembly plants. A cross-functional team of engineers, management and union safety professionals began work and embraced a couple of important issues that would guide future accomplishments. First, every issue was to be dealt with openly and, second, the realities of the workplace would not be ignored. In other words, the group would deal affirmatively with situations where power had to be on and the employee could have exposure to a hazardous condition. Without a defined methodology, the team undertook the first steps to perform a task-based risk assessment for a major project inside the company. It proved to be an important cornerstone for future developments.