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Machine Safeguarding Sometimes Takes a Back Seat to Lock Out Tag Out

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Machine with expanded metal machine guard.

Machine safeguarding and lock out tag out protocols are undoubtedly two sides of the same safety coin, each addressing different aspects of worker protection. While both are designed to prevent unintended contact with hazardous energy, their application varies based on the operation status of the machinery. Machine safeguarding measures come into the picture during the normal operation of equipment. These protective strategies ensure that while the machinery is processing materials - an operation that inherently involves hazardous energy - workers interacting with or in the vicinity of the machine remain safe. It's not about eliminating the hazardous energy, which is vital for the work, but rather meticulously channeling it so that it doesn't pose a threat to the human workforce.

On the other hand, lock out tag out measures come into play when the equipment needs to be serviced, cleaned, or repaired. In these situations, it's generally not necessary for the machine's hazardous energy to be present. So, what do you do? You remove the hazardous energy. Not only that, but you also secure the energy-isolation devices in a manner that allows workers to safely carry out their tasks, even in areas around the equipment that would otherwise be considered dangerous. This method ensures that the machinery remains de-energized until the tasks are fully completed and it is safe to restore the energy. The key here is foresight and meticulous planning to create a safe environment for workers to operate in.

Unfortunately, it's been my experience that machine safeguarding sometimes doesn't receive the attention it deserves in ensuring the protection of workers. There can be several reasons for this. In this blog post, we'll take a look at some reasons why machine safeguarding may not be emphasized as much as it should be as well as ways to potentially fix that issue.

Machine Safeguarding is Hard to Do After The Fact

Home in the middle of being renovated

One of the major reasons why machine safeguarding often takes a backseat is that it tends to come as an afterthought during the equipment design phase. In this, it's a lot like trying to renovate a home rather than design it the way you wanted in the first place. You tend to find problems the more you try to make after-the-fact changes. The concern of machine safeguarding taking a back seat becomes especially prominent in the case of older equipment - some I've seen date as far back as the 1920s. It was a different era back then, with different safety standards. However, it's crucial to understand that this is not just an issue restricted to dated machinery. The same problem can arise even when acquiring new equipment, particularly if the importance of machine safeguarding wasn't emphasized during the procurement process. Consequently, if machine safeguarding isn't prioritized right from the design and acquisition phase, retrofitting the equipment for safety later can become a significant challenge, often akin to an uphill battle. It's far more efficient and safe to incorporate these features in the initial design than to scramble for safety measures after the fact.

The Space Constraint in Retrofitting Machine Safeguards

Just imagine if you already have a machine that’s perfectly designed for the available space, only to realize later that it lacks the necessary safety measures. Now, you have to retrofit the equipment with machine safeguards, but guess what? There's not enough room to accommodate this additional endeavor. The equipment was designed to optimize the use of space in the facility, and now adding extra provisions for safety becomes a practical headache. This issue tends to arise when safety considerations are not part of the initial planning and design process. Hence, it's paramount to prioritize machine safeguarding from the start to avoid such spatial and design conflicts later on.

Overstepping Equipment Specifications – A Hazard in Disguise

While managing spatial constraints is a vital aspect of machine safeguarding, it's not the only issue at hand. Another significant problem arises when equipment is utilized beyond its designed specifications. Consider, for instance, a deck designed to carry 20-foot iron rods for processing. Should you decide to process 60-foot rods on the same deck to fulfill additional orders, you've overstepped the deck's intended use. Though the deck and equipment might technically be able to handle the longer rods, achieving this often requires the assistance of extra laborers or mobile equipment to accommodate the unwieldy material length. This scenario presents a unique challenge to machine safeguarding. It becomes increasingly difficult to guard potentially hazardous areas that require accessibility for mobile equipment or laborers. Therefore, using equipment within its designed specifications is not just about efficiency—it's a critical aspect of maintaining a safe working environment.

Lock Out Tag Out Can Be Easier To Tackle

A football player tackling another football player

Generally speaking, implementing lock-out tag-out (LOTO) protocols do not typically necessitate changes to energy isolation devices. The primary requirement is that these devices are successful in their function of energy isolation—the rest is mainly procedural. In the hierarchy of controls, procedures are positioned just above personal protective equipment in terms of effectiveness. However, they are easier to introduce than something like machine safeguarding, which demands certain design standards for safety. The essential difference lies in the approach: LOTO is largely about crafting procedures to manage behaviors, whereas machine safeguarding is about designing machines to be inherently safe from the start. This means that implementing LOTO is often less complicated.

Lock Out Tag Out Begins Where Machine Safeguarding Ends

Two hands with a baton. One is passing it on to another

Have you ever questioned what instigates the obligation to execute LOTO? It's whenever you need to dismantle or sidestep a guard or be in a hazardous area around or near a machine. As previously mentioned, machine safeguarding is for standard operations. Conversely, LOTO comes into play when you can de-energize the machinery and secure it to work on it. If you lack adequate machine safeguards, many workers may be ignorant about the necessity of LOTO. You might assume that common sense would deter workers from approaching rotating parts, spinning saws, or other conspicuously hazardous machinery. Yet, curiosity can often override caution, and it's astonishing what people can acclimate to if exposed frequently enough. Consequently, it's of paramount importance to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place. This ensures employees are secure when machines are operational, and they understand the prerequisite of LOTO before undertaking servicing or other tasks in the dangerous vicinity of the machine.


While it's true that Lock Out Tag Out (LOTO) often takes precedence in discussions around safety measures, it's crucial to elevate machine safeguarding to similar esteem. The reason is simple - it's impossible to effectively implement LOTO without a clear understanding of when it applies. Moreover, without adequate machine safeguarding, employees risk severe injury just from being in the vicinity of operational equipment. To minimize such risk, it's beneficial to incorporate machine-safeguarding requirements right from the initial stages of equipment acquisition. By doing so, it ingrains the importance of safety standards during the manufacturing and installation processes, thus creating a safer work environment from the outset. Consequently, we shouldn't perceive machine safeguarding and LOTO as competing safety measures but rather as complementary aspects of a comprehensive safety protocol.

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