All locks are not equal

23 January 2013

The use of unsuitable safety locks in Lock Out Tag Out (LOTO) applications is putting lives at risk, according to padlock producer, Master Lock In any situation where people trust their lives to their equipment, they

The use of unsuitable safety locks in Lock Out Tag Out (LOTO) applications is putting lives at risk, according to padlock producer, Master Lock

In any situation where people trust their lives to their equipment, they normally ensure that equipment is the best possible quality. But while it is expected that personal protective equipment used in the workplace will have been tested and proved up to the task, there is still one area where the use of potentially unsuitable products in life-threatening applications is commonplace.

Physically locking the controls of machinery or processes to prevent them being activated when workers might be exposed to danger - a procedure known as Lock Out /Tag Out (LOTO) - is a widely adopted accident prevention strategy in industry. Lock-out/Tag-out procedures have probably saved many from death or serious injury as they service or repair dangerous machinery. But Master Lock believes lives are still being put at risk by the use of general purpose locks in LOTO applications.

Kieran MacCourt, marketing manager of Master Lock Europe, comments, "It seems strange that nobody would base a life-or-death purchase decision, like buying a parachute for example, on cost alone; and yet that's exactly what's happening when someone decides to trust their life to a cheap padlock they bought at a local hardware store." "Effective LOTO procedures ultimately rely on the integrity of individual locking devices", comments MacCourt. "A lock that breaks easily, can be circumvented or removed by someone other than the key holder is in some ways more dangerous than no lock at all because it can engender a completely false sense of security." Most padlocks available to the public were not designed or intended to be used in life-threatening situations. Industrial environments are invariably harsh and frequent heavy use in these environments subjects the padlock to high levels of wear, leading to potential failure with lethal consequences.

Beware unmarked locking devices Not being clearly identifiable as safety devices introduces another element of danger. An unmarked locking device gives no indication of its purpose, thereby increasing the chances that it might be mistaken for a device placed in error and subsequently removed. An example might be where a day operator thinks an overnight maintenance engineer has gone off-shift and forgotten to remove the locking device.

Many padlocks designed for occasional or domestic use also have comparatively simple locking mechanisms and few key combinations, meaning that the chances of keys other than the original being able to unlock it are unacceptably high. "There are surprisingly few key variations in many domestic padlocks", continues MacCourt, "And usually no restrictions on the creation of duplicate keys. Once you have two or more keys for a safety lock in circulation, the entire system is compromised." Many of these dangers can be avoided by ensuring only locks designed specifically for industrial use are employed in LOTO procedures. Available with brightly colour-coded bodies incorporating warning labels, these are clearly identifiable as safety devices and also carry information about why the lock has been placed and who is responsible. Secure keying systems, such as that employed in the Master Lock's Safety Series locks, are based on the idea of "one employee, one key", where every employee is assigned a unique, nontransferable key code which enables them to have any number of safety locks under their control, all operated by a unique key which cannot be duplicated.

Master Lock maintains a database of the keying systems in use by every customer to ensure non-duplication of keys and locks.

"There is a dangerous misconception that any lock is adequate for LOTO purposes, but that is simply not the case", says MacCourt. "We would urge safety professionals to check the procedures in place at their companies to ensure workers aren't risking their lives through the use of ad-hoc safety equipment."