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Don’t let Your Grinder Bite the Hand that Feeds It
Reducing hazards that accompany pallet grinding is a manageable task. Learn to identify hazards unique to your company’s pallet grinders and reduce the risks employees face.

By DeAnna Stephens
Date Posted: 9/1/2009

            Brian Jacobs was only fifteen when he fell into a pallet grinding machine. It took emergency crews three hours to extract him. Doctors expect him to regain full use of his legs.

            Samuel Young was not so fortunate. Less than two weeks after Brian’s accident, Samuel died after falling into a grinder.

            These are just two of the many accidents that have involved grinders, each with different outcomes for the victims ranging from minor to fatal.

            Anyone who has worked around a pallet grinder knows how powerful they are – capable of turning a hardwood pallet into a pile of chips within seconds. Unfortunately, they are also capable of seriously injuring or even killing a person in the same amount of time, especially when safety standards are not followed.

            Looking at the cases mentioned above, Brian was not an employee of the company where he was injured. He was the son of an employee, according to published reports. As such, Brian would not have had the proper training to deal with the industrial machine. Also, he was not legally allowed access to the machine, as federal law prohibits minors from working with hazardous industrial machines, such as grinders.

            Samuel was reportedly caught in the grinder when he attempted to clear a clogged intake channel. The machine was not powered down and he was snagged and pulled into the machine as he worked.

            Pallet companies can significantly reduce the hazards employees face when working with grinding machines by recognizing the hazards that typically accompany grinders and training employees to avoid them.


Power Isolation

            From October 2007 to September 2008 the highest number of OSHA citations received by pallet and skid manufacturers was for improper control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout). This deals with a failure to properly isolate power from machines that are undergoing maintenance, including cleaning, repairing and releasing jammed materials. 

            Regardless of the reason, whenever an operator needs to reach inside a grinder it should be properly shut down with the power locked out. Workers should never attempt to release jammed pallets or begin repairs until the machine’s power has been properly isolated. Failing to do so could result in serious injury to the operator.

            The various grinding machines used by pallet companies have diverse ways of isolating power during maintenance. Operators should be well versed in the power isolation process for the machines they work with and should always ensure that the machine is properly shut down and the power isolated before beginning any type of maintenance.


Safety Steps

            Serious safety issues can occur when operators become too comfortable with the machines they regularly use.

            The best way to avoid accidents is to create and use safe standards. Employers should develop policies and require operators to follow them every time. Don’t allow operators to become so comfortable with their machines that they skip steps in the established safety procedure. If jamming is a regular occurrence, operators could easily become annoyed with the delays and skip the proper safety steps, thinking that they know how the machine works well enough to skip them. Neglecting to properly shut down a machine before removing a jammed pallet could result in serious injuries or even death, but this mistake can easily occur if the grinder operator grows tired of what he views as an unnecessary delay.


Limited Access

            Only qualified personnel should be allowed to work with high-hazard machinery, such as grinders. Limiting the number of people who have access to a machine can significantly reduce the possibility of an injury.

            Machine access can be limited in two ways – maintaining a strict policy on access to machinery keys or power supply and creating a restricted zone around the machine.

            Only authorized personnel, such as operators or managers, need access to the power supply or keys of a grinder. For safety reasons, many manufacturers recommend that pallet companies have an official policy regarding access to machinery keys.

            In the same way, only certified operators should be in close proximity to grinders. Creating a restricted zone around the machine will keep unqualified persons away from hazards that they may not understand, such as flying debris.


Flying Debris

            High-speed grinders all generate some kind of flying debris. The debris can be a risk for the grinder operator as well as other nearby workers and bystanders.

            This hazard is manageable, but it requires the operator to be aware of the debris. Operators must be conscientious of the direction and distance that their machine’s debris can travel to ensure that no one is in the debris field.

            Different styles of grinders cause debris to fly in different directions. Horizontal grinders usually cause debris to fly in a straight line away from the intake channel. Tub grinders tend to cause debris to fly a longer distance and in many directions.

            Some manufacturers also recommend that grinding machines be fed from an enclosed cab instead of feeding it by hand to shield the operator from any debris that flies out.


Maintenance and Cleaning

            Regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance of machines will prevent problems from going unnoticed.

            The person in charge of the maintenance should ensure that all moving parts are properly guarded.

            “Moving machine parts have the potential to cause severe workplace injuries, such as crushed fingers or hands, amputations, burns, or blindness,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “Safeguards are essential for protecting workers from these preventable injuries. Any machine part, function, or process that may cause injury must be safeguarded.”

            Cleaning should also be included in the maintenance schedule to prevent wood dust or oil from building up and contributing to the inherent fire hazard of grinding pallets.

            As wood from a pallet is ground into fresh dry tinder, the nails can easily create a spark, resulting in a smoldering pile of mulch or a full-blown fire. The fire risks can be reduced by cleaning the grinding machines regularly and thoroughly. This prevents the buildup of flammable materials on, inside or around the machine.



            The best way to prevent grinder accidents from happening at your company is to guarantee that all employees receive proper training.

            Develop and implement safe work procedures for grinding machine operators and make sure that they know them. Require all grinder operators to receive appropriate on-the-job training and work with supervision until they can work safely on their own.

            You can’t teach your grinder not to bite the hand that feeds it. But you can train employees to keep that hand out of reach of the grinder’s teeth.

            This does not cover all of the possible hazards related to pallet grinding machines. The wide variety of grinder designs produces hazards that are exclusive to each style. Pallet companies should ensure that they recognize the hazards specific to their grinding machines by reading the safety manuals created by the machine manufacturer or consulting with OSHA.

            OSHA’s free and confidential consultations are an excellent way to identify any potential hazards with your grinding operation and receive recommendations on safe practices.

            The consultation services are completely separate from enforcement and OSHA has established the policy that information inquiries it receives regarding safety and health regulations or other safety-related subjects will not trigger inspections. More information on OSHA’s consultation services can be found online at www.osha.gov.

            “The wood products industry includes some of the most dangerous occupations in the United States,” according to OSHA. “The equipment poses numerous hazards, particularly when machines are used improperly or without proper safeguards.” 

            These hazards and tragic accidents involving grinders are avoidable. Preventing them requires pallet companies to recognize possible dangers and train employees to use safe practices when operating grinders.

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