Did you know that of the 32,000 work-related accident investigations in the United States each year, about 20,000 are maintenance-related? Ralph Barnett, president of Triodyne Inc., a safety engineering firm in Northbrook, Ill., is all too familiar with this statistic; it’s his firm’s job to find new ways to make the workplace safer for everyone, especially for those who work in maintenance.
You might not think much about one of the techniques companies use to prevent accidents, particularly one that has been around for more than 30 years: lockout/tagout. It was developed in the early 1970s during a partnership between Frank Hall and his colleague, Robert Mitchell, with assistance from the American Foundrymen’s Association.
The number of workers injured on the job might be much higher if this collaboration had never taken place. Hall applied the concept of zero mechanical state (ZMS) to completely shut off the power to machines that are being serviced, and to lock other workers out to protect those who are servicing the machines. “He figured out a way to get rid of energy and to put it at ‘absolute zero,’” Barrett says. No doubt this invention has spared many maintenance technicians from catastrophic – or fatal – injury.
Hall made many other contributions to the fields of law and engineering safety. After serving in World War II, he returned to Chicago to learn electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). He then studied to be a lawyer at DePaul University, also in Chicago, and later took a position at Beardsley & Piper as a patent attorney specializing in product liability defense. He also spent four years at Argonne National Laboratory developing the Zero-Gradient Synchrotron, the first accelerator at the lab.
Born with an abundance of energy and creativity, Hall also enjoyed the craft of magic. His love for illusion at age 16 earned him the honor of performing at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. He used his magician’s skills later in life to lift the spirits of those in veterans’ hospitals and those who were served by the Red Cross.
Hall took his 88 years of learning, observing and innovating with him when he passed away on March 23.
He wasn’t just an inventor; he was also a highly caring and ethical person. “You had to be very careful about asking him for something,” Barrett says. “If you told him you needed a ride somewhere, he was liable to go and buy you a car. That’s just the kind of person he was.”
Hall felt so strongly about the importance of lockout/tagout that he spent his own money to fly back and forth from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to make sure the government adopted the safety measure properly and applied it evenly in all 50 states. “Every state agency adopted it,” Barrett recalls. “It’s like a miracle that we were ever able to do that.”
He also used his conviction to convince others, including Barrett, to join in the adoption process. “That tricky devil got me to spend my own money, too, to go to Washington,” he says. “The reason it was adopted so uniformly is because Hall made OSHA write it [the policy on lockout/tagout] so clearly. He corrected it before it got out. It’s a lifesaver and it will continue saving lives forever.”
Hall retired in 1982, but continued to work as an expert witness and was a prolific writer who contributed volumes to Triodyne’s safety library, which Barrett touts as the world’s largest. Hall was preparing to write another paper for the library on electrical grounding when he died following complications from surgery. After he passed away, the magician’s society that he belonged to held a “ceremony of the broken wand” to honor this highly esteemed magician.
Although it isn’t possible to know about or appreciate all the inventors and innovators who create things that make our lives and livelihoods safer, Hall’s life shows us how everyday people can take ordinary ideas and make them extraordinary. “I can’t say enough nice things about him,” Barrett says.
Perhaps the next time you’re using lockout/tagout to prepare a machine for maintenance, you’ll look at it a little bit differently; maybe you’ll spend a moment or two thinking about the anecdotes Ralph Barrett wanted to make sure the maintenance world knew about his lifelong friend. And after a long day’s work, you’ll be able to go home – safely.