Raising awareness about x-ray machine safety in manufacturing

X-ray technology is increasingly being used by employers to inspect the safety and quality of products. They need to know its impact on worker safety. 

Photo of worker with clipboard in freezing room of a warehouse

Photo credit: iStock.com/sorn340

X-ray machines are not new. For many decades, we’ve seen them used for medical, dental, and veterinary diagnostics. All of these machines are used by highly trained people and are accounted for in a well-maintained registry.

But now other industries are using x-ray technology in new ways. For example, consider B.C.’s food processing industry. Companies are using x-ray machines to ensure quality control and consumer safety. Their x-ray machines identify things like impurities, foreign objects, and damage in products.

Yet despite their effectiveness for quality control, x-ray machines can be hazardous to workers’ health if the right controls are not in place. Overexposure to radiation can cause various types of cancer that may not develop for decades.

I talked about this topic with Colin Murray, senior manager of WorkSafeBC’s Risk Analysis Unit (RAU). Colin is also the B.C. coordinator for the Federal Provincial Territorial Radiation Protection Committee (FPTRPC), a working group that promotes and advances radiation safety in the workplace, the environment, and our communities.

Learning about how x-ray equipment is used in manufacturing

A few years ago, at an FPTRPC meeting in Ottawa, Colin was talking with experts from Health Canada and other jurisdictions across the country about an increased supply of x-ray equipment being sold to employers in the manufacturing sector, particularly in Ontario.

He returned to B.C. and looked at the situation here. Unlike for medical x-ray machines, there was no registry of machines used in other industries, so Colin and his team partnered with the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada (RSIC) and the Manufacturing Safety Alliance of BC (MSABC) to learn more about how these machines were being used. In October 2017, they did a study to look at how aware manufacturing employers were of the hazards related to x-ray radiation and whether they were prepared to assess the risks. (Read more in the MSCBC’s Too few radiation safety programs.)

“Because it’s relatively new in manufacturing, we don’t have the same registration requirements,” Colin says. “We know the technology is increasing and developing. There’s more and more people employing these devices as part of a process or an installation in their facilities. Employers need to know what they’re bringing in and what their workers are being exposed to.”

Safety by design

I asked Colin about the best controls for workers’ safety when working around x-ray machines.

“The best way to control radiation is to keep your distance — the further away the better,” Colin says, stressing the importance of designing facilities with proper engineering controls in place.

Ultimately, x-ray machines need to be well-sealed and properly maintained. Says Colin: “You don’t want anything to leak in the first place. You want to design it in a proper way that mitigates the risks right up front so that there’s limited exposure to the worker.”

There should also be barriers in place when workers are in a process line or working around a zone in which a radiation-emitting machine is operating. In addition, employers need to think about training, signage, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers.

Read my post An evolving approach to injury prevention to learn more about how the RAU looks at emerging risks from new products, procedures, and technology.

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