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IMA Wellness Blog

An Overview of Press Brake Safe Guarding

by Dan O’Connell

O’Connell Communications, Inc. is an IMA B2B Partner…

Press brakes are unforgiving machines, and a frequent source of workplace amputations of hands, fingers and arms. United States Department of Labor statistics indicate an average of 368 instances of amputations annually from press brake accidents. And these are only the reported accidents.

Press brakes have a long history of both productivity and dangers. Hammers were the tool of choice for any Blacksmith until 1784. That was when a man named James Watt, a Scottish inventor and Mechanical Engineer, came up with concept of the “Steam Hammer”. The first steam hammer was built in 1840 which was revolutionary and a turning point for manufacturing with steel. The downside of this industrialization was safety, which was largely disregarded in the rush to use labor saving machines and processes. Developments of the press brake and other machinery occurred within a legal and regulatory climate that diminished employer’s interest in safety. As a result, Americans developed production methods that were both highly productive and often very dangerous.

We have come a long way since then both in productivity and safety. Older press brakes, that is ones built prior to 1985, were mechanical or flywheel-types. Stopping times were long, making modern safeguarding techniques like light curtains impractical. After 1985, press brakes were hydraulic allowing for a wider variety of safeguarding options with faster stopping times.


No matter the age, press brakes present a unique set of dangers. The primary reasons are access to the point of operation at the front of the machine, as well as reaching around the safety device to get to the point of operation at the ends of the machine, In addition, there are pinch points and hazardous motion created by the back-gauge system.

But the dangers don’t stop there. However well intentioned, fabricators often employ lower cost, used or refurbished press brakes where the primary controls and/or condition of the machine and safety system may be suspect. Fabricators may not have anyone on staff that has safeguarding competency so serious shortcomings can be overlooked or ignored. Plus, original equipment manufacturers (OEM’s) generally consider the point of operation aspect of the press brake safety system to be the end-user’s responsibility. The end-user may assure, incorrectly, that the machinery arrived into the shop in full operating for commissioning. Lastly, press brakes have always been are operator intensive, sometimes involving multiple operators, and their behavior is not always predictable. That is why it is good practice to make one operator the leader of the crew.

Basic safety procedures bear repeating. These are “golden rules” to press brake use that can save lives.

  • Keep work area clean, orderly and free of oil, grease or scrap.
  • Use work supports, mechanical assists or helpers when loading and unloading parts or heavy sheets.
  • Wear PPE (gloves, goggles) ; never wear loose clothing, wristwatch, rings, et cetera when operating machinery to avoid being dragged into danger area.
  • Never leave machine running unattended.
  • Keep hands away from all moving items (ram, work pieces). Avoid trip hazards with foot switch and cord.
  • Always LO/TO before doing maintenance, no matter how small.
  • Never use damaged dies.
  • Never attempt to tamper with wiring or bypass safety control. When finished, position ram at bottom of stroke, LO/TO.

Training should be completed before any employee or operator is allowed to work near the press brake, and the employer should maintain accurate records of all training. Employees should also be encouraged to report press brake hazards and to make suggestions related to safety. Refresher training should be conducted as needed.

It is also good practice to develop and enforce a written safety program, one that incorporates guidelines for operating all machinery and performing tasks. Employees should be given a copy and provided training that emphasizes safe operating procedures, limitations of equipment, use of guards, and hazard recognition and control. Employers should monitor employee compliance with all policies.


There are two sources of press brake regulations, OSHA and ANSI. ANSI is considered the more specific and modern of the two.

OSHA’s machinery and machine guarding regulations (29 CFR 1910 Subpart O) require one or more guarding methods to protect employees from exposure to hazardous machine energy during the operation of press brakes. There isn’t a great deal of detail to the OSHA regulations so fabricators in search of answers would be better served by turning to ANSI B11.3-2012 which covers safeguarding of power presses. The B11.3 adopted EN 12622 (European standard), giving it even more specific instructions to follow and minimizing any vague, grey areas.

ANSI B11.3 is the only safety system standard specifically applicable to power press brakes used in America, and it excludes mechanical power presses; hydraulic power presses, hand brakes; tangent benders; apron brakes; and other similar types of metal bending machines. It discusses hazards associated with the point of operation at length and identifies alternative guards and devices. For example, the ‘close proximity point of operation AOPD’ safeguarding devices, which we will discuss later in this article, and a means of safeguarding referred to as ‘Safe Speed.’ We should note that ANSI B11.TR3 recommends risk assessments of press brakes among other equipment, a specialty service of Rockford Systems.


Today, there several ways to safeguard a press brake, some better than others. All have advantages and drawbacks.

The most basic type of safeguarding is a fixed and interlocked barrier guard coupled with two hand controls. This is not a functional solution for fabricators as a work piece is hand held in close proximity to the point of operation during the braking process and can potentially whip up as bending is taking place.

Another approach  are pull-backs and restraints. Both are restrictive and have limitations and for that reason, operators hate them. Both devices shackle the operator to a machine and restricts mobility.

Yet another approach is the two-hand down/foot through device. In some cases, this will work. However, this method raises ergonomic issues and it is very slow. Not what you want in a busy, production-driven fabrication shop.


Next we have light curtains. Light curtains started out as simple product detection devices and then developed into a machine guarding product. The early safety light curtains used incandescent lamps strung together with a corresponding line of light detectors. One of the first machine safety applications that safety light curtains were used on were presses.

A light curtain is a photoelectric presence-sensing device. It protects against access into hazardous points and areas. They can range from very compact to larger, more robust and resistant models that can withstand demanding ambient conditions. We should note that a stop-time measurement (STM) device is needed to calculate the safety distance on a regular basis, just as it is needed with two-hand controls.

Safety Light Curtains safeguard personnel in the vicinity of point-of-operation hazards. This is done with an LED transmitter and receiver. Any interruption of the plane of light by an object equal to/or larger than the “minimum object sensitivity” initiates an output signal. That could be a hand or a finger or a misplaced tool, and it causes the machine to stop or it doesn’t allow a cycle until the blockage is removed. To not initiate this output signal, the operator must be outside the protected area through the entire stroke of the press brake ram. The safety distance between the light curtain and the machine depends on the application, the type of light curtain, and the machine’s stopping performance.

OSHA has a set of regulations for light curtains which are listed here:

  1. The machine must be able to stop the movement of the ram anywhere in the stroke.
  2. The stopping time of the ram must be known.
  3. The stopping time of the ram must be monitored for deviation in stopping time on each stroke.
  4. The minimum distance the light curtains can be located to the pinch point must be known.
  5. The light curtains must be control reliable.
  6. The machine stop circuit with which the light curtains are interfaced, must be control reliable.
  7. The light curtains must be self checking for proper operation on each stroke.
  8. There should be no easy way to disable the safety system without special tools.
  9. If the safety system is disabled there should be a clear indication that it is disabled.
  10. The operator and setup person should be properly trained in the operation of the safety system.


The newest entry into the press brake safety category is probably its most revolutionary, the Laser Active Optic Protective Device, more commonly referred to as the AOPD. Invented in 1998 as an alternative to light curtains, these systems were first used in the European Union before coming to the US in 2003 as a retrofit solution for existing press brakes. Four manufacturers now make AOPD systems including LazerSafe, a partner of Rockford Systems.

Today, laser AOPD have become standard systems for many press brakes, both on imported machines and those manufactured in the United States. Inclusion of Laser AOPD technology in the B11.3 is a welcome addition to the standard that now gives press brake manufacturers, dealers and users a clear guideline to implementing this technology safely. (B11.3 sub-clause 8.8.7 – Close Proximity Point of Operation AOPD Safeguarding Device)

Because of their close proximity point of operation, AOPD systems are best suited for applications such as box bending, bending with flanges, or where light curtain effectiveness is diminished due to excessive blanking or muting.

The biggest advantage of AODP is that operators can hand-hold piece parts up close to the dies, while using a foot-switch to actuate the machine-cycle, which is almost impossible to safely accomplish using a light curtain. Another advantage is for larger piece parts with tall side-legs, that would also be difficult when using a vertically mounted light curtain for safeguarding. For those familiar with using light curtains, those two situations often require excessive “Channel Blanking” which “yes” allows for production of those parts, but often lets the hands and fingers to reach too close to the dies.


Laser AOPD protects the point of hazard whereas light curtain systems restrict operator access to the point of hazard. Due to this design operators can hand-hold piece parts up close to the dies with AOPD, while using a foot-switch to actuate the machine-cycle. This is virtually impossible to safely accomplish using a Light Curtain. But that doesn’t make AODP perfect for every application.

There are advantages and drawbacks to both systems. Moreover, it is not an “either-or” situation between light curtains and AODP. The two can be used, and often are, on the same machine. Light curtains provide for die configurations that the AODP won’t handle like compound bends, for instance. This is done to ensure that safeguarding is provided for all die setups. For die setups where neither light curtains or AOPD can offer effective safeguarding, but the part can be fixture in place, that is it does not require hand-support, a two-hand control can be used for safeguarding.

This article is an original submission for the IMA Wellness Blog. For more information, contact Dan O’Connell at