Keeping up shop: Staff-led initiative promotes safety in campus shops

Facilities manager Dave Conger (third from left) shows the new machine work to Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Chair Iwan Alexander, Case School of Engineering Dean Norman S. Tien and engineering’s associate dean of finance and administration Laura Bulgarelli.

At Case Western Reserve University, innovation and research are keys to the university’s success. But imagine what might happen if the shops in which faculty and students work were not current with today’s safety standards. It’s those scenarios that the team behind a large-scale, behind-the-scenes initiative hopes to prevent.

Over the past three years, a staff-led team from Environmental Health & Safety (EHS), various schools and the Bureau of Workers Compensation (BWC) has been involved in a major undertaking: updating machines in labs and shops across campus to create safer research environments for faculty, staff and students. Hundreds of machines have been upgraded, with staff members sometimes custom-building parts for the aging equipment to make it suitable for the 21st century.

The safety modernization project began after a peer institution review pointed out deficiencies in machine guarding in various shops and student labs around campus. Almost immediately, former EHS director David Sedwick assigned William DePetro, safety specialist II for Facilities and Construction Safety at EHS, to initiate a plan to update hundreds of machines in the Case School of Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences and Facilities Services. DePetro then contacted BWC and worked with engineering staff members Dave Conger, Neil Harnar, Wayne Schmidt and Jim Drake, who led the design and installation of the machinery upgrades.

Modernization included building or purchasing machine guards to protect researchers from the machines while still allowing them to work effectively, as well as adding emergency stop switches on all machines to interrupt power in an emergency.

Updating some machines was not worth the investment, and those machines were replaced or “tagged out” so they can no longer be used, explained Conger, who is the facilities manager for the mechanical, aerospace and civil engineering departments. Others, however, may be even older but are still operable; those have been brought up to code and revamped. “Rather than throw it away and replace it at a cost to the department, we just used a little ingenuity and repurposed them,” he said.

Now, most shops are completely updated and the team considers its initial project nearly finished, but the initiative will continue in other schools and departments.

Engineering staff members (from left) Wayne Schmidt, Neil Harnar and Dave Conger led the design and implementation of the project.

“It truly was a fantastic team effort where all of the talents came together collectively and in a timely manner to make this work,” DePetro said.

The speed with which the project was completed was remarkable, said Byron Bombay, an industrial safety consultant specialist with the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, who provided guidance throughout the project.

He and EHS executive director Chuck Hart agreed that the speed and dedication to the project was unlike anything they’ve seen in their careers.

“They just really took the bull by the horns and made this project take off,” Hart said.

The project’s speedy implementation is not only thanks to the expertise of the team, but also to Case School of Engineering Dean Norman S. Tien, DePetro said. “He saw the value of what we were doing and funded the project to make it work,” he said.

From here, the team plans to use the engineering shops as a model for updating others across campus. Additionally, they plan to focus on classroom training so students, especially, know how to correctly and safely operate every machine in the shop.

“Even though [the machine guards are] here, you have to use them for them to be effective,” DePetro noted. “But we’re hoping everyone learns to use them properly. It will teach them a life lesson as well as keep them safe.”

Want more information on how to get your lab or machinery up to date? Email William DePetro at