4 Ways to Improve Safety on the Manufacturing Floor

Despite big improvements in safety over the past few decades, manufacturing still can be a dangerous occupation. Injuries can result not only in lawsuits and reduced employee morale but in reduced productivity and reputation damage.

More than 100,000 manufacturing workers are injured on the job every year. The top five injuries to manufacturing workers are due to: contact with an object (40%), overexertion (24%), slips, trips and falls (19%), repetitive motion (8%), and contact from harmful substances (6%).

While all injuries can’t be prevented, organizational initiatives and efforts can go a long way in reducing the rate of injury. Here are 4 ways to improve safety on the manufacturing floor.

1. Establish a culture of safety. The manufacturers with the best safety records are often those that have the greatest safety culture. This culture needs to start at the top with the C-suite and be adopted by front line workers with the mindset that they are responsible for their safety.

MISUMI USA, which makes mechanical components for factory automation, said a culture of safety should start with safety engineered into equipment and processes to reduce human error. Working conditions also should be designed to maximize ergonomics and manufacturers should build in small production breaks, as monotonous work can lead to a fatigued workforce, which is a big driver of largely preventable accidents and serious injuries. “Although fatigue will never be completely eliminated, small production breaks can go a long way to mitigating the concern by greatly reducing extreme fatigue,” MISUMI said.

“At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from a safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own.”

When a recent report by a California-based worker advocacy group revealed that injury rates at Tesla’s Fremont manufacturing facility were higher than the industry average, the CEO Elon Musk stepped up and directly emailed all employees. He said that moving forward, all injuries were to be reported to him and that he would understand how to improve it by going down the production line and performing the same task. “At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from a safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own,” said Musk.

2. Create checklists and safety programs. At the very least, most manufacturers are cognizant of OSHA regulations and have some sort of basic safety awareness. But beyond that, a series of checklists and safety programs can identify additional risks that may be unique to the individual manufacturer. Doug Schumann, advisor with Safety Management Group, said manufacturers should create a detailed list of potential fire, electrical and ergonomic hazards. OSHA maintains checklists for safety on everything from abrasive wheel grinders and machine guarding to engineering controls, battery manufacturing, aerial lifts and electrical hazards.

“You should identify anything that you could be exposed to…Chemicals, for example, need a hazard communication program in place so you can know where your safety data sheets are and what the process is to use and store those chemicals,” Schumann said.

3. Look to technology. Technologies such as IoT, automation and analytics all can be used to improve safety. Automation and robotic technologies remove workers from harm’s way, and IoT sensors can be used to offer better information on machinery operation and how processes are performing.

Fujitsu is even using sensors and artificial intelligence to estimate ongoing heat stress in workers. When combined with other algorithms, it can tell which and when workers may be more susceptible to heat stroke outdoors or around hot machinery. Chris O’Connor, general manager Internet of Things Offerings for IBM, said the “connected worker” who is enabled with technology is more aware of their environment and inherently safer. Sensors can track how both humans and machines operate on their own and with one another. It also can give manufacturers data to make continuous safety improvements and reduce risks.

“Wearable and embedded sensors are making it possible for workers to be monitored within their surroundings to prevent injury from falls, overexertion, heavy machinery—the list of what wearables allow us to prevent is a lengthy one,” said O’Connor.

4. Engage in regular communication and training. Manufacturers must ensure their factory workers are continually trained in the latest technologies and proper protocols for handling equipment, machines and processes. This includes being trained to identify the risks, the consequences of the risks, and how they can be reduced in various hazard scenarios. Schumann said improper training is a “very common problem” and that in many cases, investigations often reveal workers weren’t properly trained or failed to follow proper procedures.

At a time when they’re already being pressed for labor, manufacturers sometimes can fear downtime for training, but Schumann said it’s a necessity. “There are cost savings in reduced downtime because of injuries, or in retraining people because you have to rotate them out…The overall goal is to reduce injuries,” Schumann said.

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Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.

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