Any industrial job can be hazardous, but the OSHA-tabulated rate of injuries — including major and fatal injuries — to workers in glass and glass-product manufacturing are among the highest of all U.S. industries. Recent statistics show that 43% of such injuries typically occur while handling or transporting the glass.
This makes safety a primary — and potentially expensive — consideration. For example, in 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled data on 235,960 back injuries in the workplace, and reported that injured employees can be expected to remain unavailable for about seven days (median “Days Away, Restricted, or Transferred), too often costing the employer tens of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, the true picture is probably much worse. In 2008, the House Education and Labor Committee found that as many as 69% of workplace injuries may never be reported to the BLS.
Special glass-related risks
Workers handling large, heavy sheets of glass are at special risk for injury and even death. Authorities say that factors such as the angle of inclination of sheet glass in storage, as well as issues of bowing and venting (the sudden breaking of glass), thickness and strength of the glass sheet, as well as overall sheet weight, are all factors contributing to the industry’s unusual risks.
Other important considerations in developing safe handling procedures for glass workers often include protective clothing and preventive barriers, as well as controlled access and passageways for rapid egress from all areas where glass might suddenly “vent.”
These dangers are well-recognized at the Marvin Windows and Doors of Tennessee plant in Ripley, Tenn., where extremely large, awkward and breakable components — including dangerous-to-handle glass sheets weighing as much as 200 pounds — are routinely assembled into door panels than can weigh as much as 500 pounds.
For many years, Marvin WDT had to send coordinated teams of workers to lift, carry, position and lower these components without mechanical assistance, each person having to wrangle as much as 125-135 pounds of the fragile material. The result was a steady stream of problems.
“We saw numerous back injuries in that area,” remembers Hal Williams, the Safety, Workers Comp and Wellness Manager at Marvin WDT’s Ripley plant. “And there was also a high employee turnover in that area, mainly from workers having to pick up the heavy panels and having to move them manually.”
Reducing injuries and boosting results
To combat these problems, Marvin WDT began redesigning and retooling its production processes, investing in state-of-the-art material handling systems to reduce the risk of injuries and ease the workload. “Safety is one of the factors driving the decision to change over to the new process,” explains Williams. As it turns out, the new equipment also delivers the additional benefits of improving morale, retention and productivity.
To reduce the risk of injuries and ease the workload, Marvin Windows and Doors of Tennessee began redesigning and retooling its production processes, investing in state-of-the-art material handling systems.
Workers now use one of the new manipulating systems to pick up sheets of glass from the original shipping crates and place them into door sashes positioned on a horizontal conveyor. Workers then use a second, larger unit to pick up an entire door panel with its glass and sash assembly for installation into a frame. The sheets of glass alone weigh up to 200 pounds, depending on dimensions, while the final door panels weigh as much as 500 pounds.
Marvin WDT made its purchase decision after inviting several top vendors to present information about the capabilities of their equipment. The AirOlift system turned out to offer the most flexibility, including the ability to rotate, turn and tilt the heavy objects while moving them. AirOlift Lifting Systems is an Akron, Ohio-based builder of ergonomic lifting systems for some of the largest companies in the world (www.airolift.com).
According to Williams, Marvin WDT originally purchased two lifting/manipulating systems capable of moving 500 pounds or more, and then added two more. Although clamping systems capable of handling very delicate objects are available for the units, Marvin WDT opted for suction systems designed to specifically handle glass and other smooth-surfaced objects.
Since early 2009, the systems have been making it easier, faster and safer for Marvin WDT workers to do their jobs.
“They’re performing wonderfully,” says Williams, of the AirOlift equipment. “We haven’t had any issues at all, no service or mechanical failure or anything like that. One of the safety features I really like is that if air pressure is lost, the manipulators will not release or drop the panel.”