Make automation safety more visible

July 8, 2020
In this installment of Automation Zone, go beyond the daily safety moment, and get strategic about the financial benefits to your bottom line.

“Safety isn’t that important to us,” said no company ever. We all know that safety is important, and the cost of a recordable incident is expensive in more ways than one. Yet we continue to see reports of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) fining companies for violations, some in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Fatal work injuries actually increased in 2018 by two percent from 2017, and incidents involving contact with objects and equipment increased 13 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About the Authors: Doug Fagaly and Lee Schulte

If we all know that safety is important, why are we still here talking about safety best practices? The problem may be in the way manufacturers think about safety, or rather when they think about it. Often, companies will have a reactive approach, only making changes after an incident or near miss occurs.

Approaching safety as a bolted-on fix leads to a number of concerns in a plant. On the contrary, approaching safety from the perspective of an overall strategy is the key to not only keeping workers safe and mitigating the risk of recordable incidents; it can also positively impact production goals and lower manufacturing costs.

Aside from the obvious benefits of reducing or eliminating recordable incidents, complying with regulations, and avoiding fines, there are many other reasons to treat safety as a key component to your company’s overall strategy.

Brand image and reputation. A report of a serious accident or OSHA fine can be very damaging for a brand. In the age of social media and easy access to information and opinions, it is very easy for a company’s shortcomings to be found with a simple search online. Brands that have a reputation of prioritizing employees’ safety are viewed favorably within their industries and communities. It can even give them an edge on recruiting. According to a 2017 survey of small business employees conducted by Employers Insurance, safety was among the top criteria employees consider when evaluating a new job offer.

Improved employee morale and engagement, which leads to increased productivity. Your reputation internally is just as important as it is publicly. People want to work for a company that cares about safety. They want to know that someone is thinking of them. Then they’ll brag about that to other people. Also, employee morale and employee engagement go hand-in-hand, and when they go up, so does productivity. According to a Gallup report, organizations with highly engaged employees have 21 percent higher profitability compared to organizations with low engagement.

Improved quality. Safety systems implemented in the beginning can help machines run better. Take, for instance, a packaging line that needs to be configurable to pack many different SKUs. When it’s time to package a different product, operators have to go and adjust the rails on the conveyor and the filler necks and change parts out to accommodate the different sizes of the new product. This means they will need to put their hands in the machines to be able to make these changes. However, when the risks of a given machine are assessed as a part of a safety system, the required adjustments and changes can be automated, keeping workers safe and allowing the changeouts to be more repeatable. It’s about being consistent, achieving center lines, providing more vertical startups, lowering the downtime required for changeover, and reducing scrap.

Cost savings. While safety strategy and systems can cost money upfront, your investment can pay dividends down the line. Companies with a solid safety program in place are able to reduce their Experience Modification Rate (EMR), the number used by insurance companies to gauge the past cost of injuries and the chance of risks in the future. If your company’s EMR is higher than the 1.0 average, you can expect to pay higher premiums. On the other hand, companies with an EMR that is lower than 1.0 will see a reduction in premiums.

The key components of a safety strategy

  1. The first and most important part of the strategy is to get management buy-in and support at the highest level of your organization. There are many people who have to be involved in a master plan with safety. It’s a big task and it’s harder to convince that larger group of people that it has to be a priority. Support for safety has to come from the top down and be instilled in the culture by leadership. It’s also important to remember that safety is not a standalone project; it is a part of an overall organizational strategy.
  2. The second component is a clearly defined list of objectives and milestones. The objectives must be measurable and attainable.
  3. Third, you want to have clear guidelines and responsibilities. You also have to identify someone to lead your strategy, not just as the sole owner of safety but as the owner of the safety strategy. Many other people are going to have different pieces of the overall program. Consider everyone who will need to be involved and how.
  4. Communication is crucial. Everyone needs to have a clear understanding of how they contribute to the overall strategy. Milestones and goals should be communicated and celebrated when they are reached. Near-misses, without identifying workers, should be shared as learning opportunities. Consistent and regular communication of the safety strategy helps ensure that it becomes a part of the company culture.
  5. Everyone has a role in safety in your plant. Include all stakeholders – employees, contractors, and vendors. Empower everyone to make observations for improvements and for following best practices.
  6. Be prepared to provide your employees with training regularly, facilitated by either internal safety resources or a consultant.
  7. Provide funding for safety in your overall budget and plan. Think beyond the cost of training and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). When safety’s the last thought, there’s no budget left on a project. No one ever gets to the end of a project and says, “Hey, what are we going to do with all this leftover money?” By considering the cost of safety up front as a part of an overall strategy, you can make sure it’s included on projects. Furthermore, if you have a set safety strategy, you can come closer to predicting the additional costs of adding safety to machinery, and avoid the operational sticker shock associated with asset care and safety. With a safety strategy, all the other costs can be accounted for up front – install cost, integration cost, and safety cost.

Start now

Consider starting with a risk assessment to identify hazards and know what you’re up against. Once you identify your risk and estimate the likelihood and severity of it occurring, you decide how you’re going to handle it. How likely is it that an incident is going to happen, and how severe is it if it happens? Are you going to eliminate the issue? Mitigate it? Or are you going to live with it?

If you decide the best course of action is risk mitigation, there are a few things you can do. First, you can design the hazard out, if possible, or limit the extent of the consequences if things do go wrong. You can also reduce human-machine interaction with automation; this is the most effective way to mitigate risk.

You can also look at ways to safeguard the process, protect workers, and greatly reduce risks, including installing physical protection such as machine guards and barriers, sensors for detecting operator presence or position, and warning and E-STOP response provisions.

The third mitigation measure you can take is procedural: awareness and training for safety procedures such as Lockout Tagout, providing safety signage to warn employees of the hazard, and providing PPE. These are important safety measures, but less effective than an inherently safe design.

In our industry, we fight outdated equipment. People will say, “it’s been around for 20 years, and we don’t want to spend the money this year. We can get that 21st year out of it; we can buy parts off eBay, etc. Odds are, we’ll be ok.”

The problem is, people do that with safety as well. They wait “just one more year.” But the cost is astronomical if a situation does happen. There’s not only the loss of production and loss of work time, but also insurance goes up, morale goes down, and other negative things happen. You end up spending more money at that point than you would have if you’d started with a safety strategy in the first place.

The most important thing you can do is to start the journey toward a safety strategy. Identify what the needs for safety are. Why is it important? Injury, insurance costs, liability, employee morale? Whatever your reasons may be, start now.

Automation Zone

This article is part of our monthly Automation Zone column. Read more from our monthly Automation Zone series.

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