When considering inherently dangerous industries, metal fabrication ranks far below the risk levels of the nuclear power and explosive manufacturing industries. But for the people responsible for transforming sheets and blocks of metal into the finished metal goods needed to keep every other industry moving, the risk levels are very real, the injuries are far too frequent, and, unfortunately, on the rise. Fatal workplace injuries in fabricated metal product manufacturing in the United States nearly doubled to 66 in 2015 from 34 in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2015. Yet it’s the frequency of day-to-day types of injuries, such as punctures, abrasions and lacerations from contact with metals in a variety of stages of production, that can both signal a potential likelihood for fatal injuries and quietly wear on employee morale while also impacting production and the bottom line.
In our shop, workplace injuries resulting in time lost from work occurred approximately every three months, with direct costs averaging $2,000 per incident. Factor in their effect on workers’ compensation insurance, disrupted production and the mental toll taken on the workforce, and the cost to our company extends far beyond mere dollars and cents. In addition, there is a moral component involved in worker safety: while the potential risk for injury can never be entirely eliminated, consider the moral responsibility for employers to provide a workplace where safety is a priority above or on par with product quality and production speed. Though counter-intuitive, focusing on safety can actually support high product quality and fast production speeds. Our experience in prioritizing safety has proven this as workplace injuries have dropped to near zero since 2012, and as quality and production consistently meet targets, with savings exceeding $5,000 per year as a direct result of avoiding the cost of workers’ compensation claims.
MODERN MACHINERY: FULLY AUTOMATED
One key to prioritizing safety involves identifying departments and tasks that put workers at the greatest risk. In many cases, these tasks involve manual processes that require workers to come into contact with sharp edges, grinding dust, hazardous fumes, and other potential hazards. One task that carries inherently more risk than others is deburring. As lasers advance and cut increasingly higher quality parts, metal edges become correspondingly sharper, often too sharp to satisfy paint impact tests without edge breaking. Done by hand, the process is time consuming and labor-intensive. Hand grinding requires constant exposure to these sharp edges and the need for extra care looms over the station at all times. Many workers tasked with deburring parts suffer a continuous series of minor cuts and scrapes that they may not consider worthy of reporting and, eventually, may also battle repetitive motion injuries. Supporting this position with automated machinery seems like quite a sensible investment.
After taking several months researching the various edge breaking technologies, we purchased a fully automated plate finisher from Hans Weber Sales & Service USA (Paola, KS) that has transformed the position from one of manual labor into one of machine operation. Parts in process awaiting deburring no longer stack up as accidents waiting to happen. The system automatically collects grinding dust in the wet dust collector before it can become airborne and repetitive injuries are minimized since workers need only place the parts on a belt conveyor and allow the machine to handle the rest. The deburring process moves quickly with a consistent level of quality and overall, the laser department runs more smoothly and efficiently than when run manually while the sharp cuts have been virtually eliminated.
MODERN MACHINERY: SEMI-AUTOMATED
Lest one thinks that sharp metal parts only raise safety concerns during cutting, consider what happens as the parts move downstream towards packaging and shipping. Several of our more common workplace injuries involved lacerations to the biceps and forearms that incurred while manually stretch-wrapping palletized, laser cut parts. Looking back now, the process is alarming, although it is still the standard procedure at many metal fabrication shops. A forklift driver would raise a pallet load as two other workers wrapped the parts to the pallet, passing the roll of film back and forth to each other as they wrapped it over and under the pallet, exposing their arms to the parts’ sharp edges with each pass. Nobody looked forward to doing this job, including your author.
From an investigation of available packaging methods, including a trip to FABTECH and a review of several automation options, we learned about a semi-automated, orbital stretch-wrapping machine that wraps the plastic film 360 deg around and under the pallet to attach the load to its pallet and keep it securely in place for transport. Using this TAB Wrapper Tornado from TAB Industries, LLC (Reading, PA), the forklift operator raises the pallet load on the forks and, instead of requiring workers to wrap the pallet while stooping under a 2,000 lb load, the operator drives to the machine until the pallet enters the wrapping ring, then presses the start button. The TAB Wrapper then automatically wraps layers of plastic film around the palletized load, cocooning the parts in a sturdy, unitized, weather-resistant load ready for transport to the customer or for storage.
Modernizing the wrapping process has eliminated worker exposure to the lacerations common to the manual system and not a single injury has occurred in the packaging department since the pallet wrapping system was purchased in 2012. Wrapping a pallet now takes one person 15 seconds versus two people taking five minutes and, while the manual method sometimes led to inadequate wrapping, the TAB Wrapper ensures every pallet load gets wrapped properly and securely. This has eliminated product damage due to shifting in transit. Shipping out an average of 900 pallets per month, two or three typically were returned due to packaging-related damage during transit. At an average value of $1,500 per pallet load, packaging failures cost up to approximately $50,000 per year. But by preserving the quality of the parts, this new system has virtually eliminated these returns and their associated costs.
When TAB Industries introduced a fully automated model, we sold the semi-automated wrapper to another fab shop and purchased the latest model with an automated cut and wrap device and wireless remote control. Now, the forklift operator controls the entire wrapping process without leaving the seat. Each of the nine forklifts has its own remote control and, by making it easy and convenient to practice safe operations, each of the nine forklift operators is happy to use the new technology.
MODERN MACHINERY: NOT AUTOMATED
Few tasks in the fab shop are as mundane as sweeping the floors, yet paying attention to keeping them clean can result in substantial benefits when it comes to safety by minimizing one of the leading causes of workplace injuries: slips, trips and falls. According to OSHA, slips, trips and falls cause 15 percent of accidental deaths and account for up to 15 percent of workers’ compensation expenses nationally. The first step is to recognize that leaving the shop floor littered with the debris of the day’s business, such as cut banding, plastic film, used tags and labels, and miscellaneous pieces of hardware, plus the occasional drips of fluid is, in fact, a barrier to safety and productivity. The second step is to elevate the cleaning process from a labor-intensive task performed “whenever” that everyone hopes to avoid to a fundamental part of the daily production process.
Decluttering and picking up during the day may seem to get in the way of productivity at the time, but taking a few seconds throughout the day keeps the floor clear of many of the causes of slips, trips and falls. To make the more thorough cleanings palatable, we purchased a ride-on sweeper from Tennant Company (Minneapolis, MN). One worker can now clean the entire shop floor, including up to six inches under each workstation and pallet in an hour, versus the four hours or more required for traditional sweeping. In addition, this ride-on sweeper exposes leaks and spills that may blend into the flooring and become difficult for people to spot, yet are swiftly addressed with the machine’s tough, rotary brushes. The return on the investment in keeping clean may challenge an accountant, but to the people who spend most of their days on the shop floor, the returns are very real.
To help measure progress when implementing a safety initiative, consider involving a safety professional to tour and assess the facility. OSHA works with a number of consultants who provide confidential, on-site services to small businesses at no charge through its Safety & Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP). Our SHARP consultant from South Dakota State University performed a mock OSHA inspection and recommended a series of adjustments, such as upgrading railings and increasing the number of carbon monoxide monitors. These adjustments were implemented and we are now in the process of pursuing the SHARP certification that recognizes companies as models of worksite safety and health. Companies that earn SHARP certification also earn a one-year exemption from an actual OSHA inspection.
After identifying safety trouble spots and investing in automated bending, cleaning, finishing, packaging and other equipment as part of a desire and an initiative to provide a workplace as inherently safe as possible, we have reduced workers’ compensation claims to near zero. By examining the jobs that workers consider the worst in the shop and making them safer and easier to handle, workers feel a jolt to morale that helps spread safety as a culture. Further, these modern machines deliver a level of part-to-part repeatability and high speed that few workers could match. Yet rather than eliminating the need for workers, these machinery investments have played a key role in freeing our workers to focus on the jobs at hand and become more productive, allowing us to grow and capitalize on the increased capacity and smoother workflow.
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