Bypassing safety systems a dangerous strategy

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Safety and maintenance are two concepts that ought to go together. However, even two things in perfect harmony can get out of tune when there is a conflict as to which one is more important.

Safety and maintenance are two concepts that ought to go together. However, even two things in perfect harmony can get out of tune when there is a conflict as to which one is more important.

Safety and maintenance are two concepts that ought to go together like peas and carrots, peanut butter and jelly, and Simon and Garfunkel. However, as the latter proved, even two things in perfect harmony can get out of tune when there is a conflict as to which one is more important.

Our annual look at manufacturing safety includes an article about bypassing safety systems to perform maintenance tasks, which is an idea that just sends a shiver up my spine. The notion that bypassing safety is a way to maintain anything is more akin to pairing peas and peanut butter. It just shouldn’t happen.

Yet it does, and yet we still have manufacturing accidents that demonstrate we continue to override our most fundamental safety system—our brains. In order to bypass a safety system, you actually must have a rational thought that says, “We have put this system in place to protect my safety on the job so that I can go back to my family and friends at the end of every day. I am now going to ignore that system in an attempt to save time, or maybe to save the company some money.”

The time we lose and the money we spend on what happens next is a major barrier to continued growth in manufacturing. Even though the Top 10 OSHA violations in 2014 fell 28% from the sharp increase the previous year, we had more than 33,000 workplace accidents that rose to the level of an OSHA violation in those 10 areas. The numbers of less serious but still painful workplace accidents likely are significantly higher.

First on the list is fall protection. It always has been fall protection. It always will be fall protection. If you go further down that list, you have things we talk about in these pages all the time—things like lockout/tagout and electrical writing, machine guarding, and lift trucks. These are areas where the actions of workers and not their environment are directly related to the injuries. In other words, they are preventable.

Some of that prevention is found in a comprehensive workplace safety strategy. I cannot imagine a workplace today without such a strategy, and you shouldn’t consider working for a plant that doesn’t have one. It is unthinkable today that safety is an afterthought for any employer. Unsafe workplaces simply are a greater threat to manufacturing growth than any other issue we face in our industry.

In fairness, the U.S. safety record, while far from perfect, is an example to those emerging manufacturing economies who aspire to the level of productivity we have achieved. We can do more, and the first thing we can do is stop ignoring the safety systems already in place. The second thing is not to assume those safety systems are flawless, or that they take a back seat to strategy and common sense. You can automate safety systems. You cannot automate safe employee practices.

Yet it is the intersection of safety technology and safe practices that causes us to discuss the idea of bypassing systems. The problem is two-fold, at both ends of our employment spectrum in manufacturing: experienced workers trust their experience, and inexperienced workers trust the automation. Neither would be considered a “strategy.”

Workers have to insist on safety for themselves and their families and their coworkers. There also is increasing evidence that employers value safety as a way of protecting their most valuable resources—their workers—and also embrace the idea that a safe workplace is both productive and profitable.

There is a defined cost to safety, whether built into automated systems or built into employee training and development. It pales in comparison to workers’ comp costs or OSHA fines, but those dollars aren’t really the point. It’s the increase in productivity that really makes safety a profit center for manufacturing.

That’s how I always have viewed a safe workplace. There is no cost too great for workplace safety, because there is no amount of money that can repair the damage that unsafe workplaces create both for humans and for businesses. Yet a safe manufacturer will reap the benefits of that safety in employee retention, in lower insurance costs, and in improved productivity.

I also believe it is one of the keys to the resurgence of U.S. manufacturing in the last five years. It is our secret sauce, yet it sits out there for all to observe and to copy. Like all safety systems, it is not foolproof; neither should it ever be bypassed.

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