Worker Safety Goes Beyond Cost Avoidance to Include Productivity Improvements

Plenty of penalties are meted out when on-the-job injuries occur, but beyond the penalties, there’s a real upside to a proactive approach that creates a safety culture.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Today’s production environment is a pressure cooker, with many demands unrelated to daily order-filling and throughput requirements. Food & beverage manufacturing in particular is under the gun, with the stringent documentation and verification required for food safety adding to stress levels.

Those pressures provide a partial explanation of the high ratio of recordable injury rates in food manufacturing: 5.3 cases per 100 full-time employees, compared to 4.2 for all manufacturing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Beverage production is even higher, at 6.5, paced by soft drink manufacturing at 8.1, a rate exceeded only by beet sugar manufacturing and animal slaughter in the industry.

Numerous factors are at play. Cold and wet conditions can create a particularly harsh production environment; equipment is frequently disassembled for cleaning and sanitization; older machinery not designed with worker safety in mind often lacks guarding; relatively low prices for finished goods requires high throughput. Mitigating circumstances aside, the human and financial costs are significant.

Financial penalties are going up. In August, OSHA increased the maximum fines for serious and repeated violations by 78 percent. OSHA fines contribute to the indirect costs of injuries, which easily surpass the direct cost of worker compensation. Indirect costs of minor injuries are 4.5 times higher than direct costs, according to the agency.

Bobby Lewis, vice president with Hellman & Associates (www.ehscompliance.com), estimates the average cost of a recordable injury at $30,000. In the event of a death, it’s $1.4 million. “Plant managers are all about production, but there needs to be safety training, and it needs to be embraced from senior management all the way down to the guy on the line,” the Wheat Ridge, Colo.-based consultant says. Unfortunately, “everybody is trying to do more with fewer resources,” and that can result in inadequate funding for training, personal protective equipment (PPE) and prevention initiatives.

Behavior-based training and safety committees drawn from multiple departments and job functions are helping established food companies reduce accidents. A disciplined approach to improvement often is lacking at newer firms, however. As an example, Lewis cites craft brewing: thousands of start-ups have cropped up in the last decade, often operated by friends intent on producing as much product as possible. “Safety is the last thing on their minds,” he says. Over-exposure to carbon dioxide is a fairly common problem, a danger easily remedied by installing a CO2 detector.

Automation is shifting the nature of injuries from repetitive motion and slips and falls to electrical shocks and amputations. Unguarded machinery was the biggest contributor last year to severe injuries in food manufacturing, points out Sally Smart, a technical safety specialist at W.W. Grainger Inc. (www.grainger.com), Lake Forest, Ill.

“There are some unique conditions in the food industry, such as the frequent need for access to the equipment and being able to sometimes clean it when production is running,” she says. “Quick, safe access has to be part of normal operations, and guarding often needs to be hinged so that it can be removed.”

Stringent machine guarding requirements, particularly for OEMs selling to European processors, is gradually enhancing safety, but older equipment dominates the inventory in most plants, and many food companies lack the financial wherewithal to upgrade their machinery in the short term.

Analysis of OSHA fines and enforcement actions in a recent four-month period indicates food companies were the target of 14 percent, second only to the construction industry. Training deficiencies were the most frequently cited failure, closely followed by machine guarding issues, failure to provide adequate PPE and electric hazards. Five amputations and two deaths occurred at food plants in that period.

“The Business Case for Investment in Safety,” a report issued two years ago by the National Safety Council, suggests each $1 invested in injury prevention results in savings of $2-6. Most of the ROI is in the form of avoidance of indirect costs, such as downtime, training a replacement worker, higher insurance premiums and attorney fees. But two in five CFOs surveyed indicated the greatest benefit from safety programs comes in the form of increased productivity.

Safety ROI calculations are necessarily conservative and fail to account for the many residual benefits, such as higher level of productivity and job satisfaction, Grainger’s Smart points out. It’s tempting to dismiss efficiency gains as a soft benefit, but she believes it should be just as much an objective as risk management, injury avoidance and lower OSHA penalties.

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