Plant Safety / Building Management / Plant Maintenance / Process and Operations / Manufacturing Trends

Safety Specialists Hoping to Reduce Workplace Safety Risks

Worker-safety advocates are drafting best practices and other guidance for companies determined to reduce injury rates for their employees.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

The conditions and behaviors that result in on-the-job injuries can be addressed with worker training and better guarding and equipment. But injury-reduction initiatives don’t exist in a vacuum, as the relationship between more automation and the increasing incidence of hearing loss illustrates.

Noise levels above 90 decibels can cause irreversible hearing loss, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Office of Compensation and Working Conditions points out. The BLS office attributes rising rates of hearing loss in food manufacturing to the migration from manual processes to automation.

When BLS began tracking those injuries in 2004, the industry’s rate was 30.3 cases per 10,000 full time employees. The rate trended down for several years before steadily increasing to 22.5 cases in 2015.

Hearing loss rates are almost twice as high in food production than manufacturing overall, with some sectors particularly noisy. Workers in breakfast cereal manufacturing, for example, experience hearing loss at a 30.9 rate. Sugar production workers have a 33.2 rate, largely driven by the beet sugar segment’s 66.4 cases per 10,000 full-timers. Animal slaughter excluding poultry is even higher, at 68.2. Frozen fruit, juice and vegetable employees have a 46.1 rate.

Compared to food plants, the environment in beverage manufacturing is a library. Hearing loss cases are half that of food. Brewing arguably is the most automated segment, and hearing loss is on par with food. One of the lowest rates in either food or beverage production is found in bakeries, with 7.1 incidents.

Early industry declines in hearing loss coincided with a period when many food companies adopted policies requiring ear plugs in their plants. Current trends suggest an upgrade in this type of personal protection equipment (PPE) may be warranted, but a simpler fix might improve the overall picture: ear plug training and education.

“An inexpensive plug can work for you if it is the right shape and properly inserted,” explains Shari Franklin Smith, technical service-safety specialist, food & beverage, at 3M’s Personal Safety Division (, St. Paul, Minn. Fit and application, along with adequate attenuation of noise levels, dictate the effectiveness of ear protection devices.

Inexpensive plugs will do the job if they fit properly, and that is unlikely if a one-size-fits-all approach is taken when plugs are procured. The size of individuals’ ear canals varies considerably, and if the plug is too big to fit properly, its purpose is defeated.

An even bigger factor may be a lack of training. In a 3M study of a canning facility, 30 percent of workers were not inserting plugs properly. After they received instruction, the problem was resolved for most of those employees, although 11 percent required a different sized plug for adequate protection.

Training is the most powerful tool for reducing on-the-job injuries, and that’s as true for ear protection as it is for confined-space programs. Proper sizing is determined with hardware like 3M’s Ear-Fit tool, a simple device that PPE suppliers often give to manufacturers who purchase plugs in quantity.

If hearing injuries persist, it might be time for an equipment upgrade. Metal detectable plugs are the most popular choice in food plants, according to Smith. Earmuffs provide a higher level of protection. In extreme environments, muffs with communication devices built in may be the way to go.

Given the hearing trend in food plants and a better understanding of the negative impact of highly automated work environments, “we’re at a place where we might have to use something more than ear plugs,” observes Smith.

Iridescent workers

Mobile machinery is becoming the norm in automated manufacturing environments, with automatic guided vehicles and collaborative robots adding to the mix. But operator-driven lift trucks pose particular risk of human-truck collisions that is especially difficult to eliminate, she points out. High visibility garments can help lower this risk, and recent revisions in ANSI standards provide more leeway, with fluorescent orange joining safety green as color options in polyester fabrics that are breathable and comfortable.

ANSI standards reflect consensus on safe operations, with industry groups often serving as standard developers. An example is ANSI B155.1, which details safety requirements for packaging machinery, including risk assessments of electrical, mechanical and hygienic design. PMMI International serves as the standard development organization for B155.1.

Standards set minimal thresholds. To encourage best practices, PMMI turned to the OpX Leadership Network, a consortium of food companies and their suppliers that is underwritten by PMMI. In October, OpX will publish recommendations aimed at reducing injuries in food plants.

Machine guarding and electrical safety for new and retrofitted equipment will be addressed, along with behavioral risks. “We need a commitment to a culture of safety,” says Paul Schaum, COO of Pretzels Inc. and chairman of OpX’s worker safety solutions group. Unfortunately, a safety culture doesn’t always exist, which helps explain higher injury rates in food & beverage than in manufacturing generally.

An OpX survey concluded that 24 percent of food workers have sustained on-the-job injuries, including 17 percent who are injured in the first year. Significantly, 42 percent of food workers receive little or no safety training. About two in five supervisors regard safety training as too complex.

A safety culture is easier to create when it isn’t cobbled onto an existing culture. Pretzels Inc. worked with a clean slate when it opened a facility in Plymouth, Ind., in March. A safety director was hired to organize work teams that began receiving job-specific training two months before the bakery started up. Pre-line startup safety reviews and operational protocols were emphasized, with a goal of giving every team member the expertise needed to train future employees on best practices.

Since the plant was commissioned, only two safety incidents have occurred, neither of them resulting in a reportable injury. However, injury rates at Pretzels Inc.’s 19-year-old Blufton, Ind., facility exceed the rate for its industrial category, Schaum says, underscoring the culture-change challenge.

The worker-sanitation conflict

While the combination of a lax culture and more machinery may be feeding worker injury rates, prosaic events still account for a disproportionate share. Injuries from slips and falls occur at a rate of 30.9 in food and 28.5 in beverage per 10,000 workers, according to BLS, higher than the 24.8 incidences in overall manufacturing.

Floor texture is a root cause of many slips and falls. How much traction a floor provides pits worker safety against food sanitation requirements. “The more texture you add, the harder it is to clean,” notes Casey Ball, regional market segment director-flooring for Sherwin-Williams’ Protective and Marine Coatings Division (, Cleveland.

Standards organizations have tried to offer guidance; instead, they are adding confusion. ANSI created two standards for measuring the coefficient of friction (COF), one for static COF and another for dynamic COF. The British Standards Institute specifies different measurement methods. When suppliers are free to choose from multiple standards, by definition there is no standard.

“If you have a lot of people moving around, dynamic (COF) makes more sense,” points out Paul Anderson, technical director at Flowcrete Americas ( in Spring, Texas. “When washdown sanitation is used, they’re looking for something that has a fairly aggressive aggregate pattern,” which pushes COF closer to 1, the rating sought for aircraft carriers.

Instead of silica sand, flooring installers might impregnate the resin with aluminum oxide, which is more angular and easier to clean than silica, says Ball. Either way, the added traction can dictate a change in cleaning procedures because of the sharpness of the particles.

A washdown environment might dictate a COF in the 0.6-0.8 range, while a lower COF would be appropriate for relatively dry conditions. Adding more complexity is the differing recommendations from different advocates, such as 0.6 when the Americans with Disability Act is a consideration or 0.5 as an OSHA rule of thumb.

The greatest confusion, though, may result when a plant owner orders a traction test. ASTM F2508 requires 24 validation tests on each referenced surface with equipment that is either expensive, lab-based or both. BS 7976-2, often referred to as the pendulum test, is popular in Europe and catching on in North America.

Both Sherwin-Williams and Flowcrete, a UK-based supplier, favor the pendulum test, which entails swinging a shoe-like object at various force levels and measuring how far it goes after coming into contact with the floor.

Litigation is the big driver behind friction tests. At that point, the horses already have left the barn in terms of worker safety. For companies that insist on periodic testing of their floors, “there’s a lot of confusion about what COF number to use” or which standard to apply, says Ball.

Zero tolerance for injuries may be an unrealistic expectation in any industrial environment. Instead, safety specialists try to reduce risk to an acceptable level. What is acceptable and how to achieve it is determined on a case by case basis. The key is making a conscientious effort to assess and reduce behavioral and conditional risks.