Working safely in busy times

May 4, 2004
By: Mark Paulson

It may be premature to say that manufacturing has turned the economic corner to recovery, but signs at the end of first-quarter 2004 look promising. Overall, nonfarm payrolls increased by over 500,000 in the first quarter, according to recent U.S. Labor Department reports, and factory payrolls in March were steady for the first time in nearly four years. Moreover, the Institute for Supply Management's Purchasing Managers' Index of factory activity rebounded to 62.5 percent in March, the fifth straight month that the index has been above 60 percent. All of this is great news to a beleaguered manufacturing industry that has suffered greatly over the past four years. However, when it comes to safety, an upswing in production can offer new challenges. As our work increases, we need to be increasingly vigilant to ensure that our workplaces remain safe for our employees.

Working Faster, Longer and With Higher-Production Pressures

When production demands increase, it is natural and necessary for our work pace to increase. As workers become busier and begin to feel pushed in their jobs to meet demands, it is easy to begin to look for shortcuts. It is important to remind all employees that there are no shortcuts when it comes to safe work practices, and that taking shortcuts simply invites accidents.

Additionally, a rise in production usually leads to longer work hours and more overtime. While this usually is not detrimental in the short term, it can become dangerous over a longer period. When long hours are worked for extended periods, workers often come to work tired and can become careless and less alert to hazards.

Finally, as production creeps upward, all of us will be under increasing pressure to meet tight deliveries while maintaining high quality and lower costs. Increasing pressures translate to high stress, which also can be detrimental to a safe work environment. People under too much stress tend to make quick, poorly thought out decisions and have less patience with fellow workers.

Production Is King

Though none of us readily want to admit it, when times get busy, there is tremendous pressure simply to get the work out, and other aspects of the business potentially can seem less important.

Housekeeping often is an early victim of increased production. In an effort to get more work out, we simply run out of time to keep our factories neat and orderly. Moreover, with the increased business we often have more work on the shop floor, making housekeeping even more difficult (but at the same time, more important). One of the most common threats to a safe work environment is poor housekeeping. We gamble with safety whenever we get too busy to keep our workplaces in order.

Maintenance is another area of the business that tends to get pushed out or put off during busy times. As we attempt to maximize efficiencies, it is tempting to delay or simply overlook preventive maintenance practices. Again, we do so at our own risk. It makes good sense, from both economic and safety perspectives, to hold to our preventive maintenance procedures rigidly, especially when we are pushing our equipment and our people to perform at their highest levels.

Finally, it is tempting to lighten our training schedules when times get busy, but this too can be a costly mistake, especially in matters of safety. Whatever the training is, whether or not it is mandatory, it is a good idea to stick with the training schedule regardless of how busy things are. Untrained workers can have accidents that, in the long run, are far more costly to production than preventive training.

New Employees

As we get busy and our overtime hours pick up, we undoubtedly will hire new employees. Much like the teenager who has just gotten his driver's license, our newest workers are at greatest risk of an accident. Special consideration, time, and training must be invested in our newest employees to ensure that they are aware of the hazards around them.They must be able to operate equipment safely and to protect themselves from others who operate equipment.

So What Do We Do to Keep the Workplace Safe in Busy Times?

There is nothing we can do to avoid the natural hazards and stresses that accompany an increase in production, but there are tangible actions we can take to help our work force adapt to the changing environment.

First, it is critical that management recognizes the increased safety hazards present with increased production and not allow safety to be compromised in the name of production. If the commitment is made to keep the workplace safe before times get busy, it is much easier to stick by that commitment once work picks up. Without commitment, it is more difficult to keep safety a priority under the stresses of busier times.

Second, it is important to help your employees anticipate the stresses they will encounter with increased production and to emphasize that safety will not be compromised. Often production steps up so gradually that people don't realize how much stress they (and their co-workers) are under. By talking about it beforehand and anticipating with your employees the stresses they will encounter, you and they will tend to be more patient and understanding toward one another as times get busy.

When we get busy, our production requirements and the priority of production become obvious. It is not unusual for people to assume that less obvious priorities, such as quality and safety, have become less important. To counter this, it becomes increasingly important to communicate the importance of those less obvious priorities at every opportunity. At plant meetings, one-on-one, and at every possible opportunity, we need to provide daily reminders, written and verbal, reinforcing the importance of working safely.

It has been some time since many of us in the manufacturing community have faced the increased production demands that we are beginning to see today. As we eagerly and enthusiastically take on these new challenges to step up production, let's not take our eyes off safety – regardless of how busy we get.

Mark Paulson

Vice President of Operations
Aeroglide Corp.
100 Aeroglide Drive
Cary, NC 27511
Phone: 919-851-2000