Skilled labor wants a safe workplace

August 28, 2012
By: Tim Heston

Just in time for election season (which, as a multiyear event now, is far longer than a season), a few advocacy groups are putting forth their views about what U.S. manufacturing needs. One of the most concise reports comes from the Georgia Tech and Council on Competitiveness, which released its report last week. Boiled down, the report says U.S. manufacturing needs improved infrastructure, simpler taxation and regulations, more skilled talent, and a focused industrial policy.

Many of those policies hit home for the nation’s larger manufacturers, and they’re indirectly important for the contract metal fabricators and other smaller companies that supply those OEMs. But skilled labor hits home for everybody.

In 2007 I recall sitting at a FABTECH® keynote address delivered by a representative from Caterpillar. He asked the audience how many people wanted their children to go into manufacturing. A smattering of people put up their hands. The speaker then asked how many people wanted their kids to go to college. Most hands went up.

Every time someone brings up the skilled labor crisis, I think about that moment. Yes, our education system is broken. Many contract fabricators I’ve spoken with this year are doing their best to partner with local community colleges. Some shops have greatly expanded their in-house training programs. To improve flexibility, job shops are starting serious cross training initiatives, so workers can move when and where needed--from the cutting machine to bending, hardware insertion, and even welding.

But let’s face it, the biggest problem facing manufacturing is its image--dark, dirty, dangerous. And yes, today’s metal fab shop is much safer than it was years ago. The best shop floors aren’t dark and dirty, either. Still, safety incidents do happen, probably more often than they should.

Erick Ajax agrees. He’s president of Minnesota-based E.J. Ajax, a company that has won several major safety awards. The stamper has gone years without a lost-time incident. Unfortunately, not every shop has such a record. He told me that out of 40,000 metal formers in the state, the industry averages about one amputation a month. These may be minor--a small part of a finger and such--but still, that’s scary. Ajax sighed after he told me this. “That’s a pathetic statistic, but it’s unfortunately part of my work being on the advisory board with OSHA [in Minnesota]. I do see those numbers quarterly, and it’s pretty challenging to look at them.”

Ajax and other safety champions preach a common homily. Every shop should have safeguards on all machines that present a hazard, and old equipment should be scrutinized. Yes, that machine may be a reliable workhorse, but if it can’t be guarded properly, it doesn’t have a place on the shop floor. Most important of all, people must be trained to work safely.

There’s one benefit here, they say: A safe shop usually is a successful shop. If a job is made safer, it’s often made simpler (though not always). Regardless, a safe shop is a better place to work, so more workers apply. Better workers usually build better businesses. The best shops I've visited in recent years proudly display their stellar safety records--and those fabricators happen to be growing.

When I hear about safety incidents, my thoughts flash back to that FABTECH moment in 2007. When asked whether they wanted their children to pursue a manufacturing career, why did only a few people raise their hands? Was it because of the rampant downsizing as more work was sent offshore? Or was it something more basic? Maybe some of them just didn’t want to see their kids get hurt.
Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314