Health & Safety in a Lean Environment

October 6, 2003
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Using sound health and safety practices in conjunction with lean manufacturing techniques can help manufacturers gain a much-needed edge in today’s competitive business environment.

The increasingly competitive global economy is placing incredible pressures on companies in the ceramic industry to reduce costs and increase productivity. A paradigm shift in business practices to lean manufacturing can make all the difference between thriving or failing in today’s business world. In many cases, lean manufacturing techniques can help marginal companies become the supplier of choice. However, many companies are missing a key component of the process—the health and safety function.

What is Lean?

Lean manufacturing originated from the Toyota Production System and is a process that allows discovery and elimination of waste within a company’s systems and processes, which has a positive impact on profit margins. The overall goal of this system is to produce quality products through cost reduction initiatives.

Adapted from Practical Loss Control Leadership.1

The True Cost of Accidents

Health and safety initiatives have traditionally been considered by many executives and managers as an expense, or as a cost of doing business. However, this mindset cannot be farther from the truth. Health and safety is a crucial part of the lean manufacturing operation, and it has not been adequately addressed throughout business.

One of the most wasteful activities occurring in industry is an accident. Many employers are not aware of the high costs associated with an accident because these costs are not easily captured. If the accident involves an employee injury, the surface costs are typically handled through the workers’ compensation system, i.e., medical and wage replacement.

High workers’ compensation costs can have a very negative impact on the bottom line; however, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Other significant costs—such as potential lawsuits, machine downtime, damage to the equipment and/or product, investigation time, replacement workers, and potential overtime—are hidden and therefore more difficult to capture. In some cases, these costs aren’t even directly associated with an accident. Table 1 further illustrates this point.

Integrating sound health and safety techniques into the overall process can control and/or minimize much of this waste.

Effective Health and Safety

One of the most overlooked areas within many companies is the lack of access to a qualified health and safety professional. Companies often attempt to place line workers, maintenance supervisors or human resource specialists into the health and safety function—but this is the same as expecting a health and safety professional to lead the company’s treasury department. Companies that hire a qualified health and safety professional, or that outsource this function to a qualified contractor, will achieve much better results.

The individual selected for this type of leadership has to be able to work with everyone from the line workers to the board of directors. Additionally, this person should have the technical expertise to identify, evaluate and control occupational hazards.

Once a qualified health and safety professional has been hired, the company can begin to reduce waste through sound health and safety practices, which play an integral part in the overall effectiveness of the lean manufacturing process. There are several ways to get the results companies want to achieve; only a few are presented here.

For instance, a gap analysis can be conducted to assess the status of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance issues. This analysis can help the company avoid government fines and the costly legal fees often associated with the appeal process, as well as develop an action plan to correct any deficiencies.

Complying with government regulations is just scraping the surface toward successfully achieving significant cost reduction. To help companies begin to positively affect the bottom line through health and safety initiatives, a job safety analysis (JSA) can be used. With a JSA, a task is broken down step by step to evaluate potential hazards, and ways to control the identified hazards are recommended.

Once this part of the JSA has been completed, the next step is to move toward implementation. Experience has indicated that when recommended controls are integrated into current work instructions or standard operating procedures, the overall results from JSAs are extremely helpful in pointing companies in the right direction toward accomplishing significant savings.

For a JSA or any health and safety analysis to be used effectively, the controls for identified hazards must be evaluated using the following hierarchy:

• Substitution—e.g., use a less hazardous chemical

• Engineering—e.g., install local exhaust ventilation

• Administrative—e.g., rotate employees from a high noise area to a low noise area

• Personal Protective Equipment—e.g., require the use of safety glasses

• Training and Awareness—e.g., conduct lockout training and post danger signs

For example, let’s say an employer has an issue with employee exposure to a hazardous chemical. Using the hierarchy, the employer would first attempt to substitute a hazardous chemical with a less hazardous one. If that is not feasible, the installation of local exhaust ventilation to capture hazardous vapors may be an option. If the ventilation is cost-prohibitive, maybe employees can be rotated on a regular basis from the job that involves the hazardous chemical to a job that requires no hazardous chemicals. If employee rotation is not an option, maybe a combination of personal protective equipment (i.e., respirator and appropriate gloves) and training would be appropriate.

Another helpful and very popular tool for companies pursuing lean manufacturing techniques is 5S. The technique is a process to ensure a clean, orderly, productive and safe workplace. The basis of this technique is as follows:

• Simplify—Sort everything in the work area.

• Straighten—Organize the entire work area.

• Scrub—Clean the workplace thoroughly.

• Stabilize—Make changes to maintain the first three S’s.

• Sustain—Make 5S a part of the company’s daily life.

More information about this technique can be found in many quality and safety resources.

Maximizing Lean

In today’s competitive, global marketplace, companies must eliminate as much waste as possible to move beyond survival and achieve growth. In many companies, however, the health and safety function has not been tapped as an integral component for contributing positively to the bottom line. Minimizing waste through sound health and safety practices in conjunction with lean manufacturing techniques can be the difference between companies losing market share or gaining new business.

Reference

1. Bird, Frank E. and George E. Germain, Practical Loss Control Leadership, Atlanta, Ga., Institute of Publishing, 1990.

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