Future-proofing safety amid a changing workforce

Tuesday March 15, 2016
Written by Steve Ludwig, Rockwell Automation
Mar. 15, 2016 - Manufacturers in Canada and around the world are facing the prospect of a talent drought as their most experienced workers move toward retirement.

Consider a 2013 workforce outlook report from Stokes Economic Consulting and the Centre for Spatial Economics. It estimated that Canada’s processing, manufacturing and utilities industry will have about 253,000 job openings from 2013 to 2022. Yet an astonishing majority of those openings — about 96 per cent — are expected to come in the form of replacement jobs versus expansion jobs.

Workforce pains are already being felt across Canada’s manufacturing and industrial base. Nearly 60 per cent of companies responding to a 2014 Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) survey said attracting or retaining skilled labour was one of their most pressing challenges — up from 46 per cent in a 2012 survey. The No. 1 area that respondents said they were experiencing labour shortages was in their skilled production workforce. The inability to retain or fill these positions could have significant productivity consequences. That, in turn, could create greater worker safety challenges for manufacturers. Why? Because workers who are under pressure to boost productivity can feel compelled to take shortcuts to meet their targets.

But those shortcuts can come back around to bite them. Specifically, injuries resulting from worker shortcuts can cost a manufacturer far more in lost production and revenue than the small gain in production that the worker hoped to achieve by taking the shortcut in the first place. At the same time, both aging workers and the younger, less experienced workers taking their place present separate sets of safety challenges that need to be addressed.

Older workers can be at a higher risk for certain types of injuries, such as musculoskeletal and repetitive stress injuries, and may take longer to recover from injuries. Additionally, changes in their skeletal muscle strength, vision and cognitive abilities can impact their day-to-day job performance. Meanwhile, studies have shown that younger workers tend to have much higher injury rates. This can be due to a number of factors, ranging from their inexperience and misjudgment of risks to cognitive and developmental characteristics.

Rethinking machinery design
A changing workforce requires that production machinery change with it. That includes incorporating the ergonomic and usability needs of both older and younger workers. When conducting hazard assessments, building functional specifications and designing machinery, engineers should address all potential operator and maintenance technician movements. They should identify if operators will need to lift materials or if technicians will need to bend or twist when servicing the machine, and if such behaviours can be avoided through changes in machinery design.

Well-designed, contemporary safety systems — which integrate standard and safety control in one controller — are more ergonomic, which can reduce the probability that workers will override them and thus put themselves at risk. These systems also offer greater diagnostics, and can help reduce nuisance shutdowns, prolonged restarts and operational costs when compared to older systems. For example, safe-speed monitoring and zone control might be used in place of lockout/tagout in some instances, allowing technicians to service machines without completely shutting them down, improving uptime and productivity.

Get connected
The move to connected, information-enabled operations is transforming manufacturing as we know it. Embedded intelligence devices can give operators a deeper understanding of machine performance than previously possible, allowing them to stay ahead of downtime events and improve efficiencies. Remote connectivity can connect a plant manager to the plant floor whether they’re in their office or halfway around the world, and connect remote experts to plant personnel to troubleshoot problems in real-time. Plant data can be collected, contextualized and sent to different workers in the form of actionable information.

Manufacturers seeking to capitalize on this potential are establishing a Connected Enterprise, in which operations are smart, secure and connected, and seamless information-sharing spans people, processes and technologies. A Connected Enterprise enables better collaboration, faster problem-solving, and improved innovation and productivity. It also enables a smarter approach to safety.

In addition to capturing process, quality, energy and other data, a Connected Enterprise can collect safety data to help manufacturers identify risks and better understand where safety-related shutdowns are occurring. This can include the specific locations, applications and operations where safety risks are highest, providing safety management professionals with information about operator and machinery behaviour.

Furthermore, safety-related data analytics can go far beyond understanding where injuries are taking place in one facility. They can be used to identify common applications that are spread out across multiple manufacturing sites where injuries, near misses and safety shutdowns are occurring. Problems can be identified through analysis of factors such as raw-material chemistry, mill speed or specific processes that use hazardous substances, and solutions can be identified to reduce safety incidents or improve productivity.

A holistic safety approach
While redesigning machinery and embracing information-enabled operations will both be crucial to getting ahead of future safety challenges, it’s important to remember that technology is only part of the solution. To this end, Rockwell Automation recommends using the Three Cs of Safety in support of a best-in-class safety approach:

• Culture: worker behaviour
• Compliance: processes and procedures
• Capital: technologies that help protect workers from injury

Following a holistic approach that takes each of these factors into account with equal significance will help manufacturers not only adopt the latest technologies but also be proactive in setting expectations with employees that productivity should not take precedence over safety.

Steve Ludwig is the safety programs manager at Rockwell Automation, where he is responsible for the development of global communication and customer programs supporting the safety portfolio. In his 29-year career, Ludwig has held positions of increasing responsibility in the military, engineering, sales and marketing. CLICK HERE to learn more about the Three Cs of Safety approach.

This column was also published in the June 2016 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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