Sep 11, 2007

Got safety?

I'm on my way to writing an article for AME's Target magazine about safety. Stories of early Japanese-aided lean transformation frequently start with a sensei leading a plant manager on a safety walk. Personnel freed up from a manufacturing process are sent on regular safety walks. Respect for people mandates safe conditions for working, as does flow. Accidents and injuries are the worst examples of waste imaginable.

Seems like everybody knows that accidents cost a company money. Guidelines for plant or office safety are easy to find. So why do unsafe working conditions still exist? I'll never forget reading about an accident in a bumper manufacturing operation where two guys were killed when a large press cycled when it wasn't supposed to. Employees had warned managers that the press had been operating improperly. The two guys were new employees who had received only the smallest amount of training. The process seemed to have involved not only hands-in-die operations, but bodies-in-die. There was evidently no machine guarding. A witness said that one moment two people had stood next to the press, and the next moment there were only four legs standing there. There was nothing left of the upper halves of the people.

In another incident, an explosive steam leak occurred in the Ford Rouge plant powerhouse. A few people were killed, and several others horribly burned. Bill Ford was in a meeting in Ford World Headquarters only a few short miles from the Rouge. He stood up and left the meeting for the accident site, ignoring the pleas of the lawyers. At the site, he immediately promised the families of the injured that Ford would do everything possible to help them, and Ford followed through on the promise as far as I know. The plant was shut down and remediated. Bill Ford earned my immediate respect by his actions, but the point remains - why was the accident not prevented? The cause turned out to be something that should not have been allowed to go wrong.

A safety engineer I met told me a story of a company where he was hired as safety officer. He found the most blatant violations. Electrical lines hanging over an aisle at head level. "People know when to duck," was the response when he found the condition. Wiring was unsafe throughout the plant. Unfortunately, the guy who did the wiring was now the plant manager -- not too receptive to the assertion that it was screwed up. In one instance, the operator of a paper guillotine (the name of the machine alone should have given the operator a clue) had circumvented safe operation of it by disabling one of the two-handed controls. The supervisor just shrugged - the guy was one of the most experienced operators, and nothing bad had happened. The story goes on with the inevitable - the guy was suddenly without fingers on one hand.

The safety engineer (who worked the midnight shift) put a report on the plant manager's desk every morning documenting what he had found the night before. He took the precaution of making copies of the reports, not only filing them, but filing them at his home! You guessed it - when he finally confronted the plant manager, he said "What reports?" There were none - they all had been destroyed. At this point, the engineer quit. As soon as he got out of the plant - before he even got home, he called OSHA. What I couldn't figure out was why he stayed there as long as he did.

Back to my article - I've found some awesome material on OSHA's website, but if I could add first-hand experiences from you, the article would be even better. I don't really need horror stories, but I'd like to hear about companies where steady progress was made on eliminating recordable incidents and the savings in cost and human suffering. So if you could contribute something, I'd appreciate it.

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