Any industrial job can be hazardous, but the injury rates — including major and fatal injuries — of workers in glass and glass-product manufacturing are among the highest of all U.S. industries. Recent statistics show that 43 percent of such injuries typically occur while handling or transporting the glass.
This makes safety a primary — and potentially cost-saving — consideration. For example, in 2007 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) compiled data on 235,960 back injuries in the workplace, and reported that injured employees can be expected to remain unavailable for about 7 days (median days away, restricted or transferred), too often costing the employer thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, the true picture probably is much worse: In 2008 the House Education and Labor Committee found that as many as 69 percent of workplace injuries are not reported to BLS.
Workers handling large, heavy sheets of glass are at special risk for injury and even death. Authorities say that such factors as the angle of inclination of sheet glass in storage, as well as issues of bowing and venting (the sudden breaking of glass), thickness and strength of the glass sheet, as well as overall sheet weight are all factors contributing to the industry's unusual risks.
Other important considerations in developing safe handling procedures for glass workers often include protective clothing and preventive barriers, as well as controlled access and passageways for rapid egress from all areas where glass might suddenly “vent.”
These dangers are well-recognized at the Marvin Windows and Doors of Tennessee (WDT) plant in Ripley, Tenn., where large, awkward and breakable components — including glass sheets weighing as much as 200 pounds — routinely are assembled into door panels than can weigh as much as 500 pounds.
For many years, Marvin WDT had to send coordinated teams of workers to lift, carry, position and lower these components without mechanical assistance, each person wrangling as much as 125-135 pounds of the fragile material. The result was a steady stream of problems.
“We saw numerous back injuries in that area,” remembers Hal Williams, the safety, workers' compensation and wellness manager at Marvin WDT's Ripley plant. “And there was also a high employee turnover in that area, mainly from workers having to pick up the heavy panels and having to move them manually.”
REDUCING INJURIES & BOOSTING RESULTS
To combat these problems, Marvin WDT began redesigning and retooling its production processes, investing in state-of-the-art material handling systems to reduce the risk of injuries and ease the workload. “Safety is one of the factors driving the decision to change over to the new process,” explains Williams. As it turns out, the new equipment also delivers the additional benefits of improving morale, retention and productivity.
Workers now use one of the new manipulating systems to pick up sheets of glass from the original shipping crates and place them into door sashes positioned on a horizontal conveyor. Workers then use a second, larger unit to pick up an entire door panel with its glass and sash assembly for installation into a frame. The sheets of glass alone weigh up to 200 pounds, depending on dimensions, while the final door panels weigh as much as 500 pounds.
Marvin WDT made its purchase decision after inviting several top vendors to present information about the capabilities of their equipment. The AirOlift system turned out to offer the most flexibility, including the ability to rotate, turn and tilt the heavy objects while moving them.
According to Williams, Marvin WDT originally purchased two lifting/manipulating systems capable of moving 500 pounds or more, and then added two more. Although clamping systems capable of handling very delicate objects are available for the units, Marvin WDT opted for suction systems designed to specifically handle glass and other smooth-surfaced objects.
Since early 2009, the systems have been making it easier, faster and safer for Marvin WDT workers to do their jobs. “They're performing wonderfully,” says Williams.“We haven't had any issues at all, no service or mechanical failure or anything like that. One of the safety features I really like is that if air pressure is lost, the manipulators will not release or drop the panel.”
COMMITMENT TO SAFETY
Built primarily of stainless steel and Delrin (an engineering plastic used instead of metal because of its light weight, low-friction and wear-resistance characteristics), the systems are powered by high pressure air from a standard shop airline rather than electricity, and incorporate load-sensors that prevent the operator from releasing any material or object until its weight is fully supported elsewhere.
Because Marvin WDT has been one of OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program sites since 2002, a side benefit of converting to the systems is that it objectively demonstrates the company's commitment to continually improve its processes. “This [reducing material handling-related injuries] is one of those areas where we've improved,” Williams emphasizes.
VPP promotes effective worksite safety and health through cooperative relationships between management, labor and OSHA. Approval into VPP recognizes outstanding efforts of employers and employees to achieve exemplary occupational safety and health, as verified by a rigorous onsite evaluation. As a result, the average VPP worksite is 52 percent safer than its competition.
HEAVY LIFTING MADE EASY
Williams says the system provides ease of use, with minimal buttons and options for the operator to choose from when controlling the manipulator. He appreciates how readily workers can recognize what each control button is used for, as well as color-coding that shows if and when the system has a good vacuum seal on the load to be lifted.
“The operators find [the system] extremely easy to use, which is one of things I like,” Williams says. “The light goes from red to green to let you know you're good to pick it up. When you release it at the other end, the green light goes back to red.”
Normally, training on new equipment is a critical element in upgrading production processes, often helping to determine which vendor to select for desired gear.
“The system is so simple to operate that the training cycle was extremely short and to the point,” says Williams. “In fact, my team spent only about 45 minutes talking and 20 minutes doing a hands-on demonstration. Then, we just let the people work with the machine, practice with it. After a week, all six were ready to use it in actual production. In fact, they were able to teach us how to use it. I felt very good that they picked it up so quickly.”
Williams says he's extremely pleased with the plant's new processes. “The system has reduced the risk of back injuries,” he says. “Investing in a material handling system shows that a company is concerned about safety.”
Williams is convinced the new equipment is delivering productivity benefits, too, but finds that metric hard to substantiate because of the plant's current, relatively low production rate. As time goes by and statistics accumulate, however, Williams is convinced the company easily will identify quantifiable productivity gains directly attributable to the new lifting systems.