Anyone who has worked in the occupational safety and health field can attest to an ongoing tension between safety and production, as many of the respondents to the EHS Today National Safety Survey (NSS) made clear.
The fundamental question that needs to be asked is: "Why are safety and productivity in conflict?" As the NSS reveals, there may be a variety of reasons for this struggle: the bottom line, metrics geared toward productivity or managerial disregard for safety concerns. It could be argued that the root cause is the traditional role of occupational safety as a cost-control and compliance tool. Thus, for most businesses, safety and health programs are competing with the operational functions of the organization for resources.
In this paradigm, improvements in safety, while reducing the risk of injuries and illnesses, come at a cost to productivity, profitability and even quality. And for management, safety concerns add another layer of complexity that absorbs human resources from the daily operations of the organization. The bottom line is that the traditional organization views safety as important, but not value-added.
For safety professionals, the best path to ending the war between safety and productivity is not victory, but making peace. Ending the conflict begins with pulling the “Safety First” banners down and beginning negotiations with the powers of productivity on a vision for value-added safety.
Quality Versus Production
Just a few decades ago, while the Occupational Safety and Health Act was in its infancy, quality professionals found themselves in a war with productivity. The quality movement faced the same points of opposition that safety faces today – quality was important, but it was viewed as coming at a cost to productivity and profitability.
Leaders of the total quality movement, notably Deming and Juran, flipped the script by moving the idea of quality from isolated after-the-fact inspection activities to becoming an integrated business-process-improvement approach. Problems with quality now could be seen as opportunities to make productivity gains.
Notably, the integration of quality as a value-added business practice may be best exemplified by the success of Japanese manufacturers during this era, particularly Toyota. In the late 20th century, movement in the United States toward continuous-process-improvement approaches – whether it be Six Sigma, Lean Enterprise or Theory of Constraints – signaled that it was possible to combine productivity and quality to achieve higher levels of profitability. Today, in leading organizations throughout the world, quality professionals work side by side with production leaders to develop products, design processes and solve problems. They are on the same team.
This is a history lesson that should not be lost on safety and health professionals. Safety leaders have done an excellent job of explaining the benefits of workplace safety – reduced injuries, reduced medical costs, improved morale, less turnover. Yet, are the investments made to achieve these benefits competing with productivity for resources or leading productivity toward innovative solutions and a stronger bottom line?
Safety and Lean
Safety professionals willing and able to engage their organizations as partners with productivity have an excellent chance of ending the age-old war between them. But, like the leaders of the quality movement did, safety leaders need a catalyst to demystify the value-added nature of occupational safety and health. The quality movement leveraged continuous-process-improvement approaches to accomplish this, and safety professionals can do the same, with one of the most promising being the integration of safety and health with the lean enterprise model.
At its most basic level, lean thinking promotes the identification and elimination of waste from business processes. Successfully implemented, it results in productivity, quality and profitability gains. Some of the more well-known embodiments of lean enterprise thinking are the tools it employs, such as 5S (workplace organization), Kanban (pull systems) and Kaizens (rapid process-improvement events).
In recent years, forward-thinking organizations have leveraged lean concepts to go beyond traditional productivity and quality concerns to reduce waste related to energy usage and environmental impacts. Interest has grown in developing more explicit approaches to integrating lean and workplace safety.
As lean enterprise thinking continues its expansion across multiple business sectors – including not only manufacturing, but also defense, health care and service industries – opportunities abound for workplace safety professionals to engage in the effort and bring added value to their organizations. The opportunity exists to change the tenor of safety’s role in the traditional organizational structure from a cost and compliance program to that of a partner in problem solving and process improvement. The key to value-added safety, and a primary integration point with lean thinking, is to:
- Begin seeing, describing and presenting safety and health hazards as operational wastes that reduce productivity and quality, and
- To then eliminate those safety-related operational wastes through process-improvement approaches that hold safety, quality and productivity goals in alignment.
Safety Waste and Productivity
The problems that plague productivity and quality in organizations are inextricably connected to safety hazards. As leaders of the lean and safety movement have noted, “You cannot get lean without safety.” Operational wastes and safety wastes are highly correlated. In lean thinking, operational wastes are commonly categorized and summarized with the acronym “DOWNTIME,” with each letter denoting one of the eight deadly wastes.
The same approach can be taken for describing the categories of safety waste. Safety professionals within the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership at Georgia Tech, of which I am a team member, developed the acronym “SAFETY.” The SAFETY acronym is based on the event or exposure classifications from the Bureau of Labors Statistics’ Occupational Injury and Illness Classification Manual.
More importantly, when operational and safety wastes are related, the product is a more comprehensive and collaborative view of system waste. Safety professionals can consider what productivity or quality wastes are related to, or even the cause of the safety waste. A few examples are listed below:
- Trip hazards (S) may be correlated to excess or cluttered inventory (I).
- Bypassed machine guard hazards (A) often are related to jams and clogs during processing (D).
- A fire or explosion (F) may be related to under-maintained equipment creating excess heat or sparks (D).
- Awkward postures (E) are a sign of poorly designed workstations that lead to unnecessary motion (M).
- Forklift hazards (T) such as vehicle accidents or product spills can be related to both non-value-added transportation of materials (T) and large-batch production models (O).
- Exposures to chemicals (Y) during cleaning operations can be related to using unnecessarily toxic products or higher concentrations of products than are required (E).
Likewise, operational wastes indicate opportunities for safety improvements as well:
- Poor quality (D) leads to re-work that may lead to increased repetition and frequency (E) or even more exposures to machine operations (A).
- Welding more components than are needed during a shift (O) increases the operator’s exposure to atmospheric hazards (Y), etc.
Safety professionals, when using this method of waste integration, can present identified safety and health hazards as more than simply injury-reduction, cost-reduction or compliance opportunities. They now can begin to make a correlation to the operational wastes that are being generated as well.
For example, when identifying a routinely removed or bypassed machine guard, don’t bemoan a poor safety culture and production-first supervisors while requesting funds for an expensive light curtain system. Dig deeper into the operational wastes that are driving the safety waste. You may discover that operators are removing the guard because they routinely have to clear jams, which shut down the machine or create defective widgets, wasting raw materials. The operators have daily productivity goals, and the path of least resistance for keeping the machine running is to remove the guard and clear the jam.
Understanding this correlation of operational and safety wastes allows the issue to be presented to productivity leaders as a machine hazard that is reducing throughput and yield. This approach will garner the attention of productivity leaders and establish a basis for a partnership in problem solving.
Eliminating Safety Wastes
In traditional organizations, safety controls often are applied with the goal of NOT affecting the hazard-producing process – safety professionals, often living in a silo, want to stay out of the way of interfering with productivity. So, basic controls are applied – engineering controls (e.g., machine guard), administrative controls (e.g., job rotation) or personal protective equipment (e.g., safety glasses). Yet none of these basic controls eliminate the actual hazard; they merely cover it, make rules that help employees avoid it or provide armor to lessen the blow of being struck by it.
Traditional control approaches also add complexity to systems, creating potholes for safety professionals to navigate. Engineering controls require maintenance, testing and documentation. Administrative controls require routine monitoring to ensure that rules are not being ignored or bypassed. PPE has to be purchased, inventoried, replaced, washed, tested, etc. And safety professionals still are dependent on employees correctly wearing the PPE to ensure its effectiveness. No wonder safety professionals are so busy.
Yet, there are more advanced and effective ways of addressing workplace hazards – substitution and elimination strategies. Substitution involves replacing hazard-producing equipment, tools or materials with alternatives that achieve acceptable risk levels. Examples include substituting hazard chemicals for less- or non-toxic materials, replacing power tools to mitigate vibration hazards or designing new workstations that promote neutral postures. Elimination involves the removal of hazard-producing activities from work processes. This requires the ability to recognize non-value-added activities that include safety risks. An example elimination strategy for risky lifting/carrying activities might involve redesigning the layout of a production area to eliminate the need for manual material handling between process steps. Often substitution and elimination controls work hand-in-hand.
The reason substitution and elimination strategies are not employed with higher frequency is not due to a lack of knowledge on the safety professional’s part. The difficulty lies in the fact that substitution and elimination strategies almost universally involve the requirement to change manufacturing or service processes – something that cannot be achieved without a problem-solving partnership between production and safety leaders.
To this end, safety professionals who can connect the dots between safety wastes and operational wastes will be able to present process-improvement opportunities that achieve the highest levels of safety control while also benefiting productivity and quality.
Consider the scenario from the last section: Working collaboratively with production, quality and engineering staff, safety professionals can apply an elimination strategy for the machine-clearing hazard. A new guarding mechanism will not likely reduce the risk, as the bypassing and removal of the guard is driven by productivity and yield concerns. Only a solution that addresses the root cause of the machine jamming will truly mitigate the hazard. Moreover, the elimination of the hazard also will eliminate machine downtime. This is a win-win for all parties involved, including the affected operators who will now have a reason to trust and participate in the organizational problem-solving process.
The slogan "Safety First" has its merits, but to truly be transformational and sustainable, workplace safety needs to first be value-added. Leveraging the power of process-improvement approaches such as lean enterprise thinking, safety professionals can build bridges with production and quality leaders though joint problem-solving and organizational advancement. Through integrated process-improvement approaches, trade-offs between productivity, quality and safety no longer have to be accepted as the norm. Safety professionals can end the “war” by waging peace with productivity.
Damon C. Nix is a project manager for Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, focusing on lean implementation and industrial safety consultation. He is an instructor for Georgia Tech’s OSHA Training Institute and Education Center, and the developer of Georgia Tech’s Lean and Safe education curriculum.