To a greater extent now, successful safety management calls for humanized techniques and tools to realize safety goals, even as automation becomes increasingly familiar to welding practices. This article covers a proactive approach to some major machine and worker safety concerns, as well as some common welding safety issues.
First and foremost, any successful welding safety program makes every effort to prevent injuries. Programs further rely on compliance with OSHA regulations, keeping worker's compensation costs low and, of course, knowledgeable, well-trained employees. More and more, achieving safety in the workplace also requires proactive management and employee support. Particularly for a large company, employee involvement in the creation and application of safety procedures is directly related to job satisfaction and a safe workplace. When given the opportunity to provide valuable input about their work, employees are generally more satisfied with their jobs, and in turn, help ensure safety compliance and lower worker's compensation costs.
Given that employee dissatisfaction is the number one reason why workers' compensation claims are made, maintaining a safe, satisfied workforce has taken precedence for safety managers. A small fabricator can use the safety philosophies and programs from larger companies as benchmarks for developing quality safety procedures and retaining skilled employees.
To lower workers' compensation costs and increase job satisfaction, company-wide safety programs are being developed to increase employee involvement in key objectives of the company, including welding safety goals. This practice needs to extend across company divisions, business units or plants. In fact, plant performance can include evaluation of monthly workers' compensation claims, lost-time injuries and the development of safety projects. Such a program holds workers accountable for not only their own safety, but for the safety of people around them.
Effectively sharing good safety projects can be a challenge for a large manufacturer with multiple locations. To overcome this problem, safety representatives from different locations should meet on a regular basis to bring new ideas to the program. When brought to the table, even a small idea from one location has a big impact on another.
Currently, two major machine and worker safety issues an aging workforce and repetitive motion are being addressed by some manufacturers through the development of monthly safety projects. Ergonomics, health and wellness sessions, in-house medical staffing and emergency response plans are just some of the ways companies can address major safety issues.
An aging workforce and repetitive motion issues make eliminating physical labor a priority. Many welders have been working in the industry for 20 years or more, often working with the same machines, repeating the same motions. Over time, repetition has a cumulative effect on tendons, ligaments and muscles, making it difficult to grip objects and creating potentially hazardous conditions. To alleviate these problems, cumulative strength moves, material handling and constant motion should be minimized or eliminated. For example, implementing hydraulic or pneumatic presses that decrease the amount of physical exertion like swinging a hammer - reduces manual labor and repetitive motion, making the job easier and more comfortable.
Minimizing discomfort and injury often means improving the ergonomics of a welding workspace, or simply giving workers the tools to redesign their own workstations. It's a joint effort; individuals recommend tools to satisfy their specific needs and preferences, and management provides the support for acquiring the tools. The workstation is fit to the individual, not the individual to the workstation, making the job as comfortable as possible.
There are a number of ways to make production jobs safe and comfortable. Carts, lift tables, hoists, cranes, rotating fixtures, presses and, wherever possible, automation can eliminate heavy lifting and repetitive movement. Yet automation addresses safety concerns only to a point and presents other safety challenges, such as guarding robots with light curtains. From a repetitive motion and strength standpoint, automation will continue to increase for higher volume jobs, making some jobs easier and safer.
Simpler, less expensive tools in the long term include ergonomic mats, adjustable chairs and tables, and welding positioners/grippers. The long-term costs cannot be over-emphasized. For example, a positioner/gripper may cost $5,000. That pales in comparison to the costs of lost productivity and an injury claim if a welder is out of work for a month with an injury that could have been prevented with the right equipment. Implementing simple comfort upgrades can go a long way.
An ergonomically designed workspace speeds material flow by eliminating the double-handling of parts. Individually designed workstations ensure that only the appropriate materials move in and out as quickly as possible, as well as reduce the amount of material around the weld area. Leading causes of workplace injuries include slips, trips and falls, and clutter is a primary cause. In short, good housekeeping and a well-designed, ergonomic workstation improve safety.
Health and Wellness
The success of ergonomics in manufacturing may have indirectly produced another safety trend, one that demonstrates a positive link between safety and healthy employees. Workers' compensation costs present a primary challenge to safety personnel because they don't add anything to the bottom line, they only subtract from it. In other words, workers' compensation costs can, at best, be zero. Conversely, encouraging health and wellness among employees may well contribute to the bottom line through better productivity. With healthcare costs rising, safety managers are addressing this potential.
The idea that a healthy workplace is a safe workplace may not be new, but only recently has the idea been actively applied to the manufacturing workforce. For example, beginning the day with stretching and exercise programs allows workers to loosen up, enjoy time with coworkers and begin the workday fully alert. As part of safety education, companies can offer health and wellness sessions that cover a variety of worthwhile topics, such as stress, cancer, weight management and diabetes. While management can't control health and wellness outside the workplace, they can encourage a healthy, thus safer, work environment.
Onsite Medical Help
Another innovative approach to workplace safety is in-house medical staffing. Onsite doctors and nurses treat simple strains and sprains before serious injuries occur, such as treating numb fingers before it blooms into Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. While expensive, onsite medical personnel keep workers' compensation claims down, illness rates low and, even more importantly, encourage employees to take responsibility for medical treatment and seek it earlier.
Emergency response plans have evolved into emergency "action" plans, indicating a down-to-business safety mindset. Procedures are skillfully honed, communicated and practiced so that everyone is prepared for an emergency before it happens. Management can appoint and train a key contact from each business area to take quick action when called upon. Like clockwork, all personnel act, whether it means instigating an emergency procedure or dialing 911. These plans ensure that there are trained people in every area of the facility.
An effective emergency action plan also involves having the right safety equipment available. This requires multiple efforts to research health and safety issues and come up with innovative solutions. At Miller Electric, safety committee members were faced with how to address medical research data on cardiac arrest that stated survival rates drop 10 percent every minute a patient goes without treatment. As a result, Miller invested in 11 defibrillators in February, 2004. Just 3 months later, two Miller "first responders" (safety-trained personnel) saved a vendor's life when he had a heart attack while visiting Miller. The price tag on the defibrillator became a non-issue compared to saving a life. Looking ahead, the urgency for cardiac arrest treatment will make defibrillators as common as fire extinguishers someday.
As a result of rigorous safety management programs, personal protective equipment policies should become second nature. Safety projects develop by taking standard policies into account and create positive peer pressure in the plant to adhere to safety policies. Handbooks further emphasize personal protective equipment policies and along with managers, who enforce compliance in each unit. As a result, injuries diminish.
PPE needs differ depending on the employer and the industry. At Miller Electric, personal protective equipment policies include items that should be worn in weld areas:
- Flame-resistant gloves
- Safety glasses with side shields
- Welding helmet
- Apron or lab coat
- Steel-toed shoes
- Long-sleeved shirt
- Flame-resistant clothing
The American Welding Society and OSHA offer guidelines on the proper personal protective equipment, including what welders should wear in specific environments. With all equipment, be sure to read and follow the safety information in the operator's manual or contact the manufacturing company when in doubt.
Lacerations are another common cause of injuries, but safety managers don't always point to carelessness as the cause. Employees need to wear gloves for certain operations, such as handling sheet metal, cut metal or other sharp objects. However, gloves can also create a hazard if they can be caught in machinery, such as a rotating spindle. It's a judgment call that should be made by the safety department or committee.
For the welding operator, companies are increasingly investing in auto-darkening helmets, particularly for tack and short welds. The nature of the welding means that operators are more prone to let safety slide and close their eyes to "shield" them from the arc because they become tired of having to raise and lower their hoods. An auto-darkening helmet eliminates the need to raise the hood because the operator can see the weldment and reposition the torch before striking an arc. After striking an arc, the lens darkens 1/20,000th of a second. For that fraction of a second, the eye may detect brightness, but harmful rays can't get through the UV protective lens.
As PPE changes, so do OSHA regulations. High on OSHA's priority list are respiratory standards, hazard communication, chemical labeling, machine guarding and lock-out/tag-out, to name a handful. When sound safety programs are in place, OSHA compliance shouldn't be a major concern, because the company will already be in compliance. Safety managers understand the importance of keeping up with changes so they can design a safer work environment and eliminate safety problems. Further, OSHA's Volunteer Protection Program, by partnering with companies, offers one way for businesses to remain informed about safety, meet safety requirements and ultimately avoid their inspection list.
The most important method for preventing safety violations is proper training. A seasoned workforce, while it brings up aging and motion issues, has a distinct advantage in terms of safety-related knowledge and skill. In companies where welders turn every 2 to 3 years, effective training is a much larger issue. Any welding safety or certification program should include thorough training on proper safety practices.
Managers can go to great lengths to put safety policies in place, but if policies aren't followed, some type of disciplinary action must be taken. Disciplinary action typically depends on the infraction and the employee's record, but more and more employees are being held accountable for safety through their merit. In other words, employees not only need to follow the rules, but must demonstrate that they are taking an active role in setting the rules. Barring acceptable performance, employee compensation may be negatively affected.
Managers should be held accountable for safety within their business areas. It is the manager's responsibility to make sure employees abide by safety policies and procedures and carry out disciplinary action when appropriate. Safety managers should hold meetings on a regular basis to not only emphasize safety, but the importance of employee participation in meeting safety objectives. Additionally, managers must demonstrate their support for new ideas and ultimately make decisions that are right for the employee and the company.
Mike Pankratz is the publications coordinator and and Dane Dorn is the safety manager for Miller Electric Mfg. Co.