Keeping the doctor away

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Creating a health and safety program that fits your shop’s needs

Shop Metalworking Technology speaks with Laura Rourke, a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP) and an environmental engineer with more than 18 years of experience developing, co-ordinating and maintaining health, safety and environmental programs for Canadian manufacturing operations. Based in Cambridge, ON, she manages the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium Safety Group, is an ambassador with Sustainable Waterloo Region, and sits on the City of Cambridge’s Environmental Advisory Committee and City Green Subcomittee. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Health and safety in manufacturing is important, but is it equally important to have a formal program in place endorsed by an industry association?

I think it depends on what’s happening in the business. Formal systems require a lot of documentation and support from management. Many hands make light work, but if your formal system comes down to one person managing everything, I don’t believe the business will realize all the potential benefits. If you are constantly chasing the closure of non-conformities to the system or progress on programs, you’re not doing other things that might have a more immediate impact on safety. That’s where management needs to step up and hold folks accountable for their deliverables. Obviously, if customers are asking for it, it can have a direct impact on the bottom line, but a lot of good health and safety programs exist that are not as formal as Z1000, or OHSAS 18001.

That said, I do see benefits in formal systems–the cycle of Plan, Do, Check, Act will drive continual improvement. It’s amazing how often I talk to companies that believe they are doing something, equipment pre-use inspections for example, but when you ask to see inspection forms for the past month, some have been missed. Audits are great for identifying gaps and ultimately driving change.

What are the key elements of an effective health and safety program for manufacturing?

Manufacturers are in a tough spot these days. The employees I speak to are being asked to do more and more and they are spread pretty thin. Positions that might have existed before the recession are not being re-filled now that business is improving. So time is often the most precious and limiting factor when deciding what gets done. Because of that, I believe it’s important for companies to know what the legal requirements are and to document a system that incorporates those requirements and reflect how they do things. Often companies will take a procedure from another business or use a consultant to make sure they have all the procedures they need but they don’t go the extra step to make sure if those procedures/forms they are asking for fit with their own processes and reporting structure. Companies need to document what they are going to do and then make sure they do it. If it isn’t working, they need to revise the procedure/form to reflect what they can and will do while still maintaining those legal requirements.

Companies also need to hold people accountable for their responsibilities in the system. Of course it’s critical to train and communicate to all parties what the company requires–contractors, visitors, employees, supervisors, management–but someone wisely said to me once “you can’t train attitude”. If you don’t have a robust system to deal with those individuals that continually fail to do what’s required of them, it can undermine all the good work you’ve done.

Lastly, companies need to manage risk. They often spend a lot of time managing high frequency issues but can miss hazards that have high injury severity potential because they would only occur in rare/abnormal conditions. How are they identifying those risks and ensuring controls are in place and adequate?

What costs are associated with implementing such a program?

I think it depends on what you are doing. Formal systems require time and attention. I think they work best when you have a champion that oversees the system as a whole and makes sure you are meeting the requirements. This doesn’t have to be a full time person, but to do it properly it would have to be a part of someone’s job. And if this person isn’t a safety professional, they need to know where to go to for help on the technical/legal side of health and safety. There are a lot of good organizations, like Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium, Health and Safety Associations and even the Ministry of Labour where manufacturers can access resources to build upon their existing programs. Safety folks are great for sharing best practices and procedures–a hazard is a hazard no matter what you produce.

Management can help that person out by supporting the system and making sure employees are fulfilling their responsibilities. I love the saying “what interests my boss fascinates the heck out of me.” Management needs to continually support safety, not just at audit time. Walking through production, ensuring employees are working safely, wearing required PPE, ensuring equipment is maintained and in good condition, holding supervisors accountable for their safety responsibilities will drive the operations towards a culture where safety is valued and important. I’ve seen terrific health and safety programs in small and medium operations where there is continual attention paid to keeping employees safe. That’s more a function of effort than additional out of pocket expense.

What time commitment is involved?

As I said, many hands make light work. If companies can move towards making safety a part of everyone’s job, integrating it into how they do business, it doesn’t have to be a stand alone cost/time commitment. I also think it’s important to grow the program over time. Develop a procedure, train your employees and monitor it over time. Make tweaks if you need to, and reinforce the good practices you are seeing. Then move on to the next issue. The WSIB Safety Group Core Program is a great program for companies to grow their system year over year.

Does a manufacturer need to regularly review and update health and safety programs?

Absolutely. That’s part of the checking–the business and the laws will change. What was working when you first implemented something may not fit anymore. It might only require an update to a procedure or it may be that there have been new hazards that need controls. Regardless, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a procedure that was 10 years old that didn’t require updating.

What key changes have occurred in health and safety programs for manufacturing in the past five years that manufacturers should be aware of?

Companies that stand by the “we’ve always done it that way” excuse for not implementing hazard controls will not find sympathetic ears with enforcement officials. The laws have been in place for a long time now and making business plans around the fact that you have never been called on it before is short sighted. Companies need to identify these risks and put plans in place to get them into compliance. Guarding, replacing racking, ventilation systems etc. are done much better if you have time to plan and budget how you want to do it versus slapping something in place because you now have an order from an inspector.

Training that includes demonstrated competence is important. A signature on a training form is no longer a substitute for actually seeing the safe work in practice.

Transparency with how companies operate and treat their workers has put pressure on manufacturers to ensure decent working conditions around the globe. I think this gives Canadian manufacturers an advantage because, generally speaking, we are way ahead of so many countries where low cost has attracted business.

What key changes do you expect to see in health and safety programs in manufacturing in the next five years?

It’s really about managing risks. I encourage companies to get started formalizing how they do this. Job Safety/Hazard Analysis (JSA/JHA), Hazard Identification/Risk Assessment (HIRA) may be terms companies have heard. Methodically identify jobs/equipment your employees work on, identify the tasks/steps associated with that job/equipment, identify the hazards associated with each task and rate them for probability of being harmed, frequency of exposure and severity of potential injury. Make sure you are including start-up/shut down tasks, abnormal conditions–situations that might not be immediately apparent. It’s more than a Physical Demands Analysis or a form for employees to report hazards.

Part of this is determining what an acceptable risk is for your company. With the recent report about how manufacturing bouncing back, it has not resulted in backfilling positions that were lost in the recession. Companies are having to prioritize their efforts and with that will come compromises. I’m not completely convinced that a certified formal system will make sense for all companies. That said, no one wants to see anyone get hurt. But if you’ve studied the problem, put controls in place, trained everyone and you’re still getting minor cuts that only require first aid, some companies may choose to live with that small risk and focus their efforts elsewhere.

What advice would you give to a small to medium sized manufacturer who wants to implement a good health and safety program in the manufacturing shop?

Keep your system simple. Find good resources you can borrow from. Involve your employees when developing and implementing your requirements. And management needs to demonstrate support.

What are the consequences of not having a health and safety program in place in a manufacturing shop?

There’s nothing worse than scrambling to put processes/controls in place because something has happened whether it’s an injured employee or inspector’s orders. Putting a good health and safety program in place will ensure companies are dealing with their risks and therefore keeping employees safe, avoiding claim costs, and implementing thoughtful controls that have a greater chance of working for the long run. It’s becoming more and more important for customers and it can be a great attraction and retention tool for employees.

Where can manufacturers go for advice and support for implementing health and safety in their facilities?

There are so many great places for support. Health and safety Associations have many free resources. Organizations like Excellence in Manufacturing Association have Member Needs Help resources and networking events to share best practices. WSIB Safety Groups programs have similar networking components and the sponsors often have examples to share. And safety professionals in general are usually a great bunch for providing a helping hand if they can. SMT

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