The manufacturing sector constitutes a major chunk of the global economy and is also responsible for affecting advancements across other industries. However, manufacturing workers have historically been subject to several workplace risks, and therefore, employee safety has been a key focus for manufacturers globally. Safety shoes were invented around the 1940s to prevent foot injuries, and it was in the 1930s when head safety programmes were introduced. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)was introduced in the 1970s, and apart from detailing sector-wise guidelines, the regulation necessitates employers to provide a safe workspace free from all recognisable risks to all workers. Violations of such workspace safety regulations cost steep in terms of loss of lives, injuries and reputation and attract smaller costs, like fines (although they amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars), legal fees, production delays and risks to future business.
Today, however, the risk is perceived very differently in manufacturing environments – at least in some of the safest workspaces of the world. With evolving use cases of technologies, like cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), robotics & Augmented/Virtual Reality (AR/VR), a number of workspace hazards can be prevented before they occur. Such a paradigm of employee safety has been long in the making and will pave the way for a peoplefirst approach in one of the most critical industries today
Employee safety considerations in manufacturing environments
In the manufacturing industry, production facilities and warehouses are replete with a number of factors that pose a risk to the employees working in such environments. Here are a few of them:
Falls and slips: Falls and slips are among the top three causes of injuries, off-time and deaths in manufacturing and account for the highest number of OSHA violations in the US. Such incidents can occur from working without adequate gear, unmonitored high points and lack of oversight or warnings.
Chemical hazards: A number of chemicals used in manufacturing facilities can harm workers in various ways – key risks include respiratory damage from prolonged inhalation, injuries from skin exposure and long-term health risks from repeated exposure without protective equipment like industry-grade respirators.
Electrical hazards: Injuries and deaths from electrical shocks are caused by dispatching repairmen without overseeing electric controls, ignoring safety guidelines while carrying out electrical repairs or lack of training.
Heavy machinery: Operating heavy machinery subject’s workers to the risk of getting crushed, pinched or risking other workers’ safety. Therefore, it is not surprising that nearly half of all amputations occur in the manufacturing sector.
Exposure risks: It is not only chemicals that bring risks of exposure – loud sounds from the machinery can cause deafness and tinnitus, whereas operating welding machinery without protective gear can result in partial or complete blindness over time. Exposure to fast-alternating temperatures also poses health risks.
While some of these risks can be prevented with a safety-first culture, manufacturers should be proactive in facilitating the safest possible environment for workers in an industry replete with such risk factors. Today, most of these risks can be minimised by using the right technologies and effecting a people-first mindset across the organisation. Read on to see how
People-first: 11 levers boosting employee safety
Here are the 11 levers to boost employee safety, minimise risks and prevent injuries and fatalities in the manufacturing environment of today.
Deploy an advanced EHS system
While traditional EHS systems were leveraged to track and react appropriately to workplace hazards, today’s EHS systems go beyond running on a reactive mode. Instead, advanced EHS systems facilitate a shift from a reactive approach to apreventive approach, highlighting risk areas, spotting patterns in safety hazards and helping identify a root cause.
Not only do advanced EHS systems enable remote monitoring of work environments, but they also align workplace safety policies and regulations guidelines to real-time work environments. This is achieved by delivering updates to employees working in risky conditions via wearables, detecting evolving risk factors such as the polarisation of air during an electrical repair and guiding mission-critical repairs that are bounded by automated on/off schedules of machinery. Lastly, EHS systems are no longer interfaced to a control room screen alone but also deliver the necessary safety information to workers on the field via smartwatches, smart glasses, or their smartphones.
Connected facilities with cloud platforms
Some of the most advanced manufacturing facilities in the world are now leveraging cloud platforms to orchestrate their operations. A key benefit of adopting cloud platforms is facilitating seamless connectivity between employees in the field, on the production line and the control room, building continuity between people and software-driven processes.
A number of hazards are often caused by operating machinery without knowing if there are workers at risk – such hazards can be prevented by patching location data from employee wearables in the OT environment, thereby eliminating the need for repeated safety audits and phone calls. Moreover, cloud platforms also enable the integration of visual feeds, IoT data and maintenance status of equipment from ERP to contextualise risk and to automatically issue alerts to employees at risk.
Lastly, the health and safety benefits of facilities connected via IoT and cloud are multifold. As enterprises deploy new solutions, more machines and sensors, they can further advance their EHS roadmaps by bringing new data points and evolving their safety protocols enforcement and alerting systems.
Automation for materials handling
Manual materials handling can lead to repetitive motion strategies, risks resulting from human errors, trips and falls and exertion. Moreover, handling hazardous materials, such as chemicals, can cause significant risks to other workers. Therefore, automated materials handling is another term for making robots carry out the handling process. Automated materials handling is an umbrella term for a few technologies, such as automated storage and retrieval systems, automated vehicles, cobots and rail-guided vehicles, that help implement a goods-to-people process map in a production facility or a warehouse. Such technologies enable storage and retrieval from high-rise shelves, eliminate human risk from carrying hazardous materials and eliminate non-ergonomic postures from the employees’ workday.
Automating materials handling also injects efficiency, speed & precision into manufacturing processes, thereby reducing risks from human errors and improper judgment from fatigue. Lastly, automation technologies can also enhance worker safety in other processes, such as welding, forging, cutting, etc.
AR/VR for safety training and simulations
A key cause of safety hazards in manufacturing environments is inadequate training. Workers often decide to handle machinery without receiving training, and safety protocols are ignored in real-time scenarios. Moreover, some hazardous incidents also occur during training sessions. Another disadvantage of classroom safety training is the inability to form sticky habits through repetition and disengaging instruction.
This is where AR/VR technologies come into play. With VR, employees can receive immersive safety training in a risk-free environment, with the added possibility of repeating simulations. This helps develop habits that stick, and such simulations can be monitored for helping employees achieve satisfactory training levels before deploying them in real-life scenarios. Lastly, AR is an effective technology not only for guiding repairmen through quick and successful repairs but also for delivering safety instructions and updating them on risk factors in real-time.
Computer vision for safety guidelines compliance
In the manufacturing industry, personal protective equipment (PPE) plays a key role in helping workers navigate risky environments. For instance, various safety boots with stringent technical specifications can help prevent slippage, falls from ladders, toe injuries from heavy materials or trips or exposure tochemicals. Similarly, other processes call for acid-proof gloves, safety goggles or industrial noise-cancelling equipment.
However, providing such equipment and outlining the policies regarding PPE usage alone is not adequate to prevent hazards resulting from non-compliance with PPE guidelines. For such situations, computer vision solutions can help ensure that each worker that enters a risky environment is adhering to PPE usage guidelines. By processing images of workers or monitoring video feeds in real-time, such systems can alert if a worker is not using PPE in an area. Such systems can also be patched with insurance and compensation policies or the ensuing implications of not complying with PPE guidelines while reinstating the risk factors as and when incidents are detected.
Predictive maintenance to prevent hazards
Another key cause of safety hazards is running machinery to the point of malfunction or not knowing how repair processes are interdependent on other processes in the environment. For instance, a malfunctioning cooling system can lead to condensation build-up and cause an electrical hazard – similarly, and a worker might touch a hot bearing, conduct a repair during a gas build-up and so on.
Therefore, predictive maintenance is not only a key use case for extending asset life and health but also a critical aspect of ensuring a safe environment for all the workers in the facility. Machine malfunctions usually directly affect the operators and sometimes also pose a risk to others in the environment. Predictive maintenance systems not only help prevent mishaps arising from malfunctions but also enable workers to conduct repairs in safe windows. Lastly, predictive maintenance also reduces the need for inspections in risky environments, thereby subtracting from the costs of audits and risks of inspecting machinery that is in operation.
AI for risk detection, reaction, and warning
While AI drives several employee safety use cases, such as computer vision for PPE detection and predictive maintenance, there are a number of other applications too. For instance, AI and ML can be applied to real-time video feeds, sensor data, location data or health data from wearables.
Anomaly detection algorithms applied to sensor data can detect leakages, untimely malfunctions, gas build-up, exceeding temperature or pressure ranges and so on. Similarly, video feeds of outdoor facilities can be monitored for fire or accidents, and adequate actions can be taken immediately. Moreover, AI algorithms can also pick irregularities from health data from wearables or contextualise risk detection with location data to issue timely alerts to workers of a potential hazard.
Automating construction safety documents
Electronic documentation is a key step in elevating worker safety levels, enforcing accountability across the organisation, building visibility into whether safety conditions and compliance requirements are being met and if there are identifiable trends leading to repeated risk exposure for workers on the field. While document automation is also being built into EHS software these days, there are other solutions that specialise in provisioning fillable forms in a device-agnostic manner and speeding safety policies adherence.
In construction, manufacturing, O&G and mining, automation of safety documents can help save tens of hours per week while building a central repository of verifiable, past safety checks – all of them accessible from a central location. Patched with safety incident reporting systems, such records can enable facility managers to spot hazard trends and take mitigative actions to prevent the repetition of such incidents. Lastly, electronic documentation also simplifies access, multi-party collaboration and job site quality management without the need for investing in additional hardware on-field or maintaining paperwork.
Smart wearables for worker safety
Smart wearables are a class of equipment that can perform a number of functions to promote worker safety and health in hazardous environments. Such wearables make use of a number of technologies such as smart sensors, AR/VR, and embedded AI/ML to deliver alerts and preventive actions to workers. So far, manufacturing environments have seen workers wearing smart vests that can detect extreme temperature stress, excessive Predictive maintenance systems not only lessen the hazard risk, but also allow operators to work in a risk free zone forceful vibrations, physical fatigue and whether sufficient rest breaks are being taken in high exertion processes.
Smart wearables can also be patched with EHS and OT systems to cross-contextualise data within both systems. For instance, a worker doing repetitive tasks and load lifting simultaneously could develop an injury spontaneously – in such a situation, medical safety teams can be dispatched to the worker’s location immediately, and appropriate next steps are taken without delay. Smart wearables can also help gauge a worker’s physical and psychological health indicators, stress and fatigue levels, or even detect impacts and injuries as they occur in real-time.
Helmet-mounted sensor tags
With the reducing cost of sensors, personal protective equipment has been turned into smart safety items that do much more than protecting the head or feet. Safety helmets, for example, are being purpose-built for the job that a field worker does daily. Employees that conduct electrical repair can often unknowingly damage electrical equipment or subject themselves to shocks due to undetected electrostatic fields. Today, helmets of linemen canbe augmented with sensor tags that run on AA batteries and assist them in detecting electrical fields from a few meters away. Similarly, workers that operate in risky environments or handle heavy machinery can be alerted on their proximity with other workers. To do so, their helmets can be augmented with singleantenna IoT devices. As soon as another worker wearing a similar helmet is detected in proximity, the helmet delivers audible alerts in the form of a beep. Such devices can be configured to alert the workers on a customised range of proximity, and this information can also be injected into operational technology software to alert operators of workers in proximity with a machine on the field.
Building a people-first culture
Lastly, cultural aspects are a significant aspect of employee safety. A number of misconceptions and mindsets can lead to the propagation of risky behaviour in the workspace. For instance, considering that safety subtracts from productivity or that risk is a part of the job can continuously hinder realising a people-first culture. While digital technologies can help mitigate some of the risks, a people-first culture goes a long way in navigating through the blind spots, helping avoid longterm damage to the organisation and its people, and digitally transforming for proactive safety in the first place. Some of the ways to build a people-first culture include rewarding safety behaviours, communicating a people-first vision across managers responsible for facilities, acknowledging hazardous incidents and collectively learning from them.
Leading with the ‘people-first’ commitment
In the process of building a people-first culture at a manufacturing organisation, senior leaders must reform their vision of employee safety. Many organisations look at employee safety as just another checkbox to tick for compliance adherence. On the other hand, a people-first culture views regulations as drivers of people's safety in risky environments; therefore, safety regulations form the baseline. Today, smart technologies have taken people's safety in risky workplaces to the next level – risks can be detected in advance, and hazards can be mitigated before they occur. As a result, technology is at the forefront of a peoplefirst culture in the manufacturing industry. Organisations that lead the industry with a people-first culture will be able to retain the best-of-breed talent & enjoy a better reputation in the market, steer clear of fines and boost employees’ commitment to the organisation. When the entire business landscape is talking about safe workplaces, manufacturing industry should lead by example by aiming for the highest standards of employee safety in what have been traditionally perceived as risky work environments.