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John A. Dony is director of the Campbell Institute and director of environment, health, safety and sustainability for the National Safety Council • 10/2/2017

How We Can Manufacture Safety?

Merging technology with manufacturing can have safety benefits.

How We Can Manufacture Safety?

​Blog – Manufacturing Day will be marked on Friday, Oct. 6, to promote what manufacturing is and what opportunities exist within the industry. For us at the National Safety Council, Manufacturing Day is a chance to discuss how great advancements in safety can take place in the field of manufacturing.

Working in manufacturing can be dangerous. Although improvements have been made, when it comes to preventable incidents across industries, manufacturing ranks second highest in injuries and illnesses; the industry recorded 125,990 incidents involving days away from work in 2014. Leading causes of these injuries include overexertion – especially when lifting or lowering – coming into contact with objects, and slips, trips and falls.

Many technological innovations have been driven by productivity first and safety second (or further down the list). Automation has long been part of manufacturing, but as automation continues to grow, the debate over job loss and the long-term sustainability of employment intensifies.

We believe in today's workplaces, when automation is done correctly, it makes everyone safer and doesn't have to result in job loss. The truth is, there are a lot of dangerous tasks where it makes sense to engineer the human out of harm's way.

Even when a person is removed from a task, there are still roles to be played. By programing, operating and maintaining the equipment, workers can become managers of a process rather than performers of a task. Transitioning workers to these more skilled jobs requires investment in training and development.

There are potential downsides to replacing a worker entirely, however. Losing the knowledge of a veteran employee can reduce both safety and productivity. After all, who knows better how things should work than the person who has been doing it for years?

Technology also can have a direct, proactive safety benefit beyond replacing or automating dangerous tasks. Three areas where exciting work is taking place are:

  • Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors
  • Cameras and wearables
  • Virtual reality

Leaders in manufacturing are embracing innovations including using the IoT to create interlinked communication between machines, objects and people. This has numerous safety implications – from preventing collisions and falls through automated safeguards and braking mechanisms to "virtual fencing" that knows when an employee is or is not authorized to be in a given area of the facility.

Cameras are now small and high-resolution enough to be embedded in visors, goggles and hard hats so that safety professionals can see what workers are seeing. Wearables can monitor workers' heart rate and breathing when working in confined-space situations or in conditions of heat stress. Innovators are now developing applications that monitor blood sugar levels, blood pressure and more. There is no doubt these devices can be applied in the workplace for safety benefits, as long as employers follow privacy laws, build trust and use them for good and not punitive reasons.

Finally, the size and cost of virtual reality equipment has decreased dramatically, making it more readily available in a work setting. Today, there is a growing trend of virtual reality use in safety training. This allows workers to get a hands-on experience with potential hazards but in a controlled situation. Think about how much safer you can be if you have "done" the riskiest part of your job a dozen times before actually setting foot in a facility.

Technology and automation in manufacturing are about so much more than replacing jobs. There are always challenges, and the debate about technological innovation in manufacturing is far from over. But leading-edge companies are embracing technology while facing these issues head-on. If the growth of smart phones is any indication, 10 years from now these innovations and practices will be the norm everywhere – and we'll be safer for it.

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