Manufacturing plants can be dangerous places. However, using an all-encompassing strategy to reduce accidents and maintain worker safety can help facilities stay productive and competitive. Here are 11 tips that company leaders should consider as they assess how to enhance safe practices for workforces and avoid accidents.

1. Connect data collection devices to equipment

Many modern machines used in manufacturing facilities can collect a wealth of data. Alternatively, solutions exist that allow adapting equipment so that it gathers data during operations.

However, many company leaders don’t adequately utilise data. If they start doing that, existing safety risks could become more apparent, and plant managers could see which processes work exceptionally well. They could also note which processes or pieces of equipment raise safety risks.

For example, using a safety-based communications protocol for connected safety equipment could reduce wiring by 38% while simplifying the system and enabling better data assessment. Similarly, taking a data-based approach could show weaknesses in current machines or systems.

A safety manager may discover that workers routinely disable a safety feature to deal with a malfunctioning part. In that case, getting the faulty component fixed goes a long way in preventing accidents. However, it’s difficult to spot problems like that without the strategic examination of data.

Another effective way to use data is to determine which machines or processes cause the most accidents or defects. Once the information confirms that detail, it’s easier to make progress in tackling the causes of those unwanted consequences.

2. Encourage employees to take ownership of equipment maintenance

Most people know that correctly functioning machinery is less likely to perform in ways that cause accidents or fatalities. However, it’s not always as evident to them that equipment maintenance is a collective responsibility.

However, when equipment maintenance is everyone’s concern, employees will take more ownership over the processes and understand their roles in boosting safety. Start by clarifying the responsibilities that an employee has if they notice a machine malfunction.

For example, the person who notices an issue may not be the one who addresses it. However, they’re likely the one who should report it. Manufacturing floor leaders should consider creating checklists that help equipment operators know what to look for when they start and finish using a machine. Using those documents helps people get in the habit of verifying everything is in order before starting to use the equipment.

Moreover, following the correct documentation process is an ideal way to show ownership. If a person does not know how to report an issue or perceives doing it as too difficult, they’re more likely to assume someone else will or should bring up the issue to the appropriate party.

3. Identify lesser-known workplace risks

When a person thinks of potential manufacturing safety threats, things like fires, toxic chemical exposure, and injuries from incorrect equipment handling may come to mind. Those cause dangers that manufacturing professionals should minimize as much as possible.

However, it’s also crucial to target the workplace dangers that are not as obvious. In one case, a global beverage manufacturer installed a robot that picked up bottles on the assembly line. Professionals at the facility recognised that glass containers pose safety threats if they fall on the floor and break. Since the robot kept the bottles standing, it increased productivity levels while safeguarding employees from glass shards.

Factory managers should strongly consider getting worker input when learning more about what to fix. Floor employees likely notice dangers that others miss by not having direct exposure to them. For example, a worker might point out that an overly narrow pathway puts people too close to a piece of heavy equipment.

People tasked with making safety improvements should also attempt to quantify the benefits associated with certain changes. Perhaps workers often say that a particular part of the factory needs better lighting. Installing it would be a straightforward way to increase safety. However, brightening up the space could also increase output and decrease error rates because people no longer strain to see clearly.

4. Know the possible risks of an expanded supply chain

Manufacturing decision-makers continually must decide if and when to broaden their supply chains to other countries. Doing so could help them ramp up production, but it may also introduce more challenges for verifying safe working practices.

For example, an investigation of Chinese toy factories showed that some workers completed as many as 175 overtime hours per month, despite the nation’s labor laws limiting the number to 36. Even when companies do not bear direct responsibility for committing such violations, they can still suffer reputational damage. That’s why it’s crucial to vet supply chain participants and ensure they meet standards.

Consumers may hear about allegations and conclude that companies they once loved care more about making money than keeping people safe. Then, profits could fall, and they may take years to bounce back. Manufacturing professionals should avoid taking supplier partners at their word and take it upon themselves to check that those parties follow all necessary safety precautions.

It’s also more difficult to verify the correct ingredient formulations and trace issues with imported products. An incorrectly made paint could release dangerous fumes, making assembly line workers ill. These risks don’t mean company leaders should avoid broadening their supply chains when necessary. However, they should always weigh the pros and cons of such actions, ensuring that working with more suppliers in other countries will not introduce heightened risks for workers nearby or abroad.

5. See how safety wearables enhance wellbeing

Safety wearables are a category of smart gadgets that could detect dangers that otherwise go unnoticed. Some prompt workers to rest if they have prolonged elevated heart rates or temperatures.

One study examined 14 physical fatigue interventions at workplaces, including tests where people donned wearables. All tests mimicked tasks people would perform in manufacturing settings. The results showed that wearable sensors could help detect physical performance changes and identify specialised tasks that make people more prone to fatigue.

Data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that people in the manufacturing industry took 32,470 days off from work due to injuries in 2019. Moreover, 28% were due to sprains, strains, or tears. Then, 14.5% were from soreness or pain, and cuts, lacerations, or punctures caused 13.3% of off-days.

Thus, having people use wearable technology to monitor fatigue or overwork and using hand protection could prevent a sizable percentage of injuries.

6. Investigate virtual reality to improve training outcomes

People often find immersive training scenarios more memorable. For example, someone might go through a role-playing exercise. Then, they might find it’s easier to recall the correct steps to take in an emergency than if they’d only read through the steps in a textbook.

Virtual reality (VR) is becoming a popular option for exposing people to training materials in safe and realistic ways. For example, construction workers may get VR content about working at heights. It isn’t easy to create real-life educational scenarios for that topic, but the task fits perfectly into the VR realm. A study from the University of Nottingham involved a VR simulation to train workers about escaping from fires.

The results showed that VR experiences with temperature and scent elements led to better participant performance than those with only audio and visual features. More specifically, the people going through the simulation that engaged more of their senses were less likely to treat the VR content like a game and acted more like they would against real-life threats.

Thus, VR could promote worker safety when used for training, but the simulation features matter for efficacy. Safety professionals in the manufacturing sector should consider what kinds of VR content exist for the training topics they want to cover. Moreover, if no premade modules exist, it may be worth working with a company to get a custom design.

7. Address potentially harmful management styles

Many people know that certain management styles can affect morale. For example, the directive approach expects compliance and uses threats or discipline to ensure people behave as they should. It can help get things done correctly in high-risk environments but can also make workers feel that supervisors scrutinize everything they do.

Conversely, the affiliative style aims to promote harmonious relationships between workers at all levels. These managers try to motivate everyone by keeping them happy. That method can work to a point, but it may fall short when genuine conflicts arise or if employees need corrective feedback due to their actions or attitudes.

However, it’s not immediately obvious that management style connects to worker safety. Research from Portland State University confirmed the link. It showed that poor treatment from bosses could weaken people’s ties to their work groups. More specifically, it might make the mistreated workers feel that their workplace teams don’t value them either.

From there, they can become more self-centred. If that happens, workers may occasionally forget to follow safety rules or procedures. Additionally, this phenomenon is more likely to occur if a person feels unsure about their social status in the workplace. These findings suggest that it’s necessary to identify and respond to potential bullying behaviours from bosses. Doing so could keep a workplace safer and emphasize the need to think of everyone when engaging in various actions.

8. Ensure that workers have the right protective clothing

The proper clothing supports worker safety by offering extra layers of protection over parts of the body. For example, specially made gloves safeguard wearers against cuts and abrasions, while there are suits designed for people who work with hazardous chemicals. Moreover, when people’s roles at manufacturing plants put them at risk of exposure to high voltage or fire, the appropriate clothing can lessen the consequences of accidents in such situations.

Here are some often-used kinds of protective attire.

Protective clothing for the body and skin

The garments in this category include coveralls, gowns, aprons and lab coats, plus specialised jackets and full-body suits. People often wear these items if their manufacturing jobs involve harsh chemicals.

Some specialty clothing in this category caters to people performing specific tasks. For example, a person who uses sharp objects will likely rely on cut-resistant gloves. Alternatively, if an individual’s job puts them at risk of splashing substances, long pants or suits for industrial use could give adequate protection.

Protective clothing chosen for the environment

Manufacturing workers don’t always have the benefit of a comfortable environment. For example, people who help manufacture chilled or frozen foods may work in cold surroundings for most of their workdays. Thus, they may need to wear several protective layers, as well as insulated gloves.

Employees in metal manufacturing are particularly likely to deal with high-heat environments due to the associated processes. The garments most suitable for them typically feature unique textiles or coatings that make the attire durable and protect the wearer in case of accidents.

Implement programmes and practices to boost clothing-related compliance

Besides requiring workers to wear the appropriate clothing, safety managers at manufacturing plants should think of other steps they could take to help people avoid harm by wearing suitable items. The ideal scenario is one where people view donning the proper garb as the most convenient action.

For example, a company leader may decide that all manufacturing workers get certain types of protective clothing replaced for free annually. Alternatively, the business might start a system where people could show supervisors evidence of faulty workwear before the year ends and have replacements purchased for them early.

If workers feel concerned about the associated costs of buying protective clothing with their income, some may notice problems with their garments and continue using them regardless. However, that’s a risky situation that safety managers can eliminate by having the company cover the costs.

Moreover, having workers keep their protective gear at the company – such as in a locker room – could help it stay in good condition over time. If people take it home, there’s a higher chance of accidental mistreatment shortening the clothing’s effective usage period.

9. Take steps to improve situational awareness

Situational awareness relates to how well a person perceives their surroundings, and more importantly, whether things change in them. Not surprisingly, a University of Missouri study showed that situational awareness decreases when a person is tired or multitasking. The researchers developed a real-time eye-tracking system that could be particularly useful for gauging situational awareness in manufacturing and other industries where that skill proves crucial.

However, most manufacturing facilities will not have access to such high-tech systems to check situational awareness levels. That’s okay, because the starting point can be an understanding that it’s advantageous to help everyone be more aware of their surroundings and recognise when things change.

One option is to build prompts into critical work tasks that remind employees to look for hazards and signs of change. That approach encourages workers to think about task steps more thoroughly and urges them to avoid lapsing into autopilot modes.

It’s also crucial to design tasks that help people stay focused on individual aspects as much as possible. If a worker has to verify five manufacturing process elements instead of one, it’s more likely that something will slip by them that could pose safety risks.

10. Schedule time for relevant training

The most innovative training methods or detail-oriented approaches won’t pay off when company leaders don’t set aside adequate time for them. A recent study showed that more than 59% of respondents cited reserving time for workplace training as among their biggest challenges.

However, doing it brings measurable safety gains. The survey also revealed that people are 68% more likely to follow safety protocols on the floor when they have at least 20 hours of annual safety training.

Beyond the time taken for the education itself, it’s also worthwhile to put effort into using videos and images specific to the site when teaching employees. Such an approach makes employees two times more likely to stay “very engaged” during training sessions, the research indicated.

Learning management systems and interactive audience response technology were two of the methods to improve training effectiveness. While a learning management system ensures people don’t go too long without refresher courses, interactive audience response methods help learners get more involved. Company leaders should see where weaknesses exist, then look for specific resources or strategies to fill those gaps.

11. Maintain an adaptable mindset about COVID-19 protocols

The COVID-19 pandemic required drastic worker safety measures that never crossed people’s minds before the global health threat. Individuals had to stay at least six feet apart, wear masks, stand behind plastic barriers, and adopt more rigorous cleaning practices.

Vaccines are now available, but most health experts agree they won’t provide a quick return to the way things were. For example, rollout speeds and overall availability vary by location. Researchers still need to carry out more research to see how much vaccines affect virus transmission. Additionally, early data indicates that certain vaccines may be less effective against severe cases associated with some newly identified virus variants.

These realities serve as excellent reminders of the need to respond quickly to new COVID-19 developments that could affect manufacturing plants. For example, a recent study shows that tight-fitting masks are about 95% effective in safeguarding people from potentially infectious droplets. One investigated method was to wear a medical procedure mask under a cloth one to improve the fit.

Professionals tasked with enhancing safety at manufacturing facilities must realise that the situation’s evolving nature may necessitate doing away with longstanding practices or implementing new rules in relatively short timeframes. Moreover, some changes, such as those associated with layout changes, may exist permanently rather than only when the novel coronavirus remains an ever-present threat.

Make worker safety an ongoing concern

Keeping manufacturing workers safe should not only become a priority after an accident happens or once companies receive fines. When safety is a constant top-of-mind matter, it’s easier to identify what’s going well and where weak points exist.

Besides following the tips here, ask for feedback from workers. Check with them to see if any safety protocols confuse them or become difficult to follow. When employees feel that staying safe is a natural part of their job rather than an overly daunting challenge, they’ll be more likely to follow the rules and report risks.