Parts made, safety, and employee morale have a significant impact.

Productivity: Small Changes Can Lead to Large Gains

Parts made, safety, and employee morale have a significant impact. A tire manufacturer saved $500,000 from its injury costs the first year.

No one would argue that a high level of productivity is essential to survival in today's competitive manufacturing environment. The question becomes, what can a company do to boost productivity? How can we ensure workers and processes operate as efficiently and effectively as possible to compete in a global economy?

Six Sigma focuses on improving process performance to ensure quality productivity and ultimately satisfy customer demands and reduce costs. Quality productivity often hinges on three factors: parts made, worker safety and employee morale.

Parts Made
Many companies measure productivity based on how many finished products meet quality specifications and go out the door. Others gauge productivity by the amount of waste their facility produces.

In the past, employee paychecks were often determined by piecework and how many units a worker produced within a certain period of time. If a housewares manufacturer, for example, decided a worker should be able to attach 33 skillet handles in an hour, the worker who attached 37 handles received a financial bonus.

Piece price jobs still exist, but productivity often relies on the efficiency of an entire process. When a portion of the process breaks down, fewer parts are made. If a facility, for example, does not receive the raw materials needed, employees who work with raw materials will not be able to perform their jobs. The situation will affect other processes down the line, and productivity will suffer.

Likewise, failing to provide workers the right hand protection can affect process efficiency and the number of parts made.

Assembly line workers at an electronics manufacturing facility used air drills to insert screws into products. Each workstation had a bucket of screws. The worker picked up the screws, one by one, to assemble components. Because the gloves workers wore failed to provide the dexterity and tactile sensitivity needed, workers dropped dozens of screws each hour in their quest to perform their jobs quickly. The number of screws that fell to the floor was so great that the company employed a full-time person to sweep them up and return them to the line.

When the company gave workers gloves that improved their ability to grip and handle the screws, process efficiency improved and workers produced more parts. Fewer screws were dropped; the worker who previously swept the floor was assigned a more productive job.

Modern gloves on the market today incorporate technology and performance features to boost worker comfort and productivity. Engineered coatings, such as advanced grip technologies, and roughened surfaces in the palm and fingertips increase grip in dry and oily environments. Fabrics that wick moisture away keep worker hands dry, resulting in greater dexterity and tactile sensitivity and less chance that the worker will drop parts.

In another example, employees performing piece price jobs at an engine manufacturing plant wore thick cotton gloves to assemble engines. While workers perceived the hand protection as comfortable initially, the gloves fit poorly, had a poor grip, and failed to protect their hands from oil. Workers often removed the gloves, which led to non-compliance and potential risk.

The company supplied workers more modern hand protection with a foam nitrile coating that channeled oil away from the glove surface, resulting in drier, more comfortable hands. Improved grip and greater dexterity enabled workers to produce more parts while experiencing less hand fatigue.

Employee confidence and safety are closely linked to productivity. Companies can incur major costs and significant productivity losses when workers are injured. Even minor injuries require workers to leave the line and visit the company nurse for treatment.

And first aid is costly. A window and door manufacturer recorded 759 hand injuries during a single year -- most of them requiring first aid. Some employees worked barehanded, while others wore gloves that failed to provide adequate protection. The company worked with a glove specialist to conduct a comprehensive internal assessment. Based on the resulting recommendations, it instituted a glove policy mandating that all production employees wear hand protection that matched the job requirements.

Workers began wearing cut- and abrasion-resistant gloves that provided a higher level of protection, and the company trained all employees about which gloves to use for specific tasks. The result was a 77 percent decrease in injuries the first year and a $101,000 savings in first aid expenses.

More serious injuries may require ambulance transportation to the hospital, with companies responsible for medical, insurance, and worker's compensation costs. Lengthy employee absences often lead to companies replacing experienced laborers with temporary workers. These individuals usually need training and still are unable to perform tasks with the same accuracy and speed as the injured employees.

Providing workers the right hand protection to prevent injury may seem like an insignificant change, but it may result in significant cost savings. Injuries at a tire manufacturer surpassed $1 million annually when the plant worked with a hand protection specialist to conduct an internal assessment to determine how and why injuries occurred. Workers had used the same hand protection products for 20 years. Once modern hand protection was provided based on assessment results, the facility implemented a training program to introduce the new gloves, explain why they were necessary, and educate workers about how they should be used. The plant's efforts resulted in a $500,000 savings in injury costs during the first year.

Employee Morale
Safe workers are confident workers who feel good about their jobs because they believe the employer cares enough to provide them optimal protection for the job. Employees who do not feel they are safe often work more slowly, which affects process efficiency and the number of parts made.

The window and door manufacturer mentioned earlier reported significantly improved employee morale and productivity after instituting its new glove policy and providing workers gloves with adequate cut and abrasion protection. Employees were satisfied with their jobs and worked quickly and confidently because they believed they were properly protected.

Studies confirm companies with safe, confident workers also have lower rates of employee absenteeism and turnover.

Internal Assessment
Most companies fail to measure the financial impact of employee downtime on productivity. They realize productivity and profitability suffer when employees leave the line, but companies seldom attach a price tag to downtime resulting from injuries, dropped parts, donning and removing PPE, etc.

A personal protective equipment assessment can pinpoint opportunities to improve process efficiency and reduce waste while identifying best practices. Such an assessment conducted at an appliance manufacturer addressed a problem with "fish eyes" developing on appliance parts where newly applied paint would not properly adhere. The PPE assessment determined the dilemma resulted from the silicone content in employee gloves. The plant eliminated the problem by supplying employees with silicone-free hand protection.

A major food processor made headlines when employees sued for lost wages covering the time required to don and remove protective clothing and safety gear and the time required to walk to and from their workstations. After conducting a PPE assessment, the company was able to reduce employees' time to don PPE from four to two minutes by changing the layout of the gowning area so individuals moved in and out of the area more efficiently. While this amount of time seems miniscule, it resulted in considerable savings when multiplied by thousands of workers and multiple plant locations.

A PPE assessment should include benchmarks to measure return on investment after changes are implemented. Some companies that conducted assessments with benchmarks, implemented changes, and conducted follow-up evaluations discovered they increased productivity by as much as 30 percent.

Productivity often hinges on workers' ability to perform their jobs without worrying about injury. An internal assessment can help companies determine the reason for injuries that slow employees, stall processes, and result in escalating medical and indemnity costs.

Implementing recommended changes and training employees to encourage their acceptance and use of new equipment can go a long way in reducing injuries and related costs and boosting productivity.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Ray Morris is Director of Sales Training for Ansell® Protective Products.

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