Tortilla Maker's Safety a Flat-Out Success
Turntable lifts have dramatically reduced back injuries, ankle sprains, and other costly incidents among the workforce.
- By Randall Moore
- Feb 01, 2006
TOM Davis worries about twisted knees, broken ankles, medical bills, recovery periods, new recruits, and overtime. He is not a coach, yet he has responsibility for 13 "teams."
Davis is the safety manager for Mission Foods Corp. It is the U.S. branch of the Mexican Gruma Corp., the worldwide leader in corn flour and tortilla production. Mission's 13 plants around the United States turn out 12 kinds of tortillas and a variety of tortilla chips, taco shells, and snacks. With thousands of pallets piled high with these products making it out the door every day on their way to stores, the success of Mission Foods is indisputable. Nevertheless, until last year the company had a serious problem: too many on-the-job injuries.
Pallet loading, which until recently was entirely done by hand, was one of Davis's main sources of worry. Packed with bags of product, a plastic box called a tote can weigh as much as 40 pounds. Workers stacked the containers six layers high on every pallet. Stacking the lower layers of totes required a lot of bending, and at every layer the employees carried full totes around to the other side of the pallet as needed.
Stepping onto a pallet, many a worker learned how painfully easy it was to lose his or her balance when a foot slipped between the slats or off the edge. Too often, the outcome was a broken or seriously sprained ankle. More common, and more likely to require surgery, were twisted knees. Other injuries included strained backs from repetitive lifting and torso twisting. About 500 of Mission's 4,000 employees were loading pallets.
The mounting cost of worker's compensation claims at Mission's Pueblo, Colo., plant caused the company to hire an ergonomics consultant, who was supplied by the insurance carrier. His report pointed out that loading the first two layers of totes was especially strenuous.
Davis had previously considered purchasing some kind of lift to facilitate pallet loading at his home plant in Dallas and at other Mission Foods facilities, but he knew he would have to put together a persuasive cost-benefit analysis before approaching top executives at the company's U.S. headquarters in nearby Irving, Texas. He would have to convince them the money they would save by reducing employee injuries for years to come justified the initial outlay for the lifts.
Making the Case
Although Tim Pottorff, the ergonomics consultant, was tasked only with evaluating hazards, a conversation he had with Davis and Armando Garza, the Pueblo plant manager, set off a chain of events that ended up reducing those hazards significantly.
"At that time, every lift I'd heard of had to be recessed," Davis recalled. "That meant digging a pit in the concrete floor so the platform could go low enough for the full pallets to be removed with the manual pallet jacks we use in most of our plants. It was Tim who told me there was a kind of lift that sits right on the floor. 'It goes up and down, it can unload with a manual pallet jack, and it rotates, too,' he said, and I said, 'Man, that's what we need!' He couldn?t remember the name of the manufacturer, and so he got into his laptop and started hunting around, and BOOM, there it was."
What Davis saw was a manual palletizer with a rotating platform that lowers all the way to the floor, designed for use with hand pallet trucks. The unit's platform has a capacity of 2,500 pounds. Accessible from all sides, it can be raised/lowered as needed so that each tier of goods can be loaded/unloaded at the same height. Easily turned by hand, the rotating platform means workers can stay on the same side of the unit at all times.
An electric motor drives the hydraulic pump that raises the platform when the operator steps on the "up" pedal. There is a "down" pedal for lowering, which is done by gravity but is slowed down with a relief valve. Descent halts if someone's foot enters any of the photoelectric "toe-guard" beams around the base of the unit.
Davis and Garza got in touch with the manufacturer's regional distributors and arranged for trial periods of the palletizer at the Dallas and Pueblo plants.
"As usual, the issue was cost," Davis explained. "I felt strongly that the units would be worth it from a safety standpoint alone, but I told management that the long-term savings would go beyond medical expenses because the lifts would make pallet-loading so much easier.
"Let's face it: When it is all done by hand, loading pallets all day long is a hard job. We had a lot of people quit, whether they hurt themselves or not," said safety manager Tom Davis.
"Let's face it: When it is all done by hand, loading pallets all day long is a hard job. We had a lot of people quit, whether they hurt themselves or not. Overtime pay was a significant consideration because every time someone was injured or quit, the remaining pallet loaders would have to work extra hours until the injured employee returned or the vacant position was filled," he said.
"There was also the expense of training new people. And when the turnover rate was high, we were always dealing with people whose bodies were not accustomed to the work, which can be quite tiring at first. But once you make the job easy enough and somebody stays for a while, then generally you're OK," Davis added. "Most injuries happen within the first six weeks to two months of employment."
At the conclusion of the test period, both Garza and German Chavez, the Dallas plant manager, were impressed with the performance of the palletizer. Garza's purchase order for one unit was approved, but Chavez's order was put on hold, pending a decision on whether to make the model the standard pallet-loading lift throughout Mission Foods. After two years of deliberations, upper management decided in the affirmative, and today there are 24 units in place at seven Mission Foods plants with more on order.
Ironically, during the deliberations, Mission Foods paid approximately $350,000 worth of worker's comp claims, including payments for three major injuries. This amount exceeded the cost of purchasing palletizers for all of the plants, Davis said.
"The job of pallet loading is easier now--no question," he said. "The totes come in on a conveyor belt at waist level, so there is hardly any bending. And it is starting to look like I was right about the savings: We've seen a decrease in injuries, overtime, and turnover somewhere in the ballpark of 50 percent at those positions."
The palletizer operates on standard 115 voltage, so it can be relocated to any outlet easily. No installation help is necessary, and Davis has nothing but praise for the manufacturer's technical support services, although he said they were rarely needed.
So, after a long timeout, Mission Foods' pallet-loading "teams" are suffering fewer injuries and appear to be at the top of their game.
This article appeared in the February 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.