The ‘Five S’ System for Facility Safety

The ‘Five S’ System for Facility Safety

How these straightforward and easy-to-implement solutions can keep your facility safe and efficient.

How easy is it for your employees to properly store equipment after they use it? If it’s not easy — for example, if there’s always clutter around the wall attachments where extension ladders are meant to be secured — at least some of the team will just lean them against the wall. 

At one auto dealership I worked with, that’s exactly what happened. An extension ladder was leaning against a wall, and when an employee went to replace an air hose, he knocked the ladder down and ended up needing 17 stitches. 

So how can you create a workplace where proper safety behavior is the default? And how can you do that not only when it comes to storing ladders but also cleaning spills, stacking equipment, replacing hoses, and so on? 

In my experience, the Five S system is about the best out there. In this piece, I’ll explain how the Five S system (Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain) works and how it can boost the efficiency and bottom line of any workplace under OSHA’s purview. 

1. Sort: Review Everything in Your Workplace 

Your goal in the “sort” step is to inspect everything in your facility (equipment, tools, furniture, machines, materials) with the goal of identifying which things you need and which you don’t. For some things — like the equipment you use daily — the answer will be obvious. For things used less often, ask the following questions: 

  • What is this item’s purpose? 
  • When did we last use it?
  • How often do we use it?
  • Does it truly need to be here? 

Often, during the Sort phase, an organization discovers that they have multiples of certain tools or that they have an outdated version that never gets used in addition to the up-to-date one. This is good; it means you have opportunities to eliminate objects you don’t need and to eliminate the clutter that could be hurting the safety and efficiency of your workspace. 

To make sure you’re accurately assessing items’ value, carry out the Sort phase as a team. When you identify items you don’t need, decide what to do with them: give to a different department, recycle, throw out, store, or sell. 

Chances are, you’ll come across at least a few items you’re not sure about. For those, use the red tag method: affix a tag with vital information about the object (location, function, date of tagging, name of person who tagged). Keep tagged items in a single location. If you don’t use them for a couple of months, it’s probably safe to eliminate them. 

2. Set in Order: Develop a System that Works for You 

It’s not unreasonable to ask employees to affix extension ladders to the wall after every use, but it is unreasonable to expect them to do that and get all their tasks done if there are always obstacles to putting ladders away properly. 

The same is true for all safety behavior. The best systems are the ones that facilitate safe behavior, meaning they make safe behavior easy. 

In the second phase of the Five S system, your goal is to order your workplace so that it creates an environment where behaving safely is natural. What that looks like will be different for every organization. A few guiding questions to help you determine how to order your workspace: 

  • Which people or locations use which items? 
  • When are items used? 
  • Which items are used most often?
  • How should items be grouped?
  • What is the most logical place to store items?
  • Do we need storage equipment (containers, shelves, etc.) to maintain order? 

Now that your space is (hopefully) less cluttered, you have an opportunity to arrange the items you do need to improve ergonomics and minimize wasted motion. 

3. Shine: Clean Everything 

There’s a big difference between organizing and cleaning. Both are crucial to organizational health and safety. In the Shine phase, you’ll bust out the elbow grease and clean every part of your workplace: dust surfaces and equipment, clean floors, and do any specialized cleaning required to ensure your space and the things in it are in good working order. 

If you’re looking for motivation to start this phase, consider that slips, trips, and falls are the most common workplace injury and the top reason companies face OSHA fines — and they are often caused by dusty or slippery floors. This means the time you invest in scrubbing and dusting will pay serious dividends in avoided accidents, downtime, and fines. 

Cleaning works best for the long term (which I’ll get to in a minute) when it’s everyone’s job. For example, every time there’s an oil spill, the responsible party should clean it up right then. 

But if the organizational culture dictates that spills get cleaned exactly once, at the end of the day, few will go out of their way to do extra cleaning. What’s more, not everyone knows how to clean, especially when it comes to specialty items like expensive equipment. 

Make sure you establish clear ground rules and train your team before asking them to perform cleaning duties. 

4. Standardize: Make Clean & Tidy a Habit 

The first three “S”es could be found in any spring cleaning effort. What makes the Five S system different is the final two, which are all about making a clean, organized space the new normal. 

Standardizing is a crucial step in setting up an organization for long-term success. In this phase, you will: 

  • Assign regular tasks. As I said before, cleaning, organizing, and inspecting equipment should be part of everyone’s job description. Task assignment makes very clear who is in charge of what. 
  • Create schedules. These clarify how often various types of cleaning, decluttering, and inspecting should happen. Task frequency might vary from multiple times per day (like cleaning spills) to weekly or even monthly (like inspecting certain machinery). Schedules should not leave any room for doubt about how often various tasks should be done. In a best-case scenario, schedules are available in multiple formats (hard copy in the facility, digital copy in an app, for example), and everyone gets regular reminders to do their work (this is easy when using a digital schedule). 
  • Post instructions. Specific instructions should be available on items that have special needs and near storage spaces that house cleaning equipment as well as in digital format. This ensures that anyone can safely handle cleaning chemicals and correctly complete a cleaning task if necessary. 

As with anything else, employees will likely need reminders to complete their cleaning tasks when you introduce those tasks. Daily checklists can help. Visual cues can, too, so use tape on the floors, notices on the wall, etc. The goal is to shift daily practices so that cleaning and straightening become part of everyone’s day-to-day tasks. 

5. Sustain: Embrace a Culture of Cleanliness 

Culture may start at the top, but it requires everyone. Transitioning from a short-term cleaning project to a culture of tidiness and cleanliness is often the most difficult part of the Five S system. That’s because the long-term effort is about effecting change, and change is always the trickiest thing to manage. 

The most successful teams are ones that find ways to make cleanliness and orderliness fun and rewarding — for example, a site manager might do a spot check of each department and buy lunch for those whose spaces are properly maintained. 

Keep in Mind the 6th S: $ 

I claimed at the start of this piece that the Five S system can lead to more efficient and productive workplaces. It can also benefit your bottom line — in more ways than one. The most obvious is that a clean and tidy workspace will help you prevent workplace injuries and the downtime and morale slump that accompany them. 

When the Five S system helps keep you in compliance with OSHA guidelines, it can also save you from costly fines. Beyond that, it can prevent you from reordering supplies you don’t need because you’ll be able to find the ones you already have. It will help make sure you use products before they expire. 

When you achieve the Sustain part of the Five S system, you’ll also notice improvements in both efficiency and morale that create a virtuous circle of improvement throughout your organization, empowering your employees to achieve more every day.

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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