Manufacturing is a matter of life and death.
Ask company owners what that statement means, and they might reply that every strong country needs a robust manufacturing sector. Ask manufacturing workers the same question, and they will tell you it's about their ability to go home safely to their families. They know the everyday risks because they live with them each and every workday.
The hazards? Watch out for the heavy weldment being hoisted over your head. Listen up for the lift truck whizzing by with the pallet of parts that haven't been secured tightly. Check to see if that press brake is shut down before performing routine maintenance. In summary, keep your head on a swivel and be aware at all times, because a metals manufacturing environment can be a dangerous place.
In fact, more than 100 years after Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which enlightened the world on the dangers of the meatpacking industry, people are still dying in U.S. factories and plants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 21 people died as a result of falls and 26 died after being struck by an object in the fabricated metal product manufacturing sector in 2010. Admittedly, metals manufacturing is statistically much safer than construction or farming, but it still can be home to deadly consequences.
Chad Utermark, vice president and general manager of Nucor-Yamato Steel and Nucor Castrip® Arkansas and former general manager of Nucor Steel Texas, knows this firsthand. He had to break the news to a wife and son that Roland Bartley wouldn't be coming home after an accident at the plant in 2006.
Bartley was a U.S. Navy veteran and a well-liked and –respected maintenance technician at Nucor Steel Texas. On this particular day in May, while he was performing a routine maintenance task, he was crushed between a stationary piece of steel and a moving piece. Utermark said co-workers believe Bartley was simply reaching for a wrench he had dropped and quickly found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Utermark later went to the Bartley household to deliver the bad news and ended up staying for more than a few minutes. Bartley's widow was shakened, but had only one request as she worked through her grief: Would Utermark deliver the news to their 16-year-old son?
"I still remember it to this day. I won't ever forget it," he told a group gathered for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association's Safety Conference 2012, April 25-26, in Milwaukee.
The fatal accident came at a time when the Nucor plant was in the midst of changing over to a more safety-oriented manufacturing environment. Back in the 1990s, getting steel out the door was the goal. Safety was looked at as something that was good to talk about but that could be ignored if it got in the way of production. Utermark estimated that about 50 to 60 people were getting hurt a year at the mill, which makes hot-rolled carbon steel products.
That environment had changed completely by the mid-2000s. Reported injuries had dropped to the single digits. Yet Bartley's death still occurred.
That tragic tale only underscores the importance of safety in modern metal fabricating facilities. Whereas quality and delivery tend to dominate the conversation with customers, safety needs to remain the most important point.
A new light curtain on a press brake does not make a shop a safe work environment. A quarterly meeting is not going to save anyone from death or an amputation. Those posters hanging on the wall might as well be pages from the phone book because no one pays attention to them. For safety to thrive in an organization, company management needs to change the organization's culture, not just put up decorations and schedule meetings.
Utermark tackled the initiative several ways:
- The company ensured leaders were onboard with the new commitment and ran off those that didn't buy in.
- Plant management held employees accountable, disciplining them for even the smallest infraction while also rewarding them for accident-free work periods.
- The company brought families into the Nucor plant family by inviting them to safety dinners and facility open houses. This reminded everyone that the definition of a successful day was being able to go back home at the end of a shift.
One death—or even one major injury—is too much for any modern manufacturing facility. Everything to avoid such a scenario should be done, and if a shop doesn't take those steps, then shame on it.