Leaner, Safer and Smarter

May 19, 2010
Atlas Machine & Supply utilizes lean to improve plant safety.

The threat posed by equipment and parts littering the press area of the plant floor at Atlas Machine & Supply Inc. was quite real for the Louisville, Ky.-based remanufacturer of heavy industrial machinery. Several near-miss accidents highlighted what was potentially a major safety hazard.

Before (top): Atlas' press area is disorganized and cluttered.
After (bottom): Cleaner work area with railings installed.

"A lot of machinery was torn down adjacent to the press, so the trip hazards were incredible," recalls David Abner, vice president of human resources and compliance. "Work was moving in adjacent to the press area, and when guys would come in to use the press, they were climbing over equipment, climbing over parts."

That was last year. Since then, the plant has reduced the risk posed by the clutter through lean initiatives, specifically the 5S (sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain) process. "That led to a great deal of improvement as far as the establishment of walkways, aisles and items being kept in their proper place," Abner says. The companys 5S journey began in 2003 with the creation of 5S committees that comprised employees who would rotate on and off the group every six months. The idea, says Abner, was to create a lean culture by getting every employee involved.

By 2006, the company created audit and inspection check sheets that each department is required to complete for their respective work area. Employees began looking at processes and identifying safety concerns, Abner says. For instance, workers noticed the need for more storage racks when the plant moved into a new warehouse space. Some of the heaviest items were located on the fourth or fifth tier of the shelf racking, increasing the injury risk, Abner says. "We put the lighter items on the higher level, so those were all improvements made that not only gave us greater efficiency but made for a better, safer workplace."

The changes have helped the company reduce its experience modification rate (EMR) to .72 in 2009 from .85 in 2003. The EMR is the rate insurance companies use to assess risk based on the companys industry and loss experience. The lower rating means Atlas receives a discount for its workers compensation insurance, Abner says. The company also has not recorded a fineable violation since undergoing two full Kentucky OSHA inspections in 2005 and 2009.

The use of lean principles to improve safety makes perfect sense, says Terry Mathis, founder and CEO of safety consultancy firm Proact Safety. Conventional thinking says the worker must have done something wrong when an accident occurs. But through value-stream mapping manufacturers can view the processes that may have led to a hazardous situation, Mathis says.

After developing a process-flow map, Mathis recommends taking the "Gemba" walk, which in lean terms means going to the point of the problem and asking the people on the plant floor for their perspective and why an unsafe situation might be occurring. "The lean tools help you understand why and how people make decisions in the process flow, and decisions in the process flow are exactly what impact accidents," Mathis says.

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Former Managing Editor

Former Managing Editor Jon Katz covered leadership and strategy, tackling subjects such as lean manufacturing leadership, strategy development and deployment, corporate culture, corporate social responsibility, and growth strategies. As well, he provided news and analysis of successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

Jon worked as an intern for IndustryWeek before serving as a reporter for The Morning Journal and then as an associate editor for Penton Media’s Supply Chain Technology News.

Jon received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kent State University and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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