By Raymond Erbe
Aserious, and often subtle, workplace safety hazard is lurking in many fabricat- ing operations. It starts with employees
hauling equipment, workpieces, and products
around the shop, even when they’re already
taking precautions and following OSHA’s lifting
What might start out as a minor strain from
pushing around the same cart or picking up
the same material every day can develop into
a debilitating condition, such as carpal tunnel
or chronic back pain, resulting in a domino effect of physical suffering, financial liabilities, and
work stoppage. Moderate physical exertion is so
routine for employees in the fabrication industry that they sometimes fail to grasp the severity
of their musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk.
To make matters worse, in high-product-mix,
low-volume sheet metal fabrication environments, the most common material handling vehicle—the forklift—is often inadequate and unsafe to use. That doesn’t mean it’s time to throw
in the towel and hope for the best. With a little
homework and some expert input, fabricators
can make workplace MSDs a thing of the past.
MSDs are a class of injuries caused by overexertion from lifting, pulling, or pushing a load,
resulting in damage to muscles and tendons.
MSDs can range in severity from minor sprains
and strains to career-ending herniated disks.
In manufacturing environments, MSDs of the
wrist, elbows, knees, and back are typical.
In terms of understanding how MSDs impact
the fabrication industry, most of the research
has already been done. The Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety found that MSDs
most commonly result from trauma accumulated over time during repeated tasks that require
a low level of exertion. This is what makes MSD
risks so difficult to detect. Workers may not realize that a load is too heavy to move safely on a
regular basis until it’s too late, which also limits
management’s ability to act preemptively.
Outside the purely moral argument—that is,
companies should never put employees in a hazardous situation—poor ergonomics has both
direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include
workers’ compensation costs, time lost due to
injuries, and subpar productivity. Indirect costs
include low morale, which can lead to late deliveries, poor quality, and high employee turnover.
Poor ergonomics is a very real, though often
hidden, safety hazard, and it can cost fabricators dearly every day. And like any other major
cost, it should be analyzed, accounted for, minimized—and never ignored.
Precarious Pipes on the Move
Consider a large fabricator that had to move 20-
to 40-foot-long pipes from the yard to inside the
plant. In this situation, the pipes needed to move
up a 5-degree incline into the plant through a
corridor too narrow for a typical forklift. During
the walk-through of the overall manufacturing
operation, engineers also found that employees
could not adequately gauge the weight of the
materials they were moving, increasing the potential for injury.
In this case, the fabricator invested in a custom motorized transfer cart with a wireless
control, so the operator could maintain a safe
distance from the cart during the transfer. It
also had an onboard payload scale to prevent
Don’t put the
Effective material movement needs to be safe
MANAGEMENT » CHIEF CONCERNS
Photo credit: Getty Images
» This custom scissor-lift cart is designed to lift certain products to specific heights.