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Manufacturers are using quality control and efficiency standards to improve their safety track records—a method that has contributed to fewer accidents in recent years at U.S. manufacturing plants, experts say.
The International Organization for Standardization's ISO 9001 quality standard and the Six Sigma quality management protocol, among other programs, traditionally have been used by manufacturers to improve production processes.
However, many companies have realized in the past decade that such programs can be used to standardize their safety initiatives and reduce risks on plant floors, said Theodore Braun, industry director of manufacturing for Liberty Mutual Group Inc. in Boston.
“Once they understood how to...manage quality, they realized that there was a clear relationship to safety and have moved forward in that direction as well,” Mr. Braun said.
Christopher Iovino, New York-based managing director of Aon Global Risk Consulting, said ISO and other manufacturing standards have helped companies create comprehensive safety programs that go beyond rules from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“From an executive position, safety should be viewed to be as critical as productivity and quality,” Mr. Iovino said. “Those three elements need to be of equal weight and importance within an organization.”
Barbara Wisniewski, vp of health and safety for Birmingham, Ala.-based McWane Inc., said the company adopted ISO standards for its safety program in 2003. The maker of pipes, valves and plumbing also has worked to certify its 25 plants in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program, which recognizes employers that create comprehensive safety standards and keep injury and illness rates below national industry averages.
Ms. Wisniewski said McWane has reduced employee injuries by 60% since 2003 by adopting such programs.
“By using a systematic approach, we...have the availability to sustain the programs, allow transparency throughout the organization and also drive continuous improvement,” said Ms. Wisniewski, whose company has 5,300 employees nationwide.
Program-based safety procedures are effective because they rely on various employees to adopt and employ safety standards, rather than leaving the job solely to safety professionals, said Edward Zabinski, area senior vp for the casualty practice of Itasca, Ill.-based broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.
“When you open it up to a much larger business population such as management, and we engage the employees in that solution development, they have greater ownership and a part in developing it,” Mr. Zabinski said. “They're more apt to attain that goal.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.4 out of every 100 full-time manufacturing workers suffered a workplace injury or illness in 2010. That's up slightly from 4.3 workers in 2009, but down from 5 workers in 2008 and 5.6 in 2007 (see chart).
There were 324 fatalities among manufacturing workers in 2010, up from 319 in 2009 but down from 413 in 2008, according to the BLS.
Experts note that cuts in manufacturing employment have contributed to workplace injury declines because there are fewer workers to face workplace hazards.
There were 11.8 million manufacturing employees in December 2011, according to the BLS. That's up slightly from 11.6 million in December 2010, but down from 13.7 million in December 2007—the beginning of the Great Recession.
In many cases, employees who directed manufacturing safety programs were among the workers who lost jobs during the downturn, said Jim Collins, senior vp and enterprise team leader at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. in Kansas City, Mo.
Manufacturers tended to outsource their risk management practices to companies such as Lockton during that time, Mr. Collins said.
“They're now looking to (Lockton) to provide that safety director instruction, where they had somebody in-house to do it before,” Mr. Collins said.
As manufacturing employment increased slightly last year, many of the newer jobs have included openings for safety professionals, said Annamarie Gibbs, Kansas City-based senior vp and manager of risk control services for Lockton.
“They understand that there has to be somebody within their organization to own this,” Ms. Gibbs said. “The broker can be an extension of their risk management team, but they cannot run it day to day because they're not there day to day.”
While many companies have been able to improve their safety records in the past several years, Liberty Mutual's Mr. Braun said some manufacturers have had difficulty with safety improvements as they try to balance other economic and operational pressures.
“You still have a number of organizations who...just don't get it and are still simply concerned with OSHA conformance,” Mr. Braun said.
In order to motivate such manufacturers, many companies must be shown how a safer workplace can boost their bottom line, Aon's Mr. Iovino said.
For instance, Aon often shows manufacturing clients how safety improvements also can make their production cycles more efficient—which sometimes translates into “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in savings for a company, Mr. Iovino said.
“The discretionary spend they have is limited,” Mr. Iovino said. “Therefore, their internal safety teams, consultants, insurance companies or brokers need to demonstrate that spending money in the safety arena will ultimately save them money, both from a retained loss and an operating efficiency perspective.”
Mr. Iovino believes safety will take on an increasing focus with manufacturers as they work to rebound from the recession.
“If these U.S. manufacturers have global operations, or they choose to grow globally, these safety management system protocols need to be considered "Best Practices' for them going forward,” Mr. Iovino said.