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Why is Safety in Manufacturing Important?

June 7, 2022

 by David Collins III

red hard hat

The core elements of manufacturing performance are cost, quality, delivery, safety, and morale. Motivated employees in a safe environment are in the right conditions to produce and deliver products at both low cost and high quality. On this site, we have extensively written about cost and quality. However, we have not spent nearly enough time discussing safety and the role it plays in manufacturing.


The Role of Safety in Manufacturing

Safety is as important as any other element of good manufacturing

Safety cannot be seen as a secondary consideration. The safety of the operators and the staff is vital to any successful manufacturing operations. People do not want to work in a place that is not safe, and an unsafe location ends up being expensive.

Let’s take two examples of situations we have witnessed in China, where unfortunately many local companies do not take safety seriously.

  • A factory in the Taizhou area of China was highly unsafe. They had great difficulty recruiting new operators. We found that they had a terrible reputation and nobody in the area wanted to work with them.
  • Another factory in Zhongshan had horrible labor management practices. They had several cases of suicide in the past and had been able to negotiate a settlement directly with the families, at a cost of over 1 million RMB each. When they added up all those costs, they saw they had a structural and costly problem to address.

My appreciation for the importance of high safety standards started when I was in the U.S. Army. The Army relentlessly drilled into us the importance of safety considerations. Hand protection when digging, hearing protection for loud activities, and most importantly, weapon discipline. Rifles had to be cleared and correctly checked every time. Specific procedures are followed when holding loaded weapons. Safety switches are always on unless you were about to fire. While this may seem like common sense, you would be surprised how often mistakes can happen. I saw a man incorrectly clear his weapon in Iraq and shot a hole through the back seat of a car, missing the driver by 5 inches. In Afghanistan, a local policeman always walked around with the safety to his weapon off. Every time I saw it, I would flick the safety on. He laughed and told me that he knew what he was doing. Two weeks later he shot himself through the foot.

How does this relate to manufacturing?

Poor safety can be just as dangerous in a factory setting as it is in a war zone. Machines can easily cause grievous injuries if guidelines are not followed. Any time a person is injured, it stops or slows production, which can lead to expensive delays and sometimes also damaged equipment and defective products. Even minor injuries can slow down production or cause operators’ errors, both of which can be costly in terms of time and material.

That does include costs and productivity lost from recuperation and medical bills. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), traumatic occupational deaths and injuries cost the US around $192 billion annually, including direct medical costs and indirect costs to lost wages and productivity. The price in countries that do not track this information as thoroughly could easily be as great or higher.

And it is not the full picture. People tend to ignore an obvious fact. It impacts every one, not just the person who gets injured. If one is worried about a certain risk, they might do their task in a non-natural way that is slower than it should. They might focus all their attention on avoiding a certain risk and inadvertently cause quality issues. Not to mention, the operator is more likely to resign, and labor turnover is expensive (recruitment, lower productivity of new staff, etc.)!

There is also a moral question. No manager should, by choice, want to put his or her staff into unnecessary danger or cause an accident through willful negligence.


What Can Be Done to Improve Safety?

“Safety First” is a cliché but there is truth in it. There are a number of low-cost solutions to improve safety outcomes.

1. Design processes around safety considerations

Work instructions should include mentions of safety risks and tips on how to avoid them. The instructions themselves should be drafted with the safety of the operator in mind. It will minimize or eliminate major safety concerns and should also reduce minor injuries due to repetitive motion.

2. Ensure that everyone on the shop floor has the proper equipment necessary for safe operation

This could include hard hats, safety goggles, hearing protection, steel-toed boots, etc. Hearing protection is especially vital and often overlooked. What is necessary depends on the process. Sometimes it can be as simple as buying the right kind of gloves for every operator. 5S programs greatly improve factory safety. Removing clutter and clearly marking materials avoids potential falls and keeps people on track. Work-in-progress, scraps, and unclean floors are accidents waiting to happen. Flammable materials must be kept only in specific areas.

3. Champion safety and hold people accountable

The most important thing you, as a manager and a leader, can do is champion safety and hold people accountable. If the boss does not follow the procedures, no one else will. For example, if the policy is no one can go on to the production floor without hearing protection then you better have it when you go to the production floor. Hold supervisors accountable for having the hearing protection and for everyone they supervise. It is part of process discipline. Eventually, processes that seemed annoying or unnecessary become second nature. I was not able to stop myself from putting the safety on that weapon: it was just part of who I was. The very sight of it was unacceptable.

The Bottom Line

Remember that safety is as important as the quality, cost, and delivery. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by neglecting it and creating unnecessary adverse effects.


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Topics: Manufacturing Consulting, Manufacturing In China

David Collins III

David Collins III

David was a Senior Strategy Consultant for Deloitte, served in Iraq as a Special Operations Civil Affairs soldier, and as a Governance Advisor to the Afghan Government with the Department of State. At CMC, David advises clients on strategy and investments.

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