Don’t even think of texting inside Uponor’s pipe plant in Apple Valley.
Every factory floor mat has the words “Personal Electronic Devices” crossed out with a big red line. The warnings plus daily safety meetings hammer the message: No phones!
The company, which has one of the lowest accident rates in the nation, has added a safety zone for use of electronic devices. No one is allowed to respond to their messages anywhere near the plant’s 400-degree extruders, hundreds of tall spinning reels and darting forklifts.
“We just had to have a zero-tolerance policy on this. I liken it to distracted driving,” said Dan Hughes, the director of security and environmental health and safety for the maker of plastic, flexible pipes.
Uponor is one of many employers across Minnesota that are making use of government and industry programs to reduce injuries and make workplaces safer. The result: On-the-job injuries in the state fell from 104,100 in 2005 to 75,000 in 2015.
It’s an issue of particular importance in manufacturing, which accounted for nearly one of every five injuries. Falls, slips, overexertion and equipment injuries were the most common incidents.
“Good manufacturers think about safety before anything else, because they can’t afford to have an injury, down time or … higher workers’ compensation premiums,” said Enterprise Minnesota CEO Bob Kill. “Accidents that happen in our clients’ shop happen because someone skipped a step and cut a corner from the proper processes set up inside the organization.”
Of the injuries last year, 35,500 required time off work or job reassignments and 74 resulted in death, according to the Safety Council’s 2016 annual report. About 17 percent of those were in manufacturing, with falls, slips, overexertion and equipment injuries the leading causes.
Plus, the accidents result in $1.66 billion a year in workers’ compensation claims for Minnesota employers.
Falls remain a major and costly work problem, both on construction sites and inside manufacturing and processing facilities, said Tyrone Taylor, director of workplace safety consultation for the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“We have seen a fall from a 2-foot step ladder where a worker ended up dying and we have seen people fall 15 feet who walk away with just a sprained ankle,” he said. “We also see people getting struck by equipment all the time.”
Every potential hazard
To prevent accidents, factory leaders must map and analyze every potential job hazard, he said. That means setting up formal safety programs that inventory factories for potential risks. Look for unguarded machines, forklift blind spots, fall hazards, distracted workers and unlabeled chemicals and immediately begin remedies, Taylor said. Reattach machine guards, install overhead mirrors and forklift lights, and buy worker harnesses, safety goggles and ear protection, and make their use mandatory.
Plants looking to make workplaces safer often call in the safety council, Minnesota OSHA, insurers or Enterprise Minnesota, a consulting firm that helps small factories develop safe, clear job instructions for workers. Combined, the safety council and OSHA conduct 1,100 voluntary work-safety consultations and classes each year for employers such as Uponor.
While the training can cost thousands of dollars and time off the floor, Uponor officials said, it’s time and money well spent.
Uponor went from having four OSHA safety violations in 2010, to two in 2012, to none between 2013 and 2016. OSHA records show that Uponor has had no work injuries requiring hospitalization for at least five years. Its accident rate is now less than 25 percent of the national average for its industry, despite growing from 500 to 700 workers in 18 months.
It all “translates to fewer injuries per hour worked and lower workers’ compensation insurance premiums,” said Hughes, the company’s safety manager. “We love seeing that win-win scenario for the company.”
The company has won one of the safety council’s Governor’s Safety Awards two years running and hopes to win a third at the agency’s annual safety and health conference in May.
Minnesota OSHA also will be at the conference, the Midwest’s largest with 1,800 safety experts and equipment vendors.
Minnesota OSHA conducted 2,200 mandatory safety-compliance inspections plus 700 voluntary consultations last year and would like to do more, Taylor said. The consultations are free and confidential. Minnesota OSHA also offers smaller factories up to $10,000 in safety grants that can help defray equipment purchases and worker training costs.
These programs “are a good way for employers to develop better relationships with employees, reduce insurance costs and make workplaces safer,” Taylor said. “Our biggest issue is that employers don’t know we exist.”
Other companies have reached out to other safety experts for help.
Yeager Machine Co., surrounded by cornfields in Norwood Young America, Minn., just appointed its first safety manager, so as it grows past its 18 employees, there are safeguards in place.
The maker of high-precision metal parts for 3M, Graco, medical equipment and auto customers plans to add eight workers by the end of 2018 and is lobbying the state to allow 16-year-olds to apprentice inside factories. The minimum age is now 18.
“Being that we are growing, I needed a better safety management system. We don’t want workers hurt,” said company owner Mike Yeager last month while he and safety manager Heather Piehl were digesting news about a young factory worker recently killed in Wisconsin.
Yeager workers have weathered three finger cuts, one bad back and dust in an eye during the last three years, but “no serious injuries and we want to keep it that way,” Piehl said.
Since March, Piehl has put all workers through forklift training, updated factory fire extinguishers to code and made it a policy that all machine operators wear safety glasses.
Last fall, she attended Yeager’s insurance firm’s seminar on risk management, and then invited its risk manager into the plant for a safety inspection.
The insurance risk manager found five lathes missing machine guards needed to keep sleeves away from rotating blades. Piehl immediately replaced four of the guards.
The fifth machine proved harder to run when guarded.
“But it’s definitely something we will fix. For now, we have not been using that machine as much,” she said. “It’s a process. I am still learning.”