For good reason, management has always feared workplace injury. Not injury to themselves, but to their staff members who work on production lines.
Any lapse in workplace safety is a double-edged sword. Workers can sustain long-term injuries and business owners could be held liable for large compensation payouts and negligence charges.
In recent years, technology has stepped in as a massive aid in lowering the incidence of mishaps in several plants; from the basic assembly lines and food processing plants through to fabrication workshops and large-scale logistics services.
Immersed in the fabrication sector is Advanced Sheetmetal Technologies. According to Advanced Sheetmetal Technologies, the sheetmetal industry is at the heavier end of the production line safety spectrum. And because it has improved immensely in recent years, there is strong evidence that general production line safety is far from overlooked these days.
The attitudes towards production line safety and the challenges faced have strong parallels across all industry sectors. The physical risks to employees are similar, so the steps taken in finding solutions require the same level of critical analysis.
Footwear, appropriate clothing, protection barriers, noise limitation, protecting employees from back strain and repetitive strain injury (RSI), these all combine to meet modern safety expectations.
The sheetmetal industry has taken steps within its own industry parameters to negate these risks, and action serves as a working example of how the issue can be approached and tackled. There are several key areas of the sheetmetal industry in which, safety on the production plant floor has been distinctly improved by automation.
Several modern production lines are automated. Any operation, ranging from the pharmaceutical company packaging and dispatching tablets through to an industry like sheetmetal, which handles large and potentially dangerous sheets of steel for product, is always moving product along some sort of conveyor or similar factory hardware.
Sheetmetal automation such as a turret punch press or robotised press brake handles this product quite rapidly, so the objective in circumstances is to keep employees well clear of these active zones. Thus, safety barriers are strategically located. Where appropriate, they completely enclose an operating centre and can be set to be touch-sensitive to switch off an operation the moment somebody gets too close.
Or it could be as sophisticated as some which have optoelectronic sensors or laser beams, which switch off a machine the moment they are triggered. Overall, complete enclosure is attainable without blocking access for operator vision. Meanwhile, software drives the production sequence, so for the operator there is complete safety and heightened productivity.
Automation still does require human import in certain circumstances. Just as, say, a tuna cannery would require occasional manual handling of stock, the sheetmetal fabrication sector on the rare occasion needs human intervention (such as removal of a test sheet from the work surface, so it can be inspected).
So, the times when employees are involved ergonomic access is a key component to upholding safety levels. This has been an area of significant development in sheetmetal automation.
Blank sheets of steel can be as large as 3m x 2m. On the occasions when manual manipulation is necessary, automation has been designed to eliminate all possible types of strain situations for employees.
First of all, encroachment by personnel creates an automatic machine shut off. Secondly, access points are free of obstruction for complete viewing and at heights comfortable to the operator. And because fabrication automation is designed from the ground up around safety as much as it is for fabrication, the modern genre of equipment is far safer to the manual and semiautomatic systems that preceded it.
Therefore, for intricate and once-off jobs, programming managers can run part of a job through a blank sheet of metal and stop the process to inspect the exactness of, say, a punching process, and safely remove the sheet from the machine without straining, cutting themselves, and definitely without any concern about the machine causing injury.
Combating back strain:
Back strain has always been a contentious issue in Australian industry. In production plants, particularly in those such as textiles and food preparation, where tasks are regularly repeated, repetitive strain injury and back ailments have cost the sector dearly in workers compensation premiums. Sheetmetal automation has evolved heavily to counter this once problematic area of fabrication.
One of the brands represented, FINN-POWER, serves as an example of how rapidly the technology has evolved to counter the potential for back injuries and RSI complaints.
Blank sheetmetal is not only sharp, it has cumbersome dimensions for manual movement, plus the edges and corners always carry the potential to cause serious cuts.
By incorporating into the systems such technologies as elevating platforms, suction cups, robotic arms, and conveyor movements, manual involvement has been all but removed from the fabrication equation by automation, and allowed the operator to slot into a role, where he or she oversees the operating software component of the system.
Not only has safety been heightened, operators are gaining technical skill as a result, something that was not possible with the much slower manual equipment.
Floor space arrangement
Floor presents two concerns to the business owner. One, it is normally expensive. Secondly, there are smart ways and not so smart ways to position production plant. Not only should a configuration use floor space around an automated system, it also requires an arrangement that can be completely integrated on a step-by-step basis as the business grows.
Employees need the confidence of working around machinery on an optimised floor space arrangement that will protect their well-being while increasing job efficiencies. Equipment is becoming more compact and can operate in confined spaces or even up against the wall for processes that previously required 360° access. The less cluttered the work environment, the less likely, for someone to be injured during production.
Acoustic safety – the hidden danger
Workplace noise does not need to sound explosive to be causing problems. Studies have proved that in many industries, simple processes making repetitive sounds can surreptitiously cause significant hearing loss, which is often detected too late and is irreversible.
Generally, production plant personnel will use some form of earmuffs or ear plugs that meet industry standards to safeguard their hearing.
But that does not mean attitudes have relaxed. Simple, almost inaudible sounds made over and over again always have the potential to harm, so acoustic enclosures are now the recent step in making the automated sheetmetal plant completely safe for the ear drum of operators.
Integration for complete safety:
A completely integrated automation system seems to hold the key to production plant safety requirements. It is generally accepted, the less manual handling involved in all the steps from procurement to dispatch the lesser likelihood of personal injury.
For industrial businesses in Australia and New Zealand, these are dynamic times that an emerging global market brings.
And now it is not uncommon to see even an SME plant adopt a 24/7 lights out manufacturing schedule, where completely automated production takes place in the overnight shift and employees return in the day shift to maintain momentum. When employees are safer, they feel happier in the workplace, less wastage occurs, and business owners have a clear conscience.