Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re part of an effort to ensure employee safety, and the company you work for supports that. But, in a case recounted by an OSHA official at ASSP’s annual conference, there are still some companies out there that flagrantly disregard safety.
Jose Gonzalez, assistant area director for OSHA in Mobile, AL, recounted the inspection of an auto parts manufacturer during a presentation at Safety 2018.
The 2015 inspection started because of an employee complaint regarding lack of lockout/tagout, insufficient eye protection and struck-by hazards in robotic cells (aka robotic cages – enclosures where robotic equipment operates).
OSHA had already inspected the plant seven times in four years.
Employees would have to go into the cages periodically. The employees were “asked” to do this while the robots were operating, and Gonzalez says they were at risk of being struck by two pieces of robotic equipment.
Why was this the case? The robotic equipment came with safeguards. When the cage was opened, the equipment was supposed to stop moving.
It turns out management had bypassed the safety devices and lockout/tagout, too. In fact, employees told Gonzalez they were specifically shown how to bypass the equipment.
It turns out a robot did strike one employee. Fortunately, he only suffered a bruised arm.
Employees were entering the cages to unjam equipment before the robot delivered the next part, while the machinery was still moving.
Gonzalez interviewed employees who said they did this to meet production deadlines.
Production vs. safety
Where was the pressure coming from? The primary assembly plant where the finished parts were shipped. It turns out they didn’t keep many of the parts on hand, so the supplier plant had to meet tight deadlines.
That admission is bad enough. But when Gonzalez interviewed the plant manager and safety manager, they both said the same thing.
The parts plant was hit with one willful, five repeat, 10 serious and one-other-than-serious violations for a total of $181,000 in fines. Because of the increase in OSHA fine maximums in 2016, if the same penalties were assessed today, it would be around $300,000. The company was also required to the struck-by hazards.
Gonzalez says he believes 99.9% of companies don’t operate like this when it comes to safety. They may not be perfect every time when following OSHA rules, but they are operating in good faith. Nevertheless, as this story shows, these types of companies are still out there.
There’s a better ending to this story. Gonzalez says as a result of this case, the CEO of the primary auto company (he didn’t mention its name) agreed to meet with OSHA’s regional administrator and the head of OSHA at the time, David Michaels, to see how they could help the parts suppliers improve their safety culture. As a result, the primary manufacturer required all its parts suppliers to have a safety professional on site. The parts manufacturers would also submit to a third-party audit by a consultant.
Gonzalez says OSHA had many fatalities, serious injuries and employee complaints from these types of auto part manufacturing plants. As a result of agreements like this one, there’s been a drop in fatalities, injuries and employee complaints.
OSHA’s Regional Emphasis Program in the Auto Parts Supplier Industry was started in 2014. It was renewed in February 2018.
This is one more example that it doesn’t have to be productivity/profits or safety – it’s productivity/profits and safety.