Common sense dictates that factories are dangerous places. Even so, the statistics from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) make for stark reading. An average of 31 workers die in workplace accidents every year, while a further 4,500 major injuries are also reported, which place a huge burden on business owners in terms of everything from downtime to possible prosecution.
Such incidents are a worst case scenario for most manufacturers, who trust that their safety policies are robust enough to prevent a tragedy on their factory floor. Yet few think about the problems presented by a slow accumulation of small accidents. The HSE reports that there are around 19,500 injuries annually that kept workers away from work for three days or more – a huge drain on efficiency and productivity.
Clearly, it is in nobody’s interest to operate an unsafe factory. Any manufacturer who gambles on it not happening to them is exposed to significant and unnecessary risk; all it takes is one accident to reveal the false economy that comes from cutting corners.
Yet the health & safety response of most companies is simply to manage the traditional risks of their factory arrangements, continuing to work with systems that are inherently risky rather than taking the radical view that, perhaps, there might be a safer way of running their factory.
Consider the lynchpin of the modern factory: the forklift truck. The typical manufacturing plant will be configured around an arterial network of roads by which forklifts or other ride-on devices can transport components or finished products from one area of the factory to another.
Plants that follow this format suffer two significant problems. Firstly, this layout style wastes a large amount of floor space that would be far better used for production. Secondly, it invites forklifts to enter spaces where production staff are at work. The HSE casebook is full of examples that show the pitfalls of mixing forklifts and pedestrians.
Traditionally, it has not been possible to bridge the competing demands of safety and efficiency because the technology did not exist to ferry heavy loads across the factory floor without using a forklift. It is a different story today, because the emergence of pedestrian electric tugs has proven that an alternative to forklifts is possible.
Electric tugs operate on the principle of tractive force. The machine is designed to transfer the weight of the load to reduce friction and optimise traction. This enables a single pedestrian operator to move loads up to 100 tonnes.
Major manufacturers are now turning to pedestrian operated tugs in a bid to remove forklifts from their production halls. In particular, low and medium volume manufacturers, who cannot always achieve a high level of automation, are seizing the opportunity to use tugs like these as part of their continuous improvement programmes.
At the heart of any such programme is the ever present drive to reduce waste in every form, and in this respect, tugs are providing the key to reclaiming production space and reducing shop floor inventory whilst also realising a wealth of safety benefits to meet the required duty of care for health & safety.
As with ride-on devices, operators must be trained to the appropriate standard, but where a forklift driver must attend a three-day training course (with further refresher courses at periodic intervals), an electric tug operator can be trained within half an hour because they are simpler devices. This has the added benefit of enabling a manufacturer to train many more operators for greater workforce flexibility.
The pedestrian nature of tugs also aid safety, but there is no mix of vehicles and pedestrians within the factory. There is often a disconnect between a driver and other colleagues, but the tug operator is himself an pedestrian – and potentially at risk should something go wrong – creating a greater sense of responsibility and caution during the process of moving goods.
Of course, there remains a crucial place for the forklift within any business. The importance of traction to the electric tug means that outdoors – primarily in the loading/unloading area – the forklift has a competitive edge in transporting goods. Yet on the factory floor, it is time to stage a revolution, rip up the floor plan and use tugs to optimise the assembly process.
Andy Owen, Managing Director of MasterMover®
Video: MasterMover® pedestrian electric tugs in industrial environments (no sound)