Equipment Type

Safe Shops Not by Accident

Repairing fleets of big equipment requires big safety strategies. Fresh approaches to shop safety can create safer work environments and increase productivity.

November 01, 2011

Bob Butrymowicz, operational development manager with Volvo Construction Equipment North America, takes fleet repair shop safety past the standard recommendations of steel toe boots and protective eyewear, to the efficiency of “lean” process improvement.

Butrymowicz has taken the Six Sigma manufacturing management model and adapted it to construction equipment fleet maintenance and repair shops to help dealers and others create safe and efficient shop environments. Butrymowicz’s sigma approach allows shop management to define known safety issues, measure and analyze potentially hazardous situations, and based on those benchmark analyses, improve and control future dangers. Because each segment of the repair process carries a measured value, future audits can reveal strengths and weaknesses on the shop floor.

Originally developed by Motorola in 1986 for use in manufacturing, the Six Sigma methodology seeks to improve the quality of a product or process by identifying and removing the causes of errors and minimizing hazardous variables in work procedures. By assigning a statistical value to each segment of the product’s or service’s progression, the Six Sigma methodology can track each segment’s improvement and effectiveness, striving for a goal of 99.99966 percent safe and successful results. Each Six Sigma project follows a defined sequence of steps and often includes quantifiable financial targets such as cost reductions and, in this case, improved safety statistics.

“We started using the sigma processes for shop inventory control programs but found that we could integrate shop safety procedures into it. The sigma process was initially developed for a manufacturing environment, but even though we are providing a service, we are in fact ‘manufacturing’ a product, which is good service provided in a safe environment,” Butrymowicz says.

Working with Volvo’s heavy equipment dealerships, Butrymowicz’s safety audit starts with the shop layout. The most common issues Butrymowicz runs into are general disorganization, clutter, unidentifiable parts, wasted motion such as multilevel locations for shop supplies, and nondesignated workspaces. Each carries the potential for a safety hazard event.

Butrymowicz constructs an analysis of personnel and parts movement in the shop and plots the data on what he calls his spaghetti chart. This analysis shows the physical paths and processes that mechanics currently follow to pull supplies, research repairs, and work on a machine.

With spaghetti chart in hand, Butrymowicz then meets with management and mechanics to define their work area concerns and brainstorm ideas for a new shop layout using his Five S Program. His five S’s are sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain—based on the sigma DMAIC project methodology that defines the problem, measures current data, analyzes the data, improves the process, and controls future processes by correcting issues before they result in defects or accidents.

In a fleet repair shop, Butrymowicz’s safety recommendations are as simple as “a place for everything and everything in its place,” to reworking the physical flow of repairs by locating short-term tasks in one designated area and longer jobs in another. For example, relocating projects by the number of hours they will take to complete improves traffic safety patterns in the shop, eliminating hazards created by limiting the need to jockey large equipment and parts in a confined area.

Key 5S safety and process improvements that apply to many dealer and contractor repair shops include moving supplies from an upstairs storage area to shop floor level to help eliminate lift-and-carry injuries and falls,  while shortening the time it takes to locate supplies. Marked aisles will define work hazard area boundaries to warn casual passers-by of possible dangers and create a distinct area in which the technician can work comfortably, knowing his space is respected. Labeled worktool storage areas provide a specified spot to store cords and equipment, heading off possible tripping hazards and again shortening search time for particular tools.

Butrymowicz then leads discussion and planning on how to fine-tune repair processes to eliminate hazardous behaviors. Management may have regulations in place that define acceptable processes and methods for various tasks, along with disciplinary actions attached if the instructions are ignored. Butrymowicz says imbedding a constantly updated training plan into the Sustain segment of the 5S program is more effective because the technicians are encouraged to bring up their real-life, real-shop concerns well before an injury may occur. Giving the people who work on the shop floor ownership of the safety audit creates a culture that is more likely to be maintained by shop personnel, because they have tailored it to their specifications instead of having a canned program handed down to them from what workers may perceive as a less-involved or under-experienced authority.

“Support for the process starts at the top with management, and because the changes being made are suggestions from the team, I find there is a stronger buy-in to the program,” says Butrymowicz. “The employee buy-in is also what creates the willingness to make safe work practices into habits.

“Every shop is different depending on the type of equipment the dealer works on and the tools available,” he says. “Each audit is highly customized, but the end result is the same—a much safer and productive shop.”

After making the improvements, a baseline safety audit is performed and future targets are defined.

“The most common target we find is keeping clear aisles,” Butrymowicz says. “The target definition would say that all walkways should be clearly marked, kept clear with no cords or hoses in the walkway.”

Butrymowicz recommends weekly 5S audit and review meetings to track results and unresolved issues. The action points under each “S” should be well-organized and defined (measured), but also remain fluid enough to adjust for safety situations that may be seasonal or unanticipated, such as high heat conditions or labor shortages.

In most cases, sigma-style projects have a financial component. Butrymowicz says, “It is hard to try to tag a direct dollar savings to a 5S project. Instead, I ask an owner to look at what the exposure is in the event of an employee injury in terms of lost labor, insurance and workman’s comp costs. We take about five days to do an audit, and during that time spend very little money, mostly on items like pegboards and labels. Compared to the cost of an employee injury, or worse yet a customer injury, the time and materials invested in a 5S program is minute.”

Roger Thompson, president of Effective Management Decisions, is a consultant specializing in designing safe and efficient fleet management facilities.

“In the process of designing new and analyzing existing fleet operation facilities, I recognized the opportunity to design in safety as part of the facility’s layout,” Thompson says. “I view the equipment repair and maintenance shop itself as a tool. The owner needs to look at the physical makeup of the repair shop as it affects the productivity and safety of the mechanics. A well-designed shop can dramatically decrease the mechanics’ exposure to hazards and can help management control employee costs such as worker’s comp. Having good safety procedures hard-designed into the actual facility provides an environment that fosters safe practices and facility maintenance.”

Thompson starts his design process by talking one-on-one with everyone who works in the shop, from mechanics to management.

“It is their facility, not mine,” Thompson says. “If it is a redesign project, they will tell me what works and what doesn’t, and I will also get a better understanding of what products or processes they have used in the past to correct safety issues.”

Thompson then puts his observations and suggestions into a three-dimensional format that brings to life how a well-designed shop will keep people safer. Part of his presentation contains recommendations for new products and services that have come on the market, such as lift systems, hazardous material removal services, and personal safety protection. Thompson does not represent any of the product or service providers.

Changing a shop’s footprint has a significant effect on safety. “One of the biggest complaints I hear from mechanics and shop management is unauthorized people or shop customers wandering around the floor,” he says. “Management does not want strangers in the repair area, and the mechanics, for the most part, don’t want operators in the shop. But because fleet repair facilities have multiple doors, it is hard to keep people out.”

Thompson says shop managers are concerned that nonemployees can distract the technicians, putting the technician at risk for injury. Nonauthorized personnel who are not familiar with the shop’s safety procedures or an industrial environment also put themselves at risk.

“Managers worry about the security of their mechanics and the equipment they are working on when an unauthorized and unprotected person is wandering around, especially in areas where operations like grinding or welding are performed. It is a problem because not only are the people in the shop affected, but the company’s exposure to possible liability claims is also increased.”

Thompson’s solution for wrangling wandering strangers is to design a physical entrance procedure that leads drivers and operators to a designated waiting area similar to floor plans found in retail automotive shops.

“Changing the repair facility’s floor plan heads off access to the shop floor and leads the non-shop personnel to a safe and comfortable waiting area where they are still available, but not underfoot, if the mechanic needs more information about the equipment’s repair.”

Thompson says facility age is also a concern. “Owners are reluctant to put money into the facility itself, preferring to invest in tools and other equipment. As they see it, when part of the shop is unavailable for work, they are losing money. Unfortunately, the nature of repair shops is that mechanics learn to make-do in the existing environment, and as the facility ages, the environment becomes less safe. Organization deteriorates, work areas get cluttered, and shop amenities such as lighting become outdated. Owners used to doing things the old way may not notice the opportunity to be safer and increase productivity by installing things like automatic lifts or air quality equipment that will allow their mechanics to work faster and safer.”

Thompson’s safety design recommendations start at the shop floor level and reach up to the ceiling. He says the increase in the use of pressurized gases for repairs and as alternative fuels in engines is creating the need for reevaluation and possible relocation of some shops’ mechanical systems. 

“Most heating and air-conditioning systems are located at ceiling level, so if there is a collection of gas or a catastrophic leak, the gases will rise, and there is the possibility of a spark setting off an explosion,” Thompson says. He says he sees this in municipal shops that work on fleets that include newer trucks running on pressurized liquid gas or hydrogen. As emission standards continue to impact engines and increase the use of alternative fuels, fleet repair facilities need to be aware of this danger and incorporate new safety training procedures and facility designs into their shops.

Thompson’s recommendations are designed into the building plans as part of new construction or a remodeled facility, and like Bob Butrymowicz’s 5S reorganizing program, actual cost savings are difficult to calculate, but the return on the shop’s investment is substantial.

“I try to save an owner one-half hour of labor costs per day, every day of the year,” Thompson says. “If you look at a mechanic making $60 per hour, that is $30 savings per day, which over the course of a year adds up. But the real savings are apparent when a safety design mitigates the cost of a work-related injury.”

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