‘Workplace safety’ refers to the working environment within an organisation and encompasses all factors that impact the safety, health, and well-being of employees. From environmental hazards to unsafe working conditions – and now virus control – keeping employees safe on the factory floor is central to organisational success in the manufacturing sector. It is also central to the health of the economy.
In 2019, the manufacturing sector accounted for approximately 16 percent of global GDP and 14 percent of employment. It is therefore a key sector to reinvigorate in order to minimise the economic impact of COVID-19.
However, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, a European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) found that 23% of workers in the European Union believe that their health and safety is at risk because of their job. These figures have sky-rocketed since the global health crisis began.
While the majority of the world’s businesses have closed or been scaled right down over the past few months, several countries are beginning to implement exit strategies that will allow workers to return to work.
Manufacturing facilities and factories are among the first to be allowed to reopen in many countries, as long as they can operate in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Whilst these guidelines vary internationally, typically they relate to maintaining 2 metres social distance, adequate sanitisation facilities and ensuring only those who cannot work from home, come into the factory. For example, in the UK, the government recommends factory workers; ‘work side by side or facing away from each other rather than face-to-face if possible’, and that manufacturers should ‘increase the frequency of cleaning procedures, pausing production in the day if necessary for cleaning staff to wipe down workstations with disinfectant.’ They also recommend installing physical barriers to prevent the risk of contamination and help to ease potential congestion points within a factory setting, such as in canteens, toilet areas and entrances.
Adhering to these guidelines is allowing many factories to get back to work. For example, at Rolls Royce in the UK, every second toilet cubicle is blocked off and physical barriers have been erected between stations to divide workers across every factory and office of Britain’s biggest aerospace manufacturer.
Rolls Royce have also introduced split teams and revised shift patterns so that separate teams are never in the same place and do not physically hand items to each other.
Meanwhile, at Kraft Heinz Co.’s macaroni factory in the U.S, one department slowed a production line to allow 6 feet of space between workers that pass items back and forth by hand. Other factories are turning to technology to help.
Volkswagen, the world’s largest automotive manufacturer has also just reopened its Wolfsburg plant in Germany, allowing 8,000 people to go back to work. Production capacity in the plant has been reduced to around 10-15 per cent during the initial reopening phase, with plans to reach about 40 per cent of pre-crisis levels in the week after, said Andreas Tostmann, VW brand’s board member responsible for production. Extra markings have also been put on the factory floor at the Wolfsburg plant so that workers are better able to adhere to a 2 metre social-distancing rule, and extra time is provided so that employees can disinfect their tools and surfaces. “The restart of Europe’s biggest car factory after weeks of standstill is an important symbol for our employees, our dealers, suppliers, the German economy and for Europe,” said Tostman.
Meanwhile, other factories are turning to technology to allow them to return to work, safely. For instance, Amazon has deployed machine learning software in its security cameras to ensure that warehouse workers stay at least six feet apart whilst Chicago-based Pepper Construction introduced Artificial Intelligence software from SmartVid.io to detect workers grouping.
In addition, Samarth Diamond plans to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) from Glimpse Analytics at its diamond polishing factory in Gujarat, India. Manager Parth Patel said using AI allows the company to adjust procedures at the factory when the software identifies areas where his 4,000 workers congregate. The system also highlights people without masks, allowing the team reviewing camera feeds to quickly provide the worker with a mask to reduce the risk of spreading infection.
Another form of technology factories could choose to deploy to ensure workplace safety is the Proximity Trace alarm. Currently under consideration by the U.S government as a potentially mandatory piece of equipment for the construction sector, it is a location device that emits an alarm if a worker comes within six feet of another employee.
The system doesn’t just function as a reminder for workers to practice the social distancing guidelines, but also gives employers a road map to perform contact tracing. The device relies on ultra-high frequency radio signals to give employers a list of workers who came into contact with each other. Inserting the device into factory worker’s overalls or access badges would allow employers to maintain social distancing requirements and practice disease tracing simultaneously – helping workers decide if they should be isolating at home due to exposure to the virus, or if they can be at work.
All sections of global society must play a role in preventing or slowing the spread of the coronavirus in order to save lives. Ensuring adequate health and safety procedures are in place on the factory floor and beyond serve to protect the safety of people at work, allow businesses to reopen and the economy to recover. Whilst many factories are altering their facilities, technology could play a major role in getting production lines, and the manufacturing sector, moving again.