Safety and the Organized Workplace

There is no need for a sixth “S” in the 5S system.

Many companies have implemented 5S programs for the purpose of improving organization in work areas by sorting out what is not needed; setting in order what is needed; shining the work area to promote cleanliness; standardizing organization through adoption of work-area rules or guidelines; and sustaining organization through regular auditing of the work area to ensure conformance to the prescribed standards. However, many have suggested the need for a sixth “S” to specifically address safety. Although it is always good to draw attention to safety in the workplace, I believe it can be incorporated effectively within the other five points.

When embarking on a 5S program, companies should proceed through each point sequentially. This is a proven path to creating and maintaining organization. Likewise, this approach ensures safety issues are addressed as the organization effort moves forward. Here’s how:

• Sorting. The goal is twofold: Identify things that are not needed, and limit the quantities of things that are needed. Evaluating everything contained in an area has an added benefit of seeing what equipment really is being used and if it is operating properly and safely. It is a chance to review potential risks to operators and other employees working in the area. Often, the condition of equipment and its potential for unsafe operation is a determining factor in whether it stays or is removed. Effective sorting reduces the amount of clutter in an area, leading to reduced hazards and an all-around safer work area.

• Setting in Order. This requires finding the best places to keep necessary items. Safety plays a major role in selecting these places. Decisions regarding storage of large and heavy items, handling and storage of tools and other sharp objects, location of areas that must be kept clear (such as aisles and spaces in front of utility panels), and the best location for safety equipment (fire extinguishers, safety showers, eyewash stations and more) must be made in the interest of employee safety.

• Shining. This must factor in safety. Cleaning chemicals must be handled, stored and disposed of properly. Brooms and mops must be stored somewhere that is easily accessible but secure when not in use. Simply propping up such items against walls, cabinets or doors is unsafe and can cause injury. When machines or equipment need to be cleaned, safety protocols must be part of the cleaning procedure and clearly understood by all involved. “Warning” and “danger” signs must be adhered to without fail. Shining provides another opportunity to check machines and equipment for unsafe conditions, such as frayed wires, holey hoses and leaky pipes and valves.

• Standardizing. The process of creating rules or guidelines to support the first three points must be grounded in safe practices. If color-coding is employed, it must be consistent from area to area. If yellow-and-black tiger-striped tape is used to mark out a floor area, everyone must understand its purpose is to keep the area clear. Likewise, a floor area painted with a solid yellow block or outlined with yellow tape must have consistent meaning. (I have seen them serve both as areas to be kept clear and areas where things are to be kept.) Even guidelines as simple as labeling practices need to be clear, as misplaced items could have a safety impact down the road. For instance, does the label on the shelf refer to the items above or below it? Standards for disposing of sharps, storage of flammables and identification of motorized-vehicle/pedestrian-only areas all have safety at their foundation.

• Sustaining. Checking whether the agreed-upon standards are being followed must also focus on safety. Any work-area audit must address not only whether things are in the right place and in the right quantity, but also whether unsafe practices are occurring. Trip hazards, spills, motorized-vehicle operating violations, misapplication of personal protective equipment (PPE), disabled machine safety features and other problems must be identified and corrected as discovered. A strict no-tolerance policy must be enforced for any safety issues found during the audit. Anything less only condones unsafe work practices; inaction actually encourages them.

Some prefer a separate safety component, or sixth “S” of workplace organization. I see greater benefit to a 5S program that incorporates safety in each and every step.