The Lean Workplace—a Safer Place to Work

There is a direct link between waste reduction and improved safety.


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Companies that have embraced lean principles have certainly reaped numerous benefits. Cellular manufacturing, pull scheduling and quick change-over have helped reduce lead times and improve on-time deliveries. Inventories have been “right-sized” through batch size reduction and component storage at point of use. Quality-at-the-source techniques and standardized work practices have been effective in improving product quality. Equipment downtime has been reduced and productivity increased using total productive maintenance (TPM) techniques, 5S workplace organization concepts and cross-functional teams.

By focusing on the elimination of all types of waste, lean has helped companies satisfy customers, make better products and contain costs. Yet, what is often overlooked is the impact that lean has on workplace safety. Let’s explore how lean techniques create a safer place to work.

1. 5S system of workplace organization.
• Sorting out unneeded items results in fewer items to lift, move and store in a safe manner.Also, fewer items are damaged over time, leading to safer conditions.
• Setting things in order or establishing a place for everything reduces the likelihood of workers falling over poorly located wires, hoses, pipes and air lines; injuries incurred from tools not being safely secured; impeded access to safety equipment; and storage of chemicals in unsafe areas.
• Shining (cleaning) the workplace decreases the chance of employees slipping on wet/oily floors and encountering other debris on floors, machines or work surfaces.
• Standardizing (creating rules) establishes clear expectations about acceptable/unacceptable conditions, individual responsibilities and making safe practices a habit.
• Sustaining effective organization requires auditing the workplace to identify and eliminate potential hazards.

2. Total productive maintenance (TPM).
• Repairing unsafe machine conditions as soon as they are discovered.
• Installing countermeasures on equipment to reduce the recurrance of unsafe conditions.
• Using daily start-up checklists to catch problems before they lead to unsafe conditions.
• Improving equipment reliability and dependability, which also can reduce worker injuries.

3. Standardized work practices.
• Conducting job safety assessments for current and proposed work practices.
• Completing ergonomic assessments covering fatigue factors, impact of repetitive motion and stresses/strains on the body.
• Establishing safety protocols related to lockout/tagout, safety glasses, hearing protection, hard hats, gowns/uniforms and operation of mobile equipment.
• Providing ongoing training to ensure understanding of all safety issues.

4. Quick change-over (setup reduction).
• Change-over processes must be safe and follow all machine disabling procedures.
• Desired machine settings must be
documented, as they are safer to achieve than trial-and-error adjustments.
• Quick-release tooling is safer to install than tooling that is mechanically fastened and requires increased motion of hand tools.
• Advanced preparation of everything needed for a setup eliminates the need to leave the machine in a potentially unsafe condition.

5. Batch reduction.
• Smaller batches are easier to handle. This can potentially reducethe need for material handling equipment, a common source of injury.
• Small batches enable faster discovery of problems and may eliminate the need for mass repair/rework and related safety issues.

6. Component storage at point of use.
• Maintaining some product where it is used reduces employee motion and material handling.

7. Pull scheduling/Kanban.
• A pull system can minimize the number of parts waiting between process steps, thereby reducing handling and storage needs and the associated safety issues.
• A more-stable and predictable flow of material is easier and safer to manage.
• Kanbans regulate how much product to safely keep in an area.

8. Cellular flow.
• Keeping all required equipment in close proximity enhances safety through reduced material handling, less operator motion and travel, and minimal storage requirements.

9. Quality-at-the-source techniques.
• Catching process failures before they have the potential to hurt workers in a later process.
• Reducing the chance of after-process rework requiring setup (and risk) of another process.

10. Safety teams.
• These can promote safety by investigating causes of workplace accidents and taking corrective action on all safety-related problems.
Encorporating lean principles like these into any organization can provide many benefits, not the least of which is a safer work environment.