Health & Safety in a Post-Pandemic Manufacturing Industry

The manufacturing industry is currently going through some major changes. Political, technical, and social forces are transforming how—and where—manufacturers are operating. The supply chain crisis has forced manufacturers to reconsider offshore production and move more of their operations stateside. And since health and safety standards are much stricter at home than abroad, this shift has manufacturers scrambling to bring their stateside operations into compliance. 

And since manufacturing is already the third-most dangerous occupation when it comes to job-related injuries and illnesses, the industry is due for an upgrade. While digital transformation efforts have made much of the actual manufacturing process more effective and efficient, health and safety initiatives haven’t seen as much improvement.

Now, manufacturers are keen to try new approaches to keeping their employees safe. Lately, we’ve been seeing an increase in genuine efforts to use the benefits of digital transformation to improve health and safety. But to properly address these issues, manufacturing companies need more robust channels of communication.

Issues in Health and Safety

The manufacturing industry is dealing with multiple points of friction between the old way of manufacturing and the new normal. Each issue has important outcomes for health and safety. 

The Great Repatriation

Since the Obama years, the U.S. has been pushing manufacturers to bring their production back to U.S. soil. By creating tax incentives, waging trade wars, and simply asking companies, the past three administrations have pushed U.S. manufacturing to renew its commitment to its nation of origin. 

For example, President Obama personally spoke with Apple CEO Tim Cook to persuade him to bring more production to the United States. The company is infamous for relying on Chinese labor. The cheaper costs and lax rules around worker safety and welfare make production there much less expensive. For its part, Apple has moved some of its manufacturing to the U.S., including that of its high-end workstation product, the Mac Pro. But moving more production back to the U.S. would mean they would need to abide by health and safety laws, which many companies have grown used to skirting. 

The Great Retirement

Manufacturing is a physically demanding industry, and it’s important for the sector’s workforce to be largely composed of able-bodied individuals. The baby boomer generation is starting to retire, which will leave a large hole in the manufacturing workforce. Within 10 years, an estimated 22% of manufacturing workers—some 2.7 million—will retire. Beyond that, 700,000 more workers will be needed to keep pace with industry growth. In the absence of a young workforce eager to join the industry, overall health and safety will likely erode as fewer workers create more challenges for production. 

The Great Resignation

We are about two years into what has come to be called the Great Resignation. Workers laid off during Covid are increasingly deciding that they don’t want to go back to their previous jobs. And the remaining workers are increasingly deciding that they don’t want to remain in their current jobs and are empowering themselves to find something better. 

As a result, workers have been enjoying increased bargaining power. This shift has acted as a wake-up call for employers to take workers’ demands seriously. And one of the major issues workers have is a lack of accountability around who responds to health and safety issues. 

And it’s not just physical health. Increasingly, employees are starting to take their own mental health more seriously. The stress of the pandemic and the ongoing supply-chain crisis have led to a deterioration in employees’ mental and physical health. The incidence of anxiety, depression, and overwork need to become new focal points in the health and safety space. 

Approaching Health and Safety

One way to address health and safety is through dedicated workplace groups that inform, create, and implement strategies for a healthier workspace. Expanding the role of these groups will unlock significant benefits to workplace resilience, i.e. a company’s ability to help employees deal with workplace stressors.

Employers should also give committees access to more health and safety data. Committees can then provide valuable input to employers, who may only be reading raw data points and missing the anecdotal signs of a safety crisis. One way that companies can operationalize safety measures is by employing digital devices connected to the internet, also known as IoT, or the Internet of Things. For example, a real-time location system (RTLS) can help companies track machines and employees within a given area to identify workflow patterns, spot safety issues, and prevent workplace accidents.

For example, RTLS may show a company is experiencing above-average incidents regarding collisions or more than the usual number of significant bottlenecks. An employee committee can then take that information, talk to their co-workers, and pinpoint specific pain points in the process that the company can address to prevent future accidents. Since the committees are staffed by their fellow employees, workers will have an easier time speaking the truth to a committee than to management.

Health and safety committees should also be empowered to work as intermediaries. The committees can receive any reports of health and safety violations and thus reduce fear of employer reprisal when employees come forward with information about accidents. Feelings of security among employees will lead to more reports of health and safety-related information, such as mental health problems, or work mistakes.

Given the proper tools, health and safety committees can improve the workspace for employees and employers. Empowering these groups provides a new approach that works in concert with employees and increases the productivity of industries.

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