by Jerry Grillo
Sean Castillo is in the win-win business. As an industrial hygienist in the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2), his job is to ensure that employees are safe in their workspaces, and when he does that, he simultaneously improves a company’s performance.
That’s been a theme for Castillo and his colleagues in the Safety, Health, Environmental Services (SHES) program and their partners in the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP), part of EI2’s suite of programs aimed at helping Georgia businesses thrive.
“A healthier workforce is healthy for business,” said Castillo, part of the SHES team of consultants who often work closely with their GaMEP counterparts to improve safety while also maximizing productivity.
This team of experts from EI2 assist companies trying to reach that critical intersection of both, combining smart ergonomics and safety enhancements with lean manufacturing practices. This can solve human performance gaps due to fatigue, heat, or some other environmental stressor, while helping businesses continue to improve their production processes and, ultimately, their bottom line.
These stressors cost U.S. industry billions of dollars each year — fatigue, for example, is responsible for about $136 billion in lost productivity.
“Protecting your employee — investing in safety now — saves a lot of money later,” Castillo said. “It equates to less money spent on workers compensation and less employee turnover, which means less time training new employees, and that ideally leads to a more efficient process in the workplace.”
It takes careful and intentional collaboration to bring those moving pieces together, and inextricably linked programs like SHES and GaMEP can help orchestrate all of that.
Ensuring Safe Workspaces
SHES is staffed by safety consultants, like Castillo, who provide a free and essential service to Georgia businesses. They help companies ensure that they meet or exceed the standards set by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), mainly through SHES’ flagship OSHA 21(d) Consultation Program.
“Our job is to ensure that workspaces and processes are designed so that anybody can perform the work safely,” said Trey Sawyers, a safety, health, and ergonomics consultant on the SHES team, aiding small and mid-sized businesses in Georgia. When a company reaches out to SHES to apply for the free, confidential OSHA consultation program, a consultant like Sawyers gets assigned to the task, “based on our area of expertise,” said Sawyers, an expert in ergonomics, which is the science of designing and adapting a workspace to efficiently suit the physical and mental needs and limitations of workers.
“If a company is having ergonomic issues — maybe they’re experiencing a lot of strains and sprains — then I might get the call because of my knowledge and understanding of anthropometry, and then I’ll go take a close look at the facility,” Sawyers said. Anthropometry is the scientific study of a human’s size, form, and functional capacity.
SHES consultants can identify potential workplace hazards, provide guidance on how to comply with OSHA standards, and establish or improve safety and health programs in the company.
“The caveat is the company has to correct any serious hazards that we find,” said Castillo, who visits a wide range of workspaces in his role. For instance, his job will take him to construction and manufacturing sites, gun ranges, even office settings. “We do noise and air monitoring at all different types of workplaces. I was at a primary care clinic the other day. And over the past few years, we’ve had a significant emphasis on stone fabricators, looking for overexposures to respirable crystalline silica.”
Silica, which is dust residue from the process of creating marble and quartz slabs, can lead to a lung disease called silicosis. OSHA established new limits that cut the permissible exposure limits in half, and that has kept the SHES consultants busy as Georgia manufacturers try to achieve and maintain compliance.
Keeping Companies Cool
Another area of growing emphasis for Georgia Tech’s consultants is heat-related stress in the workplace.
“Currently, there are no standards to address this,” Castillo said. “For example, there are no rules that say a construction site worker should drink this much water. There are suggested guidelines and emphasis programs for inspections for targeted industries where heat stress may be prevalent — but no standards, though that is coming.”
The SHES team is trying to stay ahead of what will likely be new federal rules for heat mitigation. To help develop safe standards and better understand the effects of heat on workers, consultants like Castillo are going to construction sites, plant nurseries, and warehouses, and enlisting volunteers in field studies. Using heat stress monitor armbands, they’re monitoring data on workers’ core body temperatures and heart rates.
“These tools are great because we’re not only gathering some good data, but we can use them proactively to prevent heat events such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke, which can be fatal if left untreated,” Castillo said.
To further help educate Georgia companies about the risks of heat-related problems, SHES applied for and recently won a Susan Harwood Training Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The $160,000 award will support SHES consultants’ efforts to further their work in heat stress education so that “companies and workers will understand the warning signs and the potential effects of heat stress, and how they can stay safe,” Castillo said. “We’re sure this will all become part of OSHA standards eventually, and we’d like to help our clients stay ahead of the curve to protect their employees.”
OSHA standards are the law, and while larger corporations routinely hire consulting firms to keep them on the straight and narrow, SHES is providing the same level of expertise for its smaller business clients for free. Most of those clients apply for help through SHES’ online request form. And others find the help they need through the guidance of process improvement specialist Katie Hines and her colleagues in GaMEP.
Lean and Safe
Hines came to her appreciation of ergonomics naturally. After graduating from Auburn University, she entered the workforce as a manufacturing engineer for a building materials company, where “it was just part of our day-to-day work life in that manufacturing environment, on the production floor,” she said.
It took grad school and a deeper focus on lean and continuous improvement processes to formalize that appreciation.
While working toward her master’s degree in chemical engineering at Auburn, Hines earned a certificate in occupational safety and ergonomics (like Sawyers, her SHES colleague). At the same time, Hines was helping to guide her company’s lean and continuous improvement program. And when she joined Proctor and Gamble after completing her degree, “The lean concept and safety best practices were fully ingrained, part of the daily discussion there,” she said.
All those hands-on manufacturing production floor experiences managing people and systems prepared Hines well for her current role as a project manager on GaMEP’s Operational Excellence team, where her focus is entirely on lean and continuous improvement work — that is, helping companies reduce waste and improve production while also enhancing safety and ergonomics.
Hines uses her expertise in knowing how manufacturing processes and people should look when everyone is safe and also productive. She can walk into a GaMEP client’s facility and drive the process improvements and solutions that will help them achieve a leaner, more efficient form of production. And then, when she sees the need, Hines will recommend the client contact SHES, “the people who have their fingers on the data and the expertise to improve safety.”
These were concepts that, for a long time, seemed to be working against each other — the very idea of maximizing production and improving profits while also emphasizing worker safety and comfort.
“But you can have both,” Castillo said. “You should have both.”