In order for a welding business to stay in business, welders must keep welding or it’s a burn on both time and money. One way to promote worker productivity is to provide them with a workplace that rigorously adheres to a culture of safety where issues can be raised by anyone and, ultimately, resolved with a strategy that the whole team can buy into.
There is mounting research that links strong workplace health and safety programs with less recordable injuries. This results in fewer production delays and, ultimately, better financial performance. As for the welding and skilled trade industry, these issues are compounded when there is a shortage of adequately skilled workers. Today, the balance of power resides in their very proficient hands: if they don’t feel like they have a voice, or are safe or comfortable in a particular workplace, they may leave.
This article will highlight the story of how leadership and workers at one forward-thinking transportation equipment manufacturer worked together toward goals of reducing recordable eye injuries. It will examine how safety managers addressed these very issues, and what happened when they allowed everyone to have input in how the company invested in the future and safety of its welding workforce.
Greenbrier is a leading international manufacturer of freight railcars and a North American builder of marine barges. Based in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Greenbrier employs about 10,000 workers in what are considered higher-risk positions: manual welding and grinding in the often hectic and hazardous environments of transportation equipment manufacturing.
Safety managers at Greenbrier were reporting a higher level of eye injuries taking place at their facilities where welders were using four to five separate pieces of PPE. Some of the issues welders cited included the hassle of changing gear between tasks, visor fogging, limited range of vision and lack of comfort.
After discovering this, safety managers at Greenbrier set out not only to reduce recordable eye injuries, but also to increase worker comfort and tackle welders’ exposure to manganese, a welding particulate. Dave Harvey, Greenbrier’s director of environment, health and safety was well versed in the inherent risks of manual welding in the manufacturing of transportation and equipment.
“I was trying to understand: how could we ever achieve such metrics as ‘world class’ or ‘industry leading’? Even with the best of our abilities—no matter how much time and effort we put in training, there is risk. And (a solution) was hard to narrow down,” said Harvey.
Harvey engaged with several PPE manufacturers and ultimately worked with one on a solution.
Finding a solution
For workers experiencing fogging of eyewear, but where air quality was not an issue, anti-fog coatings were suggested. Workers no longer had to remove eyewear regularly to wipe away fog and risk exposing their eyes to potentially dangerous hazards and debris.
In other areas, it was determined that visor fogging was due to a lack of airflow. Powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR) were a solution that Greenbrier had never considered before.
Using PAPRs would reduce multiple problems that not only exposed workers to risk, but also cut into productivity. All-in-one systems would also eliminate the hassle of changing gear between tasks and significantly reduce eyewear fogging. Now welders could get into tight spaces with less equipment, raise their welding shields in certain locations without risking exposure, and work more comfortably for longer periods of time.
Plus, switching to the PAPR eliminated the need for fit testing and allowed workers to keep some facial hair. But making the switch to PAPRs would not be easy. There were two significant hurdles to overcome. PAPRs are expensive. And welders would not only have to be trained, but also adopt a new way of working.
First, the financial
Previously, Greenbrier welders used up to five pieces of PPE ranging from a hard hat, a face shield, eyewear, disposable respirator and ear plugs. The investment per employee amounted to anywhere between $25-$30. Upgrading to the selected PAPR was roughly $2,000 per unit. Plus, unlike traditional PPE, the system was not disposable. Welders would be obligated to maintain their PAPR systems for longevity.
But, when compared to industry average costs of recordable eye injuries, which according to the American Academy of Opthalmology, OSHA reports that workplace eye injuries cost an estimated $300 million a year across the country in lost productivity, medical treatment and worker compensation.
Greenbrier instituted the testing of several PAPR systems at the same time so employees had a voice in what products were preferred by their welding teams.
But investing in new equipment would be the ultimate demonstration of Greenbrier’s core values as a company and its commitment to staff, said Harvey. “Companies can’t say safety is important. They actually have to do things,” said Harvey. “Certainly, for employees, the easiest way to show it is important is when an investment is made.”
Training and adoption
Harvey knew that his workers may not be open to change or trying something new, so he had a company build an implementation and training schedule with specialists that provided everyone access to hands-on training and maintenance support.
Greenbrier began its pilot focusing on the most demanding areas within its ship and rail facility. But it did not force the adoption of the new PAPR system on anyone. Initial volunteers ranged from some of the youngest welders to the most tenured and skilled workers. The key was to gather good feedback and let that word spread on its own. Ultimately, more and more welders started asking for the product for their welding teams.
With an integrated system, workers required less equipment. It was not only low profile and easy to handle but also versatile enough to lend itself well to the tasks workers needed to accomplish throughout the day.
Following the training and widespread shift, welders reported they immediately felt and saw the difference.
Harvey noted that added training allows employees to get the most out of their equipment. As workers adopted the new equipment, they reported great results – various things like increased comfort, satisfaction, productivity, time and loyalty to the company.
At the same time, Greenbrier now has the confidence of knowing they’re not only meeting the requirements of respiratory protection, but also helping to create better working conditions for their employees.