In 2021, a "perfect storm” of COVID-19 lockdowns, geopolitical turmoil, shifts in demand, and widespread labor shortages hit the global economy and brought about unprecedented upheaval to supply chains. Ever since, consumers have had to contend with shortages in basic goods once taken for granted, such as baby formula, gasoline, lumber, and, of course, toilet paper.

Against a backdrop of ongoing supply chain issues, some shortages have proven to be merely inconvenient, while others resulted in more far-reaching, unexpected outcomes. Scarcities in assembly components, for instance, have led to more on-the-job manufacturing injuries. In part, this has been a consequence of plant managers reengineering long-established processes to adapt to a new "normal” of uncertainty and delays. Understaffed, overworked and pressured to get more done with less, employees have had to scramble to alter their work practices, often on the fly and without adequate safety training.

A recent survey (“Feedback from the field: Workers under pressure,” Supply Chain Quarterly, September 30, 2022) underscored the employee dilemma. It revealed 73 percent of front-line manufacturing workers feel they are under “intense pressure” on the job. Four in ten (40%) of surveyed workers also said they’d like to see greater investment by their employer in technology to improve processes, efficiency and safety. Thirty-nine percent reportedly had to spend their own money to stay safe at work — an average of $872 per worker. More disturbingly, 21 percent said they personally experienced a workplace injury over the past 12 months.

Parts and labor shortages

To better understand this danger, let’s consider the example of a mid-sized lamp manufacturer. For years, the plant’s workers have used a 25-step assembly process to build its most popular lighting fixture. Due to longer lead-times in parts procurement, however, steps 5 to 10 involving the shaping of metal parts on a hydraulic H-Frame punch press are now being bypassed to be performed later in the process. This has left the plant’s young, inexperienced press operator with a nearly complete, bulkier workpiece to handle. Struggling to load the larger workpiece into his press may require him to remove the machine’s existing safeguarding or alter the H-Frame punch press in other ways that could cause a hazardous condition. He may now need to manually hold the piece longer on the work bed during operation. Or he may have to completely disassemble and reassemble the lighting fixture to do his job, a process that he has not been trained to perform and can put him in harm’s way.

Besides parts, another shortage hitting manufacturing is skilled labor. In 2021 four million workers in America quit their jobs, some of them highly skilled machinists who took with them decades of on-the-job experience and knowledge. Statistics show that for every five retirees in 2021, there was only one younger worker to feel the gap. With fewer experienced employees on the job yet production demand increasing, understaffed manufacturers are asking their existing employees to do more, faster, with less training and oversight. Tired, overworked employees are growing less cautious, leading to errors in judgement and accidents. What is worse, plant managers are now less likely to inspect, monitor and enforce safety protocols due to pressure to meet production deadlines. Businesses in these types of circumstances frequently face discontent from their employees. Managers may not be surprised when those employees start to turn in two weeks’ notice.

As illustration, let’s go back to our lamp manufacturer. Perhaps an experienced machinist previously responsible for steps 12-15 has decided to retire, putting those tasks in the hands of a new hire. Emergency staffing shortages necessitate the new hire to also perform steps 16-17. Without the experienced machinist to turn to for advice, and lacking training in her additional responsibilities, the new hire has put herself into an accident-prone situation. By taking on larger workloads she may also suffer burnout and other mental and physical health challenges, in addition to increased risk of injury.

Given current volatility, logistics experts are predicting that the global supply chain will not return to normal until 2025, at the earliest. The labor shortage is not about to go away soon either. The manufacturing skills gap in the U.S. could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030, according to a study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. The cost of those missing jobs could potentially total $1 trillion in 2030 alone.