Making the workplace a safer place

Dec. 1, 2013

WORKPLACE injuries range from minor bumps to tragic fatalities. Each one comes at a cost, both human and financial.

The commercial truck and trailer industry has to contend with workplace safety on two fronts. Manufacturers and upfitters strive to keep their own employees as safe as possible. But work trucks and trailers in a sense are workplaces, too. Quite a few people make their living by working in and on the products we produce. Taking good care of the customer’s employees is both a responsibility and an opportunity.

According to a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, truck drivers are prone to musculoskeletal disorders. When affected, they miss approximately 19 days of work, the highest rate of all the occupations that the Bureau studied. The Bureau’s report attributes 36% of these injuries to overexertion and body reaction. Falling, tripping, and slipping are other common reasons for truck driver aches and pains.

So if that’s the case, what can our industry do to reduce that number? Granted, we have entire companies that manufacture equipment such as liftgates to reduce strain and overexertion. Refrigerated van manufacturers add texture to their floors to improve traction, and service body manufacturers frequently add non-slip tapes or coatings to help prevent injuries. Retractable steps and handrails can make climbing up and down a little easier. But how often do we take a comprehensive look at product design from an ergonomic standpoint? Size and weight restrictions on trucks and trailers may limit some of the things that can be done, and the customer has the final say on what does or does not go on his vehicle. But with a shortage of drivers that is only expected to get worse, wouldn’t customers value a work truck or trailer that reduces those 19 lost days of work?

What about the safety of our shops and manufacturing plants? According to OSHA figures, industry in general has made significant strides in reducing injuries in the workplace. According to a recent OSHA report, 38 people died on the job every day in 1970. In 2012, the rate had fallen to 12. Still too high, but a major improvement—especially considering that twice as many people were in the workforce last year than were at work in 1970.

Numbers can tell us how many people are injured at work. It’s a little harder to find out why. OSHA regulations helped put workplace safety in the forefront of managerial thinking in the 1970s. But other factors have contributed, too. As we walked the aisles of this year’s Fabtech exhibition (see our report beginning on Page 28), we could not help but think about the strides that have been made to in plant equipment. Automation helps keep hands out of harm’s way, and built-in safety devices stop the machine if danger zones are violated. Safety gear such as improved welding helmets, respirators, and air purification systems all help make plants healthier places to work.

This month’s cover story (see Page 18) has some interesting things to say about what happens when simple changes are made at a truck body manufacturing plant.

Reading Truck Body hired a senior-level safety professional in 2012 to improve plant safety. The result: an 81% reduction in injuries that are required to be reported to OSHA. In addition, the plant now averages 275 days without an injury. Previously, someone was hurt every 27 days.

Reading established a safety committee that meets monthly to address any issues or suggestions for improvements. The company developed a new approach to investigating accidents, one that management says more effectively identifies the causes of accidents and stimulates ideas for responding to them.

In spite of the progress that American companies are making, there are always areas that could be improved. Here is a list of the most frequently violated OSHA standards from last year:

  1.  Fall protection.

  2.  Hazard communication standard.

  3.  Scaffolding

  4.  Respiratory protection.

  5.  Electrical, wiring methods, components and equipment.

  6.  Powered industrial trucks.

  7.  Ladders.

  8.  Control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout).

  9.  Electrical systems design.

10. Machinery and machine guarding.

Manufacturing truck bodies and trailers will always involve potential danger. Large, heavy pieces must be moved. Welding, grinding, drilling, and finishing are all part of the process. But the numbers are showing that our workplaces have become much safer places in recent years. Let’s resolve this New Year to make them even safer in 2014. ♦

About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.