Chain of Thought

Cushion Your Fall from the Fiscal Cliff

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The Fed announced plans to lower long-term interest rates to encourage investing and hiring. But the real path to long-term survival is in your own workplace.

Many CEOs are paralyzed with fear about going over that fiscal cliff the papers have been screaming about. The result of paralysis is inaction, and that translates into no investment, either in hiring or in process improvements.

Recognizing this, the Fed announced plans to lower long-term interest rates to encourage borrowing, spending, investing—and hiring. In fact, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently indicated that unemployment would have to hit a low of 6.5% before interest rates go higher. That may sound good to those paralyzed CEOs but it’s starting to make some policy makers nervous, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Unemployment is affected by trends the Fed doesn’t dictate, such as people’s personal decisions to enter or leave the labor force or their productivity,” an article in today’s edition read

Great point! So this puts the onus for getting the economy back in gear on those CEOs. It’s not that they haven’t been trying to get healthier. Recent research by Intermec showed that in the last six months alone, nearly eight out of ten (79%) warehouse managers have been told to squeeze more productivity out of existing operations. Despite those efforts, the managers surveyed admitted that they’ve let inefficient workflows continue. Sounds like more paralysis.

This research also showed that over an eight hour shift, each worker in the operations studied lost an average of 15 minutes of productivity due to those inefficient processes. The study reported that for a small to medium-sized warehouse with 50 workers, that quickly adds up to nearly 3,000 hours a year, and could be a significantly higher number in larger organizations.

That doesn’t even take into account the injuries that such inefficiencies carry with them—and it’s a heavy burden on employers. Jim Galante, the chairman of the Ergonomic Assist Systems and Equipment (EASE) Council of MHI, did a presentation on workplace injuries a couple years ago in Washington DC to members of the Wholesale, Retail Trade (WRT) sector. It was part of an outreach program organized by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The goal was to help employers reduce the high incidence of lost time injuries and reduce the workman’s compensation costs that result.

Galante showed me statistics indicating the WRT sector is served by an aging workforce that’s under pressure to do more with less—much as that Intermec study stated. More than 60% of the injuries they sustain as a result are related to manual material handling. The year before Galante made that presentation NIOSH was reporting 731,900 injuries from overexertion and contact with objects.

I don’t want to overburden you with too many facts and figures, but here’s one more from Liberty Mutual's Workplace Safety Index: overexertion is the leading cause of disabling injuries in the workplace. Typically, these types of injuries are associated with heavy lifting, repeatedly bending at the waist, bending at the waist while twisting the body, working while bent over at the waist, pushing/pulling heavy dollies, carrying, reaching and long-term poor posture while sitting or standing.

There is hope that the nature of work and the workplace will change as technology evolves. In fact one of the emerging trends for 2013 identified by PTC, a product design and development software provider, is the “Transformation of Manufacturing.”  They tie this revolution to the rise of digital manufacturing and how it will change the workforce.

“The digital revolution is changing the role of the worker and it’s already changing how manufacturers design, develop and bring their products to market,” Ali Aceto told me, speaking for PTC. “There is a need for workers in manufacturing, but this digital transformation is driving the demand for a different kind of manufacturing worker. The new face of manufacturing is the skilled worker: engineer, data scientist, software developer – a direct result of the move to virtual design. This also includes the design of manufacturing facilities away from physical production to focus on the creation process.”

That’s all well and good in theory, but right now employers still face the fiscal cliff that may arrive with 2013. If those companies go over it and survive the fall, will they be willing and able to pay for the level of skill called for by that new workforce?

The safer bet for employers right now is to cushion their fall if the economy does take a dive by making best use of the labor they already have. That means not only making their workplace more efficient, but making it safer as well.

This is my last blog of 2012, as I’ll be taking some time off for the holidays, but let me leave you with a Christmas gift in the form of a suggestion: plan to attend ProMat in Chicago next January 21-24. Sure, there’ll be a lot of great productivity-enhancing technology displayed there, but there’ll also be some great opportunities to discuss labor-saving strategies.

One of those will be a session hosted by Kevin Gue, associate professor in the department of Industrial & Systems Engineering at Auburn University. He’ll highlight the design of a worker-centric facility. This will be part of a half-day session on manual material handling taking place on Wednesday, January 23 in room S402A at McCormick Place. This topic is bigger than just ergonomics and safety. The idea behind it is to improve the work environment so it helps people do their jobs more effectively. 

Gue describes the essential elements of worker-centric design as psychology, management, operations engineering, ergonomics and architecture. He’ll demonstrate how these elements work together and he’ll lay out the ultimate goal of his research so attendees can participate in it: to establish design principles for commercial facilities that lead to efficient, productive, worker-centric environments.

Nice work if you can get it.

 

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During his career Dave Blanchard has led the editorial management of many of Penton Media’s best-known brands, including the company’s flagship title, IndustryWeek, as well as Logistics...
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