April 22 will mark the two-year anniversary of the passing of Tim Harris, an industry veteran who was mortally injured in a forklift accident while visiting a window customer to conduct a quality audit. Ever since that day, I have been much more cognizant of safety concerns every time I step foot into a door and window plant, which for me takes place on a weekly basis.

One thing is for certain — safety impacts the entire organization. It affects quality, productivity, morale and the bottom line. A commitment to safety must start at the top and work its way down to every level and every facet of the organization in order to be a success. It must factor major decisions such as the type of equipment employed, safety procedures, plant layout, equipment purchases, operations procedures and employee training.

The two most dangerous activities in a door and window plant are materials transport and glass processing/handling. Forklifts are constantly traveling throughout the plant moving vinyl extrusions, glass, aluminum profiles and other materials from the shipping dock to various work areas. Some plants have mirrors at each intersection. Many do not. Forklift safety training should be an ongoing affair, not only for those employees operating one but for every employee navigating by foot, golf cart or bicycle in the plant. Each employee should be schooled on forklift awareness and avoidance.

The vast majority of serious and fatal accidents that I have heard occurring in door and window plants involve glass. Most of the glass being handled in a window factory is annealed. It breaks easily if scored.

Have you ever watched a glass cutter in operation? The glass-cutting machine scores the glass with slight pressure from a cutting wheel, then the operator applies a light pressure on a breakout table. The glass breaks effortlessly. It will also do the same if it has a nick or “anomaly” in it as it is carried from one rack to another by an individual. That is why all employees who handle glass should receive training on glass handling and should also wear proper protection. The best scenario would be if employees did not have to physically touch or handle glass at all or at least to a minimal degree. Investment in automatic glass pickers, glass carts, automatic glass “free fall” systems and good old fashioned caster tables not only will improve safety but will also greatly increase productivity.

Every week I am in plants where productivity is deemed an issue, and I look around to see workers physically carrying glass from point A to point B. A $20 investment in a pedometer and a week- long study will show the production manager just how many steps his employees are taking in a week. This adds up to miles of travel over the course of a week, which means lower productivity and fatigue. Fatigue leads to mistakes and the possibility of accidents which involve a very sharp instrument – glass.

One part of the window plant that scares me the most is the glass cutter. I sell them, so I am usually in that part of the plant checking to see if they need a new one or how well the machine I recently sold is running. Watching the free-fall operation of glass onto the loading table reminds me how vulnerable the glass-cutting operators are to injury if something goes wrong. Investment in automatic free-fall mechanisms can go a long way to eliminate that particular activity, which can be dangerous to untrained or fatigued workers.

Finally, I always cringe when I see the glass breakout operator throwing the excess glass cuts into the dumpster. This operation literally involves hurling glass into an open dumpster. As the glass shatters, small pieces of glass fly in all directions. Most of this “shrapnel” is stopped and contained by the walls of the dumpster, but sometimes I see an errant piece flying through the air.

One of the equipment companies that I represent introduced a Cullet Crusher, which has a conveyor onto which the excess glass cuts are placed by the breakout operator. The machine safely pulls them into a confined box where they are crushed and safely deposited into a container for disposal. This machine represents a modest investment that can greatly enhance safety.

When a door and window manufacturer invests in safety, whether in the form of educational programs, training programs or safer equipment, it represents a major statement by the company owners. The statement is that “the employees of this company are deemed a valuable asset, and our company truly cares for their well-being.” This statement not only enhances morale but it also creates a feeling of mutual respect and caring among the workforce toward the company. Secondary byproducts of these safety programs are enhanced productivity, lower manufacturing costs and higher profits.

I guess you could say that safety is a “win-win.”

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