Woman holding ipad in manufacturing plant, reading manufacturing news.

Manufacturing News and Research Update

Michelle Hopkins

Manufacturing is surging to unprecedented levels and fueling the U.S. economy while continuing to address occupational safety and health. Developing research is poised to bring new, low-cost solutions to manufacturers to maintain workplace standards through continued growth.

At the close of 2017, manufacturing reached an all-time high in its contribution to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Manufacturing also trended positively in reducing workplace fatalities (to 316 in 2016 from 353 in 2015, according to latest available data) while the nation as a whole saw a 7% increase.

Nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses were a thorn for the industry; in 2016, across all industries, manufacturing was second in occupational injuries (410,500) and led in occupational illnesses (39,200).

Researchers are tackling some of the biggest challenges with approaches that help reduce costs while providing manufacturers more flexibility and improved data for hazard mitigation. This article highlights new research in two areas: respiratory illness and forklift safety.

Manufacturing News Spotlight: Respiratory Illness

In 2017, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued 3,381 citations for respiratory-related violations, making this one of the most frequently OSHA-cited categories of occupational illness.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the research agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has made workplace respiratory illness one of its leading FY2019-FY2023 strategic priorities.

In manufacturing, this priority crystallizes in three areas:

Dust-induced respiratory disease. Examples are lung cancer, pleural disease, pneumonitis, COPD, asthma, silicosis, and mesothelioma.

Fixed airway disease. Leading examples are COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and obliterative bronchiolitis.

Work-related asthma. This includes both asthma caused by work, which affects about 15% of manufacturing workers, and pre-existing asthma that is worsened by work, which affects 21.5% of manufacturing workers.

Manufacturing News: Respiratory Research

Integrated Sampling Devices
Researchers at the University of Iowa, Adelphi University in New York, and Johns Hopkins University have joined forces to develop an alternative to the industrial hygienists’ practices they witnessed, specifically the infrequent and subpar monitoring of exposure to particulate matter, aerosols, and gases.

Frequently, sampling was scant; in many instances, cost was a contributing factor. Direct-reading instruments to provide more consistent, accurate data in real-time was typically very expensive, often more than $4500 per monitoring device, a prohibitive cost for many.

Researchers developed and tested 40 integrated prototype devices capable of long-term performance and continuous transmission of data to a central repository. The sensors performed with accuracy and precision “consistent with monitoring for multiple hazards in an active factory environment.”

The monitors were low in cost and faster, producing better data for more effective mitigation strategies.

This research was just published in January 2018 and there are more studies still to be done before the devices are ready for the factory floor but researchers say it looks promising.

Flexible Downflow Booths
Downflow booths are a relatively costly engineering control used to contain airborne dust or particles and then release them away from workers’ breathing zones. The booth delivers contained airflow to an exhaust system for removing particulates by filtering media.

Researchers from NIOSH, Division of Applied Research and Technology in Cincinnati, Ohio and Applied Engineering Controls in Groton, CT designed and developed a flexible, mobile downflow booth and experimented with it under different conditions.

They varied booth size (small, regular or extended), supply air velocity (80 and 100 feet per minute), powder transfer or particle location (near or far from the exhaust booth) and tried using a curtain. 

Their design provided ultimate flexibility, allowing the downflow booth to be moved, quickly assembled, and easily readjusted to whatever particle size was needed.

The study suggested that all but the short-depth booth protected workers from booth exhaust. Better control performance was achieved at the 100 fpm air velocity. Adding a curtain didn’t improve results.

The experimental technology is in the early stages but demonstrates researchers are sympathetic to manufacturers needs to have low-cost, flexible, and efficient tools for health and safety.

Safety and Health Investment Valued
Swedish researchers explored the extent to which air contamination mitigation efforts were valued by focusing on small and medium-sized enterprises in three cases in welding and furniture manufacturing.

Work environment investments were appreciated by employees and managers, with the highest spike in value in instances when exposure levels were markedly decreased.

But it wasn’t just the initial investment that mattered.

The most positive results occurred with strong leadership follow-through on education and training in how to use the equipment and greater leader and worker engagement.

Manufacturing News: Forklift Safety

In the seven years from Oct. 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2016, there were 295 fatalities involving forklifts, or an average of about 42 per year.

That’s a marked improvement over the period from 1980 to 1994 when the National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities Surveillance System reported 1,021 forklift fatalities, or about 68 per year.

Being crushed or struck by a forklift, falling from an elevated forklift or a forklift overturning were responsible for a significant portion of the fatal injuries.

Nonfatal injuries to neck, back, and the body’s complete musculoskeletal structure can result from forklift drivers’ sitting for many hours in awkward positions on a piece of equipment with no suspension. Direct costs of these injuries are high and mean substantial lost time.

A study published in 2018 found that almost 50% of forklift drivers experience neck pain compared to 30% of office workers.

Manufacturing News: Forklift Research

Better sensors and automated guided vehicle (AGV)/automated guided cart (AGC) technology are helping manufacturers make inroads in workplace safety for forklift operators handling materials. 

Newer sensors are able to encompass a wider area and avoid objects through the use of programmed software; other sensors create a 3-D image to help operators navigate warehouse obstacles easily.

Ergonomic advances are not only making forklift drivers more comfortable (and less vulnerable to musculoskeletal injury) but also more productive. Here are some examples noted in an industry publication in June 2018:

  • Seats with better suspension that reduce vibration and allow adjustment for weight and lumbar support
  • Remote control technologies that reduce how many times a forklift operator needs to mount and discount the equipment
  • Spotlights and cameras to minimize neck strain
  • Integration of tools on a single technology platform

Wearable technology is being introduced into a variety of workplace settings, including factories, warehouses, and construction sites. This technology monitors a worker’s body movements, physiological changes (fatigue, temperature, repetitive motion) or sounds an alarm when a potentially dangerous intrusion appears, according to Marsh’s Workers’ Compensation Center of Excellence. Forklift operators as well as workers in their vicinity are likely to benefit as use increases.

Concentra Products and Services

Concentra, the nation’s leading occupational health provider, offers provider expertise in occupational medicine and a host of screening and testing tools to enhance employer hiring decisions. These include pre-employment and pre-placement examinations, compliance tests, and respiratory physicals/fit tests to guard against respiratory illness from inhalation of dust particles. These and other products and services are available through our community-based medical centers, onsite clinics, and telemedicine.

Contact a Concentra representative to learn more about how we can support your workforce.