It seems to me that many companies have starting taking on more of an educational role in recent years than they did in the past. You’re seeing manufacturers holding training seminars at their facilities, which generally include workplace tours, and some of the larger companies are even building specially equipped training centers on their property. Sometimes these events are held for existing and potential customers, and they can also target the company’s sales force, making them aware of new equipment and technologies they can then carry out into the field. And we’re also seeing more companies reaching out to local high schools, community colleges, and universities, making students aware of the fact that manufacturing has come a long way from the grimy factories they may be thinking of, and these days are pretty high-tech operations. I guess what I’m getting at here is the fact that all of these scenarios involve inviting guests into the manufacturing environment, and people who are unfamiliar with the industrial workplace need more guidance in terms of safe practices than anyone.
I think this is a pretty positive trend, to be honest. I like the way these companies are beginning to establish themselves as knowledge resources in addition to being vendors. The benefits of any interaction between end-users and OEMs are many, including better equipment designs—and safety features—based on information provided by those on the front lines of manufacturing, and those using the machines will be able to do so with greater safety and productivity. And the more these types of companies welcome others into their facilities, the better they’ll get at conducting these tours in a safe manner. But even the most seasoned machine operator needs to be extra careful in an unfamiliar setting, and when you’ve got a class of high-energy kids from the local school you’ve got to watch them like an eagle.
First, the basics. Although any quality operation will already have all the necessary safety signage in place, and the various manufacturing cells will be taped off and most moving parts within an enclosure, remember that it’s human nature to want to get as close as you can to something that’s interesting. Just think of how people huddle around the enclosures of new machines in operation at tradeshows and you’ll see what I mean. So when you’re planning a tour, think of every conceivable thing that a visitor might do, even slipping past barricades for a closer view. It’s basically the same approach you would take in “child-proofing” your home; you’ve got to think of every conceivable danger, no matter how outlandish it may seem. The second thing to do is make sure everyone is equipped with safety glasses, hearing protection, hardhats, protective clothing, gloves—whatever they might require in order to tour your particular facility safely. Do a quick walk-through before any tour to make sure nothing is happening that’s out of the ordinary that day, and that there are no untended patches of anything slippery such as lubricants or metalworking fluids. If you are the tour guide, speak to the group before setting out, asking for their cooperation in terms of avoiding active work zones and doing anything to distract the machine operators at their jobs. These tours can take on the air of a field trip—and sometimes that’s what they actually are!—so you need to impress upon everyone involved that there are potential dangers, and how to avoid them.
One thing I’ve been seeing a lot more of lately is companies equipping tour groups with personal radio communication systems, so that everyone can hear and speak to each other. This probably does provide some degree of hearing protection, but the most important thing to me is being able to communicate clearly in what can often be an extremely loud setting. Not only does this add depth to the experience, it makes it more likely that a warning will be heard should someone step into a danger zone, or into the path of a forklift.
Like I’ve said, I think the more people learn about modern manufacturing, the better impression they’ll have. This is especially true of young people who are starting to think about what they’d like to do in life. But the fact is, whether you’re inviting a customer in to witness a runoff on a new piece of equipment they’ve purchased, or a service technician in to do a quick repair job, or a group of Girl or Boy Scouts working on their next badge, you’re welcoming them into your world, so you owe it to them to be the most knowledgeable and safety-conscious host you can be.