Everybody knows there’s a shortage of qualified workers in manufacturing here in the United States. There are a lot of organizations out there doing what they can to fill in the gap, like the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ Tooling U and many other training programs. Although many seek to attract high school students searching for a career path, others target veterans returning from serving our country overseas, with one example being Save Our Veterans (www.saveourveterans.org). These are people who have been handed a great deal of responsibility, many of them at a very young age, and have received training in technologies that you and I don’t even know about. They deserve a chance at a good job, especially if they’ve been injured, and those men and women in particular deserve a safe working environment.
The reality is that many of these individuals may have special needs. They might be navigating life in a wheelchair, or learning what they can do—and how they can do it—with a prosthetic limb. Some may be adjusting to varying degrees of hearing or vision loss. No matter the situation, you’ll need to consider their abilities in exactly the same way you would anyone else’s: what skills am I looking for in this position, and does this person possess those skills or the potential to acquire them? If they do, then that should be your primary consideration. The second one should be making sure your workplace doesn’t present your new hire with any unnecessary challenges.
You may have noticed in recent years that public spaces such as airports, hotels, and government buildings—the newer ones, at least—are more open than they were in years past. In some cases this is an example of what’s known as “Universal Design,” in which the needs of people with disabilities are factored into the actual design of a structure, resulting in wider doorways, more ramped exits and entrances, and elevators that are clearly marked to provide access to upper and lower floors. What you also might notice is that this type of design is really better for everyone, with fewer tight corners and more railing around elevated platforms. Think about a ramp at the entrance to a hotel, for instance, and how that makes it easier for everybody to wheel in their luggage, and greater access inside the building allows maintenance workers to move their equipment around more easily as well. While this mostly has to do with access, it also leads to increased safety, because you don’t want someone in a wheelchair or with a cane having to take risks just to get where they’re going.
And that’s basically what you’ll need to think about at your own facility. Are the doorways wide enough for someone in a wheelchair or using other devices to get through, both in the offices and on the shop floor? Do you have parking spaces available in your lot for disabled drivers that are clearly marked both in blue and with signage, and is there adequate room on the passenger side for a ramp to drop from an accessible van? Are there graduated ramps throughout your facility for ease of entry to all areas, and are the passages between rooms smooth with no hardware mounted to the floors? You’ll want to pay even more attention than usual to containing and cleaning up spills quickly, especially slick lubricants and metalworking fluids, and to make sure that manufacturing cells are contained with no moving parts unexpectedly jutting into passageways. The good news is that the manufacturing environment is generally designed to accommodate big pieces of equipment and products that need to be moved around a lot, so you should concentrate on things like making sure the height of signage, water fountains, eyewash stations, and first aid kits makes them available to everyone.
Those who have risked their lives protecting our country deserve our gratitude and respect, but they’re probably more interested in moving on with their lives and getting started on a career than brushing parade confetti off their shoulders. And if they’ve returned from military duty with mobility challenges we should do all we can to ease their entry back into the working world.