In manufacturing, we have a duty to protect our employees by providing an ergonomic and safe workplace. But have we gone too far? If we try to dummy down the work place then all we do is create and support dummies.

Of course, we need to develop manufacturing machinery that utilizes safety systems such as guards and sensors, but as a safety manager once told me “you cannot out think stupid”.
When I was about 11 years old, my dad built a mini bike for me and my twin brother. My dad was a depression era child and he would never consider purchasing something that he could easily make. To power our home spun cycle my dad found an old five horsepower lawn mower engine from a salvaged yard that used the primitive rope start system. The problem with the rope start is that the spool you wound the rope on had a hook to catch the knot end of the rope.

The day this mini bike debuted on the trail, my dad wound the rope on the spool, pulled with all of his might and the engine immediately came to life. When I looked down I could see the blur of a 1500 RPM spinning hook that would rest about 4 inches from my soft 11 year-old flesh. I looked at my dad and said, “What do I do about that spinning hook near my leg?” my dad told me one of the most profound things I had ever heard, he simply said, “don’t touch it.”

We simply need to teach our employees not to put their fingers in the closing jaws. I know this seems like an oversimplification, but is it? Individuals’ and companies’ safety cultures have become dull from over protection. Many manufacturing processes are inherently dangerous and there is not a safety guard for every possible point of failure, but this is true in life as well. When you drove to work on the highway today only a painted line separated you and the oncoming traffic. It ultimately is your compliance to a system that keeps you safe.

I personally feel that factories that litter their plants with safety signage and engage in endless spiffs and meetings on safety create a frightened employee. These frightened employees basically fulfill the corporate prophecy that they are going to get hurt so… they do! Sometimes you reach the point of convergence, whereas the farther away, the more you try to remove from a problem the closer it comes back in.

My only recommendation to manufacturing engineers is to be certain that they’re procuring safe equipment but also be sure they’re hiring safe operators, institute training and safety spiff programs. I would caution any manufacturers to use only integrated machine safety systems as a panacea for a cogent safety plan.