How Does 5S Contribute to Workplace Safety?

Safety standards in the manufacturing industry around the world have greatly improved but there’s plenty of work still to be done. In 2022 alone, manufacturing companies in the US had 490,000 injuries that resulted in a medical consultation.

Occupational injuries are a concern even in companies with good safety protocols. Although its overall aim is improving productivity, correctly implementing the 5S philosophy can also improve safety.

In this article, we will examine the role that 5S can play in making workplaces safer. We’ll also explain why 6S may be an even better philosophy for the manufacturing industry.

What are the 5 Elements of 5S?

The 5S philosophy has 5 elements representing each of the 5 steps that must be taken for successful implementation. These are typically represented in English as Sort, Set-in-order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain.

It’s also common to see these steps in their original Japanese forms, i.e., Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke.

Why is Safety important in the Manufacturing Industry?

In 1911, the American Society of Safety Professionals was formed in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. This was a landmark moment because this was the first time a society had been formed with the sole purpose of improving safety standards. However, it took the deaths of 146 workers for this to happen.

Importance of Safety in Manufacturing

Safety in manufacturing is often overlooked because some believe it is unnecessary or that it hinders productivity. However, safer working conditions can benefit companies and their employees in many ways including:

  • Reduction of workplace-related illnesses, injuries, and deaths
  • Increased productivity from employees
  • Improved employee morale
  • Reduction of many costs including the cost of treating injuries, legal fees, fines to regulators, compensation claims, etc
  • Reduction of the costs and challenges of finding new workers to step in for injured or dead workers
  • Ensuring the company complies with industry regulations
  • Reducing disruptions due to accidents
  • Improving the company’s image

Hazards in Manufacturing

Safety is a common theme in the manufacturing industry and with good reason. The frequency at which workers deal with dangerous items or find themselves in dangerous conditions is very high. Common health hazards in manufacturing include:

  • Working with or close to machines with exposed moving parts.
  • Working near heat
  • High-voltage electrical wiring
  • Loud noises
  • Exposure to hazardous chemicals
  • Working from elevated locations
  • Working in confined spaces
  • Radiation exposure
  • Spills
  • Trip hazards

How Each of the 5S Elements Improves Safety

Less Clutter

In Sort, items that aren’t needed in workspaces, walkways/aisles, and storage spaces are removed. This eliminates clutter that creates tripping hazards. There are also fewer things to distract workers from their work activities.

Red-tagging items that are in the wrong place is also part of the sort step. This ensures that these items are taken to where they need to be reducing the need for someone else to use an improvised tool.

Red-tagging also ensures that items that are not in a state that’s safe to use are disposed of correctly.

Less Rushing and Straining

During the Set-in-Order step, items are organized to make them easier to access when needed. This ensures workers can get their hands on items they need faster and ergonomically. Workers can avoid actions that can create safety problems including:

  • Rushing
  • Straining
  • Searching through storage boxes and storage areas with other hazards, e.g., sharp objects.

This step also involves the creation of dedicated storage locations for tools, equipment, and materials. When everything has a dedicated storage location, there is less chance of it being left in an incorrect location where it could create a safety risk.

Setting in order also contributes to safety because it involves creating and marking out different sections including walkways that must be kept clear and storage areas for hazardous items. Foot traffic and vehicular traffic can also be separated.

Safety cues, visual reminders, and other signs are also added throughout the facility. These can remind workers about safety protocols or alert them to existing hazards.

Quick Clean-Ups and Fewer Catastrophic Failures

The Shine Step advocates for keeping spaces clean. This means that spills are quickly cleaned before they cause slipping and broken debris from tools, materials, and equipment are cleared before someone comes into contact with them.

Inspection of tools, machines, and equipment ensures any damaged or faulty items can be repaired or replaced before a catastrophic failure event which is more likely to cause injury. This also applies to inspection of ladders, ramps, and similar structures.

Inspection and maintenance of machines can also prevent long-term exposure to fumes and other leaks with potential health risks.

Consistent Application of Procedures

The Standardize step ensures procedures and actions that create a safer workspace are consistently implemented. For example, standardized color coding can alert someone to a hazard even before they can see or read the actual sign.

Standardization also makes problem areas stand out and allows employees to move between workspaces without having to readjust to different systems and approaches to their jobs. Procedures that relate to safety can also be included in the training of new employees.

Lasting Change and Regular Improvement

The Sustain step ensures the changes that make manufacturing workspaces safer last. It also ensures that the procedures established above are regularly reviewed and improved. This keeps them relevant in the presence of new hazards or makes them more effective at preventing injury.

Auditing is also part of this step and these activities can be used to assess if existing procedures are effective enough or if more needs to be done to make the plant safer.

Safety: The Sixth S

Despite the gains that can be made by implementing 5S, many also believe that the philosophy doesn’t do enough to address safety in the workplace. This gap has been particularly noted in industries such as manufacturing where the risk of injury or death is a lot higher.

This has led to the formation of the 6S model. It includes the original five elements of 5S but adds safety as a final element.

In this last safety step, the objective is to identify hazards in workspaces and put in place measures that can keep employees safe. This step can ensure that:

  • Fire extinguishers and other safety-related items are in good working condition and not obstructed.
  • Safety signs are installed and visible to anyone in a particular section.
  • Boundaries are clearly marked and barriers are installed where necessary.
  • Employees follow correct safety protocols during regular operations e.g., cleaning spills immediately.

Implementing this additional step goes a long way in helping the company to realize the benefits of the original 5S. However, its main benefit is that it emphasizes that the protection of workers is a priority and not a consequence of other measures.

Conclusion

Manufacturing remains one of the most dangerous industries today. Workers deal with many hazards regularly and safety protocols often don’t go far enough to protect them. 5S initiatives are usually implemented to improve productivity, but they can also improve safety.

The first step in 5S alone can eliminate many hazards by removing distractions and tripping hazards and standardization creates a platform for maintaining these initiatives in the long term.

However, many safety advocates argue that 5S doesn’t do enough to protect workers in high-risk job functions. This has led to the rise of 6S where safety is also a step that must be intentionally implemented.

Additional Resources