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Revisiting the Shop Floor


February 1, 2006
By Pulp & Paper Canada

December to February is the peak period for souvenir product sales and warehouse activity at Quebec’s Winter Carnival. The actual Carnival, an annual event, lasts about 16 days from late January to mi…

December to February is the peak period for souvenir product sales and warehouse activity at Quebec’s Winter Carnival. The actual Carnival, an annual event, lasts about 16 days from late January to mid-February. It has been running for over 50 years, and is very popular, being the world’s largest Mardi-Gras event to take place in a cold winter climate of ice and snow. It generates millions in tourism revenues for the metropolitan area of Quebec City. Souvenir sales are a major source of revenue that help support the Carnival’s non-profit operation.

A personal friend of mine ran the warehouse and, before the 2005 Carnival, she told me she was in a bind as she had just fired the previous warehouse clerk and was in a panic to replace him. This was the peak order-filling season for the souvenir products, and yet deliveries were weeks behind and the backlog of orders was climbing fast. I volunteered on a Friday and found myself on the job Monday morning. I had no previous warehouse experience.

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The Experience

The place was in a total panic. My job was to handle incoming stock, verify it, place it on shelves, then prepare, count, package and label dozens of orders for delivery to various retail stores around town. All this without making a single counting error and completing a pile of paperwork for order tracking, shipping and invoicing. Within two to three days, I had to learn to identify, name and locate about 200 different products in the warehouse when the learning curve was usually about two to three weeks. The delivery person and two of the office girls, who all knew the products well, were helping with the backlog.

The pace of work was at a frantic level. Incoming stock was late and order priorities kept changing. Stop this! Start that! Unpaid overtime was the norm. It was the lack of management planning and leadership combined with cost-cutting measures induced by tight budgets that created many of the problems. Everybody was stressed out, leading to numerous altercations.

This was shop floor pressure I had never seen before and I have seen plenty. It was almost comical. “How does anyone think about safety in this zoo!” I thought to myself.

Over time, we gradually caught up with the backlog by working as a team and despite a few more setbacks, the whole adventure turned out surprisingly well and we all developed a mutual respect and understanding of the pressures that each of us was under.

Pressure-proof safety

In retrospect, despite the fact that public safety for Carnival events and sites was extremely well organized, employee safety was sadly neglected. First, the job orientation did not include a single reference to safety. I decided to do an incident recall exercise near the end of my contract to provide feedback to my friend/boss. The list included injuries ranging from several minor box-cutter cuts to several finger punctures using the needle-based labeling gun. I almost had a finger severed when installing steel shelves for products when working with the deliveryman to increase the warehouse shelve space. The greatest dangers were posed by falling boxes weighing up to 70 lbs. (three involving cuts to the face) and tripping over a client’s warehouse loading dock when making deliveries.

The final incident involved a falling box, which struck the deliveryman in the head, breaking his prescription glasses and causing a cut near his eye. A few nights later, on product supply duty at one of the Carnival parades, the deliveryman accidentally backed into a steel sidewalk safety guard with the rented van we used for deliveries — with the boss sitting beside him! No injuries occurred, but the van was damaged.

These injuries fortunately only required first aid, except for the replacement of the prescription glasses ($800) which is classed as a recordable incident. Considering that the deliveryman and I worked a total of about a 1000 hrs over 12 weeks, this translates into a Total Recordable Incident Rate of 1 * 200000/1000 or 200! This is unacceptable even if we allow for the miniscule number of hours worked. The average for Canada’s pulp and paper mills is about five!

Safety training

“The single most frequent cause of accidents is failing to take the time to think through the work, identify the hazards and deal with them.” – HATSCAN, Due Diligence Training, Alberta, 2004.

Touch! This quote from a highly reputed safety consulting and training firm in Alberta is very appropriate to the Carnival warehouse situation. Workers should be trained and encouraged to take the time to briefly stop and do pre-task planning and risk assessments. Most cases would only take a minute or two. This could well have avoided the several potentially extremely serious (loss of an eye or finger) incidents that occurred. But management has to create a climate and culture that permits, encourages and rewards such hazard management activity by employees, even under heavy production pressures to take short cuts and rush the work! As well, proper task planning improves productivity. These are not tasks that require extensive formal job safety analyses, only good practice by line employees.

In conclusion, I’m glad I spent the 12 weeks revisiting the “shop floor”, so to speak. More of us safety specialists should do the same! We spend far too much time messing with heavy OHS management systems and too little on simple employee focused, task-based residual hazard management activity at the ‘point of risk’.

John Little, B.Eng/CRM, is a consultant, dynamic maintenance safety and risk assessment(DMS/RA). He can be reached at jelittle@oricom.ca


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