Business management

Safety on the shop floor

As more factories look to fire up their production lines again, what can manufacturers do to ensure worker safety?

Nine in 10 British manufacturing firms have managed to continue operating to some degree throughout lockdown – suggesting if any sector has a strong enough spirit to ride out the stormy seas ahead, it’s this one.

But it’s going to need it, according to research by the manufacturers’ organisation Make UK. A quarter of British manufacturers have seen orders fall by more than half in recent months. One in five have furloughed up to 50% of their workforce and one in four plan to make redundancies before the end of the year. A third believe it will be at least a year before their business returns to pre-coronavirus levels. 

But with the government gradually reopening UK plc, manufacturers need to be ready for a new normal that keeps their staff safe from coronavirus – and gives the public confidence in their products. But how do manufacturers – doing jobs built so much on collaboration and teamwork –create a safe environment for their staff? 

Getting back to work

Not all parts of the UK are yet throwing open their doors, of course. While many English manufacturers have continued operating (business secretary Alok Sharma announced in April that “there is no restriction on manufacturing continuing”), and Welsh plants have operated subject to a strict new law enforcing two-metre social distancing, Northern Ireland’s guidelines listed 21 specific types of manufacturing businesses allowed to open. Scotland, which initially ordered the closure of manufacturers “on a precautionary basis unless involved in essential activity”, is allowing factories and other indoor workplaces to reopen from 29 June. 

But whenever manufacturers open, safety must be the priority, says Eamon O’Hearn, national officer (manufacturing sector) at the GMB union. “It has to be safe for them to do so, and manufacturers are rightly very keen to ensure there is a protective working environment.”

According to the UK government’s guidelines for those running factories, plants and warehouses, it’s impossible to guarantee a fully coronavirus-free environment – but it’s imperative to try. 

So how can manufacturers do this? The first job, says O’Hearn, is assessing that risk – and constantly reviewing it.

A ‘new normal’ environment

“We’d recommend an assessment every single day,” he says. “Often, it needs to just be a walkaround, talking – at a safe distance – to staff and seeing how measures are working, whether they are practical and being adhered to. People will inevitably adapt measures for their own comfort to find the easiest way to follow the rules. There’s nothing wrong with that, but these little adaptations could work brilliantly, or could mean safety standards slipping back a little. So it’s important to check these constantly.”

The government recommends several measures so staff can stay the recommended minimum two metres apart. These include staggering arrival and departure times, introducing a one-way system through the premises, and lines marked out two metres apart in areas of potential congestion. But manufacturing also brings specific challenges.

“Production lines need careful thought,” says O’Hearn. “We’d advise workers sit side by side, rather than facing each other. If this isn’t possible, stagger the seating so workers are not directly opposite. Consider screens and/or face masks – or heat-screen curtains, where people can still see each other.”

Make UK also advocates other ways to keep workers apart. “Businesses should be considering if it’s possible to keep the activity as short as possible, or reducing contact time by introducing staggered shift patterns,” says Make UK health and safety consultant Steve Lewis. “Introducing partnering or fixed teams, particularly for lifting and assembly jobs that need two people, will only expose each worker to the same small number of colleagues every day.” 

Working together, separately

It’s also a good idea, says Lewis, to prevent contact between different teams. “Do staff really need to go to another part of the site to ask a question? Encourage people to phone each other or use radios. If something needs transporting across the site, there should be a designated area where it can be left safely, and then collected by its recipient, without the need for physically handing it over.”

Temperature checks and face masks are compulsory, and plastic screens separate our workstations. We’ve introduced a £1-an-hour bonus for following the rules

Declan Ferguson
Technical director, Finnebrogue Artisan

Manufacturers should also minimise the threat of transmitting or contracting the virus through objects, he says: “Leave doors open if it is safe to do so, to avoid transmission through the handle. Staff who normally touch their security pass to operate a turnstile could show it to a security guard who opens it for them.”

Safety outside the shop floor

“It might be straightforward to implement social distancing on a factory floor, and workers may be wearing their normal protective equipment there,” says O’Hearn. “But you need to look outside that factory floor. Changing areas are a challenge. Work out systems for entering and exiting these areas and how workers can change at a safe distance, and discard any PPE or overalls, etc, at the lowest risk of contamination.”

A spokesman for trade union Unite agreed that places away from the shop floor were equally important. “Canteens, rest and other shared facilities must be safe spaces which, if remaining open, must ensure safe distancing measures and strict cleaning regimes are in place and enforced,” he said.

The businesses making it work

Many organisations are, of course, already finding their way. At Jaguar Land Rover’s 300-acre plant in Solihull, where employees fit 2,800 separate components to every vehicle, thermal imaging equipment measures employees’ temperatures on arrival and throughout the day, while “enhanced” cleaning of equipment, visors and masks protect anyone whose job means they cannot socially distance.

The car giant has been able to make some of its protection equipment on-site – such as 900 MDF dividers separating individual rest areas; and even its own WHO-standard hand sanitiser for employees.

“We try to use materials and resources which are readily available on site,” manufacturing manager Nigel van Ommeren told local press. “It’s like mobilising a small town, and putting people at the centre, to both protect and reassure them in what are uncertain and strange times for everybody”.

In food manufacturing, meanwhile, the UK’s leading premium sausage maker, Finnebrogue Artisan, has introduced social distancing marshals to enforce rules, and bonuses for staff who comply. “We’re ramping up over £75,000 a week to ensure the safety of our people,” says technical director Declan Ferguson. “Temperature checks and face masks are compulsory, and employees have access to face shields and visors, and plastic screens separate our workstations.

“We’ve also introduced a £1-an-hour bonus for following the rules and employed marshals to ensure people do that – they’re the ‘policemen’, I suppose, on the factory floor.”

Ferguson, whose business in County Down, Northern Ireland, has seen burger and sausage sales double to 1.4 million a week during lockdown, acknowledges that smaller firms may not have the same financial resources to implement such measures, especially if they have been closed. 

But he adds: “Some solutions – time segregation between shifts, staggered breaks, leaving doors open – just require thought, not money.”

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

scroll to top