Where safety supersedes everything else

K. Bharat Kumar | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on March 06, 2017

When you are turning tonnes of steel into cars, staff well-being becomes a priority. Hyundai’s head of safety explains why

In a culture steeped in pride in breaking rules in daily life, be they traffic regulations or safety laws, how do you get people to comply inside a factory? In a place that compresses 250 tonnes of steel a day — steel that turns into a car in about four hours, steel that churns out cars at the rate of about 90 per hour — Senthil Kumar R.M. has his task cut out.

As head of health & safety at Hyundai Motor India, it is Mr. Kumar’s job to ensure that the close to 11,000 people who work at the carmaker’s Chennai factory help churn out automobiles without danger to limb or life. “The indirect reward for breaking rules is high in the minds of people,” according to Mr. Kumar. “If a worker can fix a problem in an assembly line without having to stop production, he does not have to go through a hierarchy of explanation to detail what happened.” In other words, quick fixes save time.

But they also endanger lives. “It happens across the industry and not just one company.”

He refers to the case of a worker, in a competitor’s factory, investigating an unidentified object in the line. It is learnt that the worker, who was himself a supervisor in the know of rules, and trained to switch off the assembly line in case of emergency, did not do so and was fatally sucked into the machine.

“If a supervisor permits a subordinate to circumvent rules to save time and cost, it neither calls for appreciation nor is it to be ignored. The team needs to be pulled up.”

Grievous injury

Mr. Kumar put it succinctly when he said, “Ninety-nine times out of 100 that one breaks rules, nothing happens. But the once an injury occurs, it is grievous.” And that is one too many, in his view. What kind of accidents can occur in a car factory? “Not wearing arm sleeves or gloves while lifting heavy material could lead to deep gashes. Getting into the sweeping arc of a robot without switching off the machine could lead to major injury.” Jaywalking on the shop floor can lead to accidents with vehicles that transport material. Incidents could include fire due to negligence. For instance, a casual labourer had once left thinner material in a hot environment while leaving for lunch.

Sparks from a nearby robot had led to a minor fire. In 2008, another fire had led to the breakdown of a robot in the paint shop. Mr. Kumar said, “There were two robots doing the top coat of paint. Since a robot doing the primer job was out of action due to fire, we had to use the top-coat robot for the primer job.” This, obviously, led to productivity loss.

Mr. Kumar’s team focuses on educating staff and relentless communication with them to get safety to be top priority for workers across all levels in the company. He said that doing so also helped the message seep into other aspects of their lives as well as those of their family members.

Using both lead as well as lag indicators, the safety team has come up with a composite figure called the safety index. “From the managing director downwards, every one’s performance is measured as per the index.”

Lead indicators that contribute to the index are the behavioural changes that the safety department has brought in.

“The number of near misses that could have potentially caused damage, training programmes conducted, improvements to safety in an assembly line are all lead indicators.” Lag indicators obviously stem from actual incidents or accidents that happen, the number of man-days lost due to injury, medical expenses and productivity lost due to stoppage of a production line.

‘Safety, not savings!’

Asked if his team had helped save on costs, Mr. Kumar said, “Our aim is to ensure safety, not save on costs.”

But cost savings are collateral benefits.

“The number of incidents of injury to personnel dropped 30% compared with last year, and about 70% compared with 2008.” The company’s expenses on premium paid against fire insurance had also dropped in relative terms. While the sum assured against fire, which runs into several thousand crores every year, has gone up 50% since 2011, the premium paid has risen at a lesser rate, going just above 40%. Hyundai Motor also has apprentices coming in to work, fresh out of training institutes. They may not have been exposed to environments with a strict culture for safety. In other words, not complying with rules has typically not evoked punishments in their earlier lives.

“These are barriers to becoming safety-conscious,” said Mr. Kumar. This necessitates continuous messaging.

The safety department at Hyundai has also appointed 77 safety ambassadors handpicked from each shop — assembly, body and paint shops. “They are trained to be communicators and role models,” according to Mr. Kumar.

Further, areas across the factory are earmarked as being the responsibility of a set of such ambassadors with their photos displayed prominently. “This brings a sense of ownership in maintaining safety and cleanliness in those areas.”

To guard against damage from fire, the safety department has also trained about seven teams in handling fire. Each team has about six to seven members and each of the three daily shifts is designed to have one such team working.

“Every member is trained across one of three functions: to put out a fire, to supply material such as extinguishers to the fire-handling team or to move property to safety and to communicate to the management or fire departments in an emergency.”

If a member is not in any of these three functions, he or she is trained to get to a safe assembly point quickly for the customary headcount.

Medical condition

Hyundai’s Chennai plant has also contributed to the safety measures that the company institutes globally. “We won an internal competition showcasing safety measures we took to protect even contract labourers.” Typically, the roofs of shop floors or warehouses go up to about 22 feet in height. “When cleaning, workers have to move up across different truss levels.” The safety team instituted the practice of checking these cleaners for medical complaints that might lead to complications when working at a height. Unchecked hypertension, epilepsy, vertigo complaints or even poor eyesight could lead to accidents. A thorough medical check-up was hence mandated for anyone working at heights.

“Maintenance work happens on lean days such as weekends. Mostly these are done by contract workers. They too need to be trained.” Significantly, a contract labourer in the assembly shop will have to be trained for fire safety and re-trained when he enters the paint shop. “The impact of fire is the same but how a fire could start off is different in a body shop as compared to a paint shop.”

(This article first appeared in The Hindu dated March 6, 2017)

Published on March 06, 2017
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