5 Ways to Apply Lean Principles to Work Safety


Many people associate lean methodology with waste reduction and continuous improvement in manufacturing. Indeed, manufacturing plants often adopt lean principles. However, any industry can do the same in the interest of enhancing workplace safety. Here are some tips for moving forward in that pursuit.

1. Implement Lean Principles in Crisis Plans

Lean methodology does not aim to eliminate failure. Instead, it encourages practitioners to learn from their mistakes and take corrective action to prevent issues from happening again. One way to improve worker safety with lean is to incorporate the principles of lean into crisis plans.

The first step is to understand how humans naturally react to fearful, uncertain situations. Some try to ignore them and hope they’ll pass without consequence. Others overreact, often panicking and causing new challenges in addition to the known problem. Setting up a chain of help can help people feel more in control during crises. Instead of believing there is nowhere to turn, they can refer to a published contact list or similar resource and notify others of a problem.

There is also a lean concept called “obeya” that involves creating a physical environment for project strategizing, including resource allocation. A crisis plan that uses lean principles can take inspiration from that idea and encourage people to collaborate and help each other through difficulties.

Making each department’s plan clear and visible to all other parties is another aspect of obeya that can make crisis management more effective and, in turn, keep people safer.

2. Understand the Link Between Safety and Clutter-Free Spaces

Lean safety also focuses on keeping spaces well organized.

For example, when an area is free of unnecessary objects, people can work faster and issues like tripping hazards get eliminated. Also, if workers can immediately locate the items they need, it could be easier for them to notice genuine safety hazards due to reduced distractions.

Staff members at MIT’s Media Lab opted to take a lean approach called 5S — sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain. Each item gets color-coded according to function and features a location outlined in the same colored tape so each user can quickly see where to return the item. Since this lab includes some items such as hazardous chemicals, putting stuff back in the right places ties directly to safety.

Lab manager David Sadat explained, “The idea behind it is to reduce the amount of mental calculation that a researcher would have to do when they walk in the lab.” He continued, “Instead of seeing a cluttered lab and taking time, energy, and brain focus to look for a specific tool, they can walk into the lab and see color-coded and highlighted structures and do what they need to do without thinking much about it.”

3. Emphasize Continuous Improvement in Safety Culture

An organization that takes worker safety seriously is typically one that always looks for ways to reduce risks and emphasizes that everyone has a vital role to play in keeping themselves and others safe. Companies can put efforts into the continuous improvement aspect of lean when figuring out how to enhance their safety culture.

For example, statistics show that 7% to 9% of the workforce suffers a work-related injury annually. Looking at ways to always pursue improvements could specifically mean searching for trends in recorded injuries. For example, do they commonly happen in certain departments or during different shifts?

The problem could also be that there are many steps in a process. A more in-depth investigation might show that people frequently forget some of them, leading to accidents. If so, something as simple as a checklist could lead to the kind of improvement you seek.

4. Consider How to Cut Unnecessary Movement

Waste reduction is a central part of lean methodology, but it doesn’t only mean getting rid of unnecessary physical products, supplies or excess materials. Scientists also applied it to reducing extraneous movement.

They combined lean principles and ergonomics at an Indian automobile manufacturer. The results showed that ergonomics could lead to better productivity and improve working conditions for employees.

Additionally, safety comes into play because people do not have to make as many unnecessary or poorly aligned movements that could cause strain or other problems that could cause a decrease in worker safety and well-being.

5. Let Lean Principles Shape the Cleaning Approach

When the COVID-19 pandemic affected the world, many people began connecting cleanliness with safety in ways they hadn’t before. For example, keeping frequently touched surfaces clean could make the difference between the virus spreading after a confirmed case or preventing an outbreak.

Some industries made cleanliness a priority well before the novel coronavirus arrived. For example, failing to adhere to cleanliness standards in food or pharmaceuticals could lead to fines, contaminated products and ill consumers.

The 5S approach mentioned earlier could help you create a safer company by focusing on cleanliness. For example, sorting could mean arranging cleaning products by type or usage frequency, plus getting rid of the containers that have broken sprayers or other issues. Similarly, you could standardize the cleaning approach after seeing what works well for employees and which processes cause ineffective results or unnecessary labor.

Build a Safer Company Using Lean Methodology

These five tips show how embracing lean practices can help you have a safer and more productive company. Besides trying the suggestions here, think about how you could further expand your perspective of what constitutes worker safety and how the lean methodology could get you closer to your goals.

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