The lockdown message in March 2020, and again in January 2021 was “work from home if you can.” It was assumed by many that while insurance brokers, call centres and other normally desk-based staff could work from home, manufacturing was necessarily a factory-based job. However, those manufacturers who were digital-ready have been able to have production employees working from home for at least part of their time, with resulting benefits for safety, health and production.
In this post we’ll look at five of those benefits to manufacturing during the COVID pandemic. Statistics used are all from research published by Make UK between September and November 2020. Make UK is the membership organisation representing 20,000 manufacturers and 2.7 million manufacturing employees in the UK.
How is digital technology used in manufacturing?
Digital technology in manufacturing covers a wide range of applications. As well as remote production and monitoring systems, it includes 3D avatars, digital twins, virtual trade exhibitions, cloud-based communication and data management systems.
Successful manufacturers see digital technology as much a part of the workplace toolbox as long-nosed pliers and screwdrivers. The focus of this article is on data management systems for health and safety information such as inspections, risk assessments and incident reporting.
1. Digital technology makes homeworking more effective
Although most manufacturers could access their IT systems remotely when lockdown occurred in March 2020, Make UK report that nearly 30% couldn’t. Many have since worked through the barriers and adopted technology to make homeworking possible for many more people.
Accessing IT systems is not just about being able to get to your emails or use Zoom. A truly digital solution allows homeworkers to have managed access to the documents and tools they would use in the workplace, while protecting an organisation’s data from misuse.
Cloud-storage systems such as OneDrive, SharePoint and Google Drive enable sharing, but lack security and structure. A cloud-based health and safety management system can ensure the right people can access the forms, documents, data and reports they need to do their job, quickly and securely.
2. Digital technology makes social distancing more effective
One of the key safeguards against the spread of COVID-19 is social distancing – maintaining space between people. 92% of manufacturers identified that maximising homeworking made it possible to maintain social distancing in the workplace.
Increased homeworking, combined with measures to reduce contact time in the workplace, such as splitting shifts into independent teams reduce the chance of transmitting the virus. But these measures also reduce opportunities for informal communication that some organisations rely on. An issue that a worker might have mentioned to the supervisor during a tea break, or that the night shift might have mentioned to the day shift on handover, could be missed.
Being able to access information about who else has worked on a piece of equipment, and what they did, makes diagnosis and action more efficient and effective. Online checklists can flag up exceptions to the next shift, and dashboards can show what maintenance and inspection tasks are needed.
3. Digital technology helps to reduce the impact on HS of furlough and redundancies
In September 2020 Make UK reported that the majority of UK manufacturers were operating at between 51% and 75% of capacity. This meant furlough for some, and redundancies for others. Sickness absences, homeschooling and self-isolation reduces the availability of other key staff.
Without digital information management, when key people aren’t available essential knowledge is lost. For example, if the person following up on a near miss is furloughed, the investigation might be put aside. Having a data-driven investigation tool, which tracks actions to closure across an organisation, can make sure lessons are learned and used to improve safety and production.
With fewer staff, organisations will also be looking for ways to save time on administration. A cloud-based safety management system can reduce drastically the time needed to produce reports, as well as reducing the need to go onsite to do so.
4. Digital technology makes it easier to adapt risk assessments to COVID measures
When COVID-secure measures were introduced, organisations needed to update risk assessments. For example, looking at the impact of new one-way systems on fire escape routes, or of reduced staffing on first-aid cover. In some cases, manufacturers were adapting their processes to meet new market needs, such as converting lines from producing insulation materials to processes that can make PPE.
Reviewing and updating risk assessments (or even finding the latest version) can be a headache when the only person who knows where the risk assessments are stored is on furlough.
For those businesses with a cloud-based information management system, finding and updating risk assessments is more straightforward. Staff working at home can access existing risk assessments, and involve necessary staff, on- or off-site, in reviewing and updating, with a managed process of letting relevant people know when documents are re-issued. Tracking who has read new risk assessments is equally important; if arrangements change, you want to know that everyone has been told.
5. Mobile digital reduces risk of COVID-19 transmission
Providing simple data capture tools using individual workers’ own mobile devices makes it more likely that they will log concerns, as they occur.
The interface can prompt the worker to answer questions about the concern, making data capture more consistent, and more useful for the person who needs to take action as a result. This can reduce the back and forth between reporter and investigator that happens when paper forms are used – something that would be harder to manage with homeworking and social distancing in place.
If the reporting tool is on the worker’s own mobile phone, the risk of transmitting COVID-19 via a shared device or paper forms is reduced.
Make UK found that COVID-19 led to an increase in the adoption of digital technology in manufacturing, with 91% of manufacturers saying they benefited from new technology during the crisis. Manufacturers who invested in digital technology were less likely to suffer reduced productivity from the COVID-secure measures needed. Make UK state “Covid-19 is sharply poking into action any manufacturer reluctant to take advantage of cloud technologies.”
Organisations who have already adopted the right digital technology will be best positioned to maintain operations, and where the worst happens, to manage the loss of key staff. Those which haven’t, need to act soon, to capture the knowledge and experience they rely on. Having the right information readily available digitally will be a critical success factor in allowing manufacturers to bounce back once the pandemic is under control.
If you’re ready to progress your digital journey you need a digital system for managing your risk assessments, checklists and other health and safety management tools. Learn more about how the health and safety software from Engage EHS can benefit your organisation.