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“No headphones on the plant site!,” shouts the porter. I’m surprised that so much fuss is being made about a little music — and on a Monday morning, at that. And this is just the beginning. Don’t glance at your smartphone when going up the stairs, don’t step into the production hall without protective shoes, and don’t put burning candles on birthday cakes. It seems that companies like Daimler have more safety regulations than there are working days in the year.
However, there are good reasons for that, because German companies and government authorities registered 876,952 occupational accidents in 2018. The task of occupational safety is to reduce this number — and this applies to Daimler as well. You might be wondering what “occupational safety” is. How does it protect us? And do we really need so many rules? We get the answers to these questions from Stephan Bürkner, the man who’s responsible for all the workplace dos & don’ts at Daimler.
Do we really need so much safety?
Every facility has its own occupational safety unit, which includes experts for noise, hazardous substances, machines, systems, and more. But that’s by no means all. There are topics that are so complex that we at Daimler have qualified specialists for them. An example of this is the safe working with electromagnetic fields. Not to forget, there are also many safety officers — their exact number varies from site to site, depending on the size of a facility’s workforce. … But to be honest, I’d like to know whether we really need so much safety.
Stephan Bürkner laughs when I ask him this question; and replies that hears it often. This isn’t surprising, since Bürkner is Head of Occupational Safety Management and Ergonomics at Daimler. His reply to my question is therefore not surprising either: “Even though it may seem to be a lot, I’m convinced that yes, all that safety is necessary.” He tells me that Daimler, like all other industrial companies, has thousands of hazardous substances, including coatings, solvents, oils, and lubricants.
It goes without saying that occupational safety is an especially important topic in production. High-voltage electricity is used for all of the machines and systems. Moreover, special care needs to be taken when handling batteries, electric cars, and hybrid vehicles, because they run on electricity.
Bürkner also strives to improve working conditions and occupational safety throughout the company in order to prevent the employees in our plants from having workplace accidents or suffering from long-term injuries as a result of poor posture, for example. He heads a unit composed of ten safety engineers and ergonomics experts. This team coordinates all of the activities for occupational safety and ergonomics at the Daimler plants. It’s a big responsibility. Logically, this task can only performed in cooperation with the local colleagues. That’s why Bürkner and his team work together closely with the safety experts from all of the plants. They know the challenges at their facilities better than anyone else.
It’s clear that the maxim is “safety first,” but what can actually go wrong?
Bürkner’s unit has published a lot of technical precautions and regulations that help to improve occupational safety. Many of the stipulations are, in fact, required by law. However, even the best precautions and regulations can only be effective if the employees behave accordingly. “Technical safety is one thing. However, each employee’s behavior is also crucial, of course. This applies, in particular, to people’s perceptions of how dangerous a situation is or seems not to be,” says Bürkner.
“Employees often think they are invulnerable,” adds Bürkner. “Although they register that other people have accidents, they themselves think: ‘I’ve done things this way for so many years and nothing has ever happened.’ This makes them careless and something ends up happening after all.” Even though everything turns out well in most cases, critical situations arise whenever there are disruptions in the daily work processes and the employees have to improvise. This is particularly the case at construction sites, in places where repairs are being made, and whenever things get very hectic. “That’s why ‘safety first’ is the main commandment of occupational safety,” says Bürkner.
Professional equipment for more safety at work
People are familiar with measures such as the wearing of protective equipment in production. This primarily consists of protective shoes, which must also be worn by office workers who are merely there to stop by or attend a meeting. Depending on an employee’s field of work, he or she must also wear safety glasses, fireproof clothing, gloves, hearing protection, facemasks, and the like.
However, it’s not just the personal protective equipment that is important, but also good preparation. “The first consideration must always be whether I can make a task safe before I begin with it. I have to ask myself what could happen,” says Bürkner. “Unfortunately, factors such as time pressure, hastiness, and a well-meant desire to get a job done quickly will often take precedence at the expense of safety.”
Smartphones and forklift trucks – Dangers at the plant site
However, daily work poses dangers in other areas besides production. In offices, colleagues have already fallen from swivel chairs simply by trying to take documents down from a high shelf.
You should be especially careful whenever you walk through a plant site on foot. Many forklifts, trucks, and tugger trains (note for non-specialists, these are towing vehicles for transporting material around the premises) will be driving around. “That might not be such an important consideration in pedestrian zones or residential neighborhoods,” says Bürkner. “ But it definitely is at the plants.” Blind spots can prevent drivers of forklift trucks from always seeing whether somebody is passing by them or not. That’s why everyone else has to pay attention as well and always be alert.”
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why headphones are prohibited at the plant — to the chagrin of music lovers. But the Rolling Stones already sang that “You can’t always get what you want…”
Most accidents at work are caused by incorrect behavior
Accidents can also occur in production. For example, employees might see that a machine is jammed and might then try to use their fingers to get the stuck part out. “It’s a very human response — but the machine starts up again as soon as it’s no longer jammed,” says Bürkner.
Daimler has joined the Vision Zero campaign, in which it works together with 2,500 other companies to reduce the frequency of workplace accidents. “We think that all workplace accidents are avoidable,” says Bürkner about Vision Zero. “Our aim is to eliminate all major workplace accidents someday. To the extent that work-related injuries no longer occur. We and everyone else that’s involved in this project are working hard every day to achieve this vision…”
Bürkner will never accept anything less than Vision Zero. “During an internship 25 years ago, I still worked at an unprotected lathe and milling machine. It had no protective screen or safety concepts, and I was given no safety instruction,” he says. “Something like that would be inconceivable nowadays. Today, all of our machines feature proper safeguards and are equipped with protective glass. All things considered, the safety of our machines and plant technology has vastly improved.” Safety controllers, light barriers, checklists, and emergency programs can now be found everywhere so that the machines are almost unable to cause any accidents by themselves.
As the inventor of the automobile and a pioneer in the development of accident-free driving, we at Daimler should be able to produce cars without suffering from workplace accidents
Not only are the safety engineers in Stuttgart but also all of the colleagues who are responsible for occupational safety in production and in manufacturing engineering are working toward this goal. That’s also one of the reasons why Bürkner likes to be on the factory floor. “I can best get a sense of the potential risks in the factories by talking with the colleagues in the various plants and by looking at the procedures and the work environments with my own eyes.”
Ergonomics in the workplace: Fit until retirement
However, Bürkner and his team do more than just try to prevent accidents, as they also focus on preventive measures against occupational diseases. The topic here is ergonomics, or, to put it another way, on how (manual) work can be organized so that our employees can do their jobs until retirement without suffering from health problems.
To this end, the team makes an in-depth assessment of the workplaces in production. The safety experts determine which postures could cause people problems in the long run and how workplaces can be improved. The latter can be achieved by transferring heavy work steps to several stations and by using lifting equipment or cranes.
Ergonomics is also an issue in offices. Colleagues who have desk jobs often suffer from back and neck problems if they sit too long in one position, have office furniture adjusted incorrectly, or move about too little during the day. That’s why every facility also has an ergonomics consultant for offices. In the advanced, new working environments, many of the desks can have their heights adjusted. This enables the employees to also work while standing.
A job with plenty of variety: A mix of technology and social engineering
“If somebody asks me what occupational safety is, I reply: 50 percent technology and 50 percent social engineering. It’s about how I can convince people to behave differently and, thus, more safely than they are today.”
Bürkner’s job causes him to have a watchful eye as a matter of course. He now automatically scrutinizes the safety situation wherever he goes at Daimler. “Has the fire extinguisher been tested? Are the emergency exits as they should be? Are the stairs properly illuminated? This mindset is a kind of occupational hazard,” he says laughingly. However, the real art is not to behave like the police, but to try and make people aware of possible dangers without stepping on their toes. “The psychology of conversation and persuasion also plays a role here. It’s best if the person you’re talking to gets the feeling that they came up with the idea themselves.”
Bürkner likes to go climbing in his leisure time. Ensuring everyone’s safety is the primary concern here as well. While climbing, Bürkner has learned how important it is to watch out for one another. This is precisely what he wishes the colleagues at the plants do too:
Please don’t just adhere to the safety regulations yourself, but observe how others behave. Are colleagues unintentionally or unconsciously doing things that might be dangerous? Four eyes see more than two, after all. In the end, occupational safety isn’t done for the company or its profits, but to enable our people to return home safe and sound to their families and friends in the evening.
I’m touched by Bürkner’s statement. I, too, would now like to return to my family and friends. I therefore thank Bürkner for the informative conversation and cross the plant site as I walk toward the train station. My hand moves reflexively to my coat pocket to grab my headphones. However, I have to think of Bürkner’s words. They make me pause for a moment and look straight ahead. It’s the first time that I notice all the vehicles that drive around here. A forklift truck swerves around the corner. As people walk toward me, they maintain eye contact and smile. I smile back. My hand slowly slips back out of my coat pocket. “Not today,” I say to myself.