“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one million workers suffer back injuries each year, and back injuries account for one of every five workplace injuries or illnesses,” states an OSHA Fact Sheet titled Back Injuries – Nation’s Number One Workplace Safety Problem. “Moreover, though lifting, placing, carrying, holding and lowering are involved in manual materials handling (the principal cause of compensable work injuries), the BLS survey shows that four out of five of these injuries were to the lower back and that three out of four occurred while the employee was lifting.”

In 2006, injuries related to lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying or throwing cost businesses $12.4 billion in direct costs, according to the 2008 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index. In fact, it can cost an individual employer up to $65,000 for a single back injury.

To prevent lifting injuries, the OSHA Fact Sheet offers suggestions, including the “installation of mechanical aids such as pneumatic lifts, conveyors and/or automated materials handling equipment.”

Some of the nation’s largest, most proactive companies have heeded the call to prevent operator back injury while benefitting from higher, more streamlined production, and quick return on investment.

3M, a global, diversified technology company, produces thousands of imaginative products with the goal of making life easier and better for people around the world.

A similar goal of improving plant operator health, safety and production was hatched a decade ago, according to Jim Joreski, a maintenance supervisor at 3M’s plant in Medina, Ohio.

“At the time, lifting, handling and packing heavy, pressure-sensitive rolls of consumer labels for shipment at the plant was very labor intensive,” says Joreski. “Workers might handle a couple hundred rolls per shift, each ranging from 50 to 250 pounds, which could wear them out or expose them to potential lift injury.”

The plant turned to a pneumatic, lift-assistance device made by AirOlift Lifting Systems, an Akron, Ohio-based builder of ergonomic clamping and vacuum lifting systems for some of the largest companies in the world. The lift-device specialist tailored a lift with an attachment for gently handling rolls in a range of sizes without damage. The specialist stayed on site at the plant during installation, start-up and initial training, which taught best practice use of the equipment for efficient operation and injury prevention.

After buying its first pneumatic, lift-assistance device about a decade ago, the plant has added several more over the years.

“Since installing the equipment, we’ve eliminated lift-related injuries in that part of the plant process,” says Joreski. “Productivity is up about 40 percent over the previous method, and there’s no problem with operator fatigue or repetitive motion injury.”

Joreski appreciates the safety features built into the equipment. For drop protection, for instance, a series of sensors assure that the load cannot be released until it’s placed. If there’s ever catastrophic air loss, the device slowly lowers items held to the ground, protecting operators and eliminating product damage.

Because the system is all pneumatic, operated by a single shop airline, it eliminates electric hazards such as shock from frayed wires. It also avoids running costly electrical connections in the working area.

“From higher productivity alone, a study showed payback on our AirOlift equipment in about two years, but payback could be immediate if it prevents even one back injury,” says Joreski. “It has saved wear and tear on our people and boosted morale.”

The original lifting device purchased for the plant keeps on working a decade later, with virtually no unscheduled downtime or maintenance, according to Joreski.

“We’ve had no breakdowns or drop problems,” he says. “It’s a workhorse that helps our operators lift product as safely and productively as possible. I can’t imagine operating without it.”

AirOlift Lifting Systems custom manufactures product clamping, vacuum lifting and manipulating systems, ergonomically designed to meet or exceed OSHA and NIOSH mandates or recommendations. Its lifting solutions enhance safety and production in a variety of industries on items ranging from bags, boxes, parts, panels, rolls, doors and windows, to clean-room/wash-down applications.

For more information, visit www.airolift.com.