Food Distribution Doesn't Have to Be a Pain in the Back

Preventing back injury, the nation's top workplace safety problem, pays off in added safety, capacity and productivity at Great Lakes Cheese.

Whenever commercial, manufacturer-sized loads are lifted, moved, or manipulated by operators in the food industry, there's risk of injury. The larger or more repetitive the load, the greater the risk. Some of the nation's most proactive food companies, including a cheese manufacturer that handles 250-pound and nearly 700-pound blocks of cheese, have heeded the call to prevent operator back injury while benefitting from more streamlined production with the strategic use of lift devices and attachments.

Great Lakes Cheese, based in Hiram, Ohio, has won plaudits for its safety program. The facility earned a near-perfect 99.1% out of 100 possible points in a food safety audit conducted by Silliker, a food testing and consulting network. “When we opened the Hiram plant about a decade ago, the goal was to make its safety, capacity and productivity state of the art,” says Dave Ortego, the plant's maintenance manager.

Previously, manually lifting, flipping and shaking 250-pound blocks of cheese from wooden boxes required pairs of workers, who had to be rotated frequently because the work was so strenuous. Another labor-intensive process required lifting and positioning nearly 700-pound blocks of cheese with a chain hoist, readying the cheese for cutting equipment.

“The old processes were too slow, strenuous and imprecise,” Ortego explains. “As we grew, we sought more efficient processes to meet demand with less physical wear and tear on employees. But there were no off-the-shelf products we could buy for the job.”

For a base unit, Ortego turned to a pneumatic, lift-assistance device made by AirOlift Lifting Systems, an Akron, Ohio-based supplier of ergonomic clamping and vacuum lifting systems.

To customize the lift equipment to his operation, Ortego collaborated with AirOlift's engineering staff. “Together we asked, ‘How can we make this job safer, less strenuous and more efficient?’”

The collaboration produced two custom attachments: a cheese block rotator and a cheese/box extractor attachment. The operator-controlled cheese block rotator pneumatically clamps each 700-pound cheese block, lifts and rotates it, readying the cheese for cutting. With dual controls, the device gives an operator complete control.

Similarly, the cheese/box extractor attachment vertically lifts each 250-pound cheese block and extracts the box, readying the cheese for processing.

“The design is so operator friendly and ergonomic,” says Ortego. “The controls are built into the machines' handles so there's no lifting, bending, or lever pulling for the operators.”

Ortego also collaborated with Handling Concepts Inc., an Akron, Ohio-based expert in ergonomic and material handling equipment, on integrating a track crane system and other material handling equipment with the lift devices.

“Since the lift devices are integrated with an enclosed track crane system, operators can pull them where needed by just a finger,” adds Ortego. “There's no strain; the operator can work an entire shift without rotation. One operator essentially does the work of three previously, so we've expanded capacity tremendously without adding staff.”

Ortego is pleased with a number of features that make the lift devices especially appealing to the food industry.

Because the lift systems are pneumatic, operated by a single shop airline, they eliminate electric hazards, such as shock from frayed wires. They also avoid running costly, unsanitary electrical connections in the working area. With fewer moving parts, there's nothing to grease, which aids cleanliness and minimizes maintenance.

Since the lift devices are constructed of stainless steel and FDA-compliant Delrin (a high-performance acetal resin made by DuPont), they can be used in production processes and food-grade washdown, clean-room environments.

Ortego appreciates safety features built into the equipment. For instance, if there's ever catastrophic air loss, the devices hold their loads in place, protecting operators from dropped loads and eliminating product damage.

“The lift devices are extremely well designed and made,” concludes Ortego. “Not only are they protecting our operators from injury, but also they're designed for direct food contact and made to last. After hundreds of lifts per shift each day, the originals are still working fine a decade later, and we expect them to last at least a decade more.”

Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, Calif.

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