Preventing back injury, the nation’s top workplace safety problem, pays off in added safety, capacity and productivity at an award-winning Great Lakes Cheese plant.

By Del Williams

Preventing back injury, the nation’s top workplace safety problem, pays off in added safety, capacity and productivity at an award-winning Great Lakes Cheese plant.

Whenever commercial, manufacturer-sized loads are lifted, moved or manipulated by operators in the food industry, there’s risk of injury; and the larger or more repetitive the load, the greater the risk.

Some of the nation’s most proactive food companies, including an award-winning cheese manufacturer that handles 250 pounds and nearly 700 pounds blocks of cheese, have heeded the call to prevent operator back injury while benefitting from higher, more streamlined production with the strategic use of lift devices and attachments.

Operator Injury Risk
“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 can 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.”

Operator and Food Safety
Award-winning cheese manufacturer Great Lakes Cheese is a recipient of a “2005 Audit Platinum Award” for food safety at its Hiram, Ohio, headquarters facility. As a Top 10 North American food plant, the Hiram site earned a near-perfect 99.1% out of 100 possible points in Silliker GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) Food Safety audits.

“When Great Lakes Cheese 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 about 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 says. “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 builder of ergonomic clamping and vacuum lifting systems for some of the largest companies in the world. 

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?’” he says.

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 nearly 700-pound cheese block, lifts and rotates it, readying the cheese for cutting. With dual controls, the operator has 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,” Ortego says. “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,” Ortego adds. “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.”

After buying its first pneumatic lift assistance devices about a decade ago, the plant has added several more over the years. Ortego is pleased with a number of features that make the lift devices especially appealing to the food industry.

Because the lift systems are all 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, they can be can be used in production processes and food-grade wash down, clean-room environments.  Delrin is a high-performance acetal resin made by DuPont that bridges the gap between metals and plastics with strength, toughness, abrasion resistance, low wear and low friction.

“The lift systems’ all pneumatic, stainless steel, Delrin construction is a big plus,” Ortego says. “This allows us to conduct daily washdowns, which helps keep our food safety and quality assurance standards among the highest in the industry.”

Ortego appreciates safety features built into the equipment. For instance, if there’s 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,” Ortego says. “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.”

AirOlift Lifting Systems custom manufactures product clamping, vacuum lifting and manipulating systems, ergonomically designed to meet or exceed OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 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.

As an expert in ergonomic and material handling equipment, Handling Concepts can provide and integrate the entire range of ergonomic, material handling equipment from lift/tilt tables and hoists/cranes, to conveyors and mezzanine lifts, to manipulators and ergonomic lifters, to drum, roll, bin and tote handling.

For more info about AirOlift Lifting Systems, call 800/605-8612; email; visit

For more info about Handling Concepts Inc., call 800/575-4835; email; visit

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

Johnnya Center, Power PR
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