The machine Jacob Clark operates is a big, heavy-duty piece of equipment.
It's nearly as tall as the ceiling and holds 220 huge "logs" of toilet paper. It rotates and slices them into nearly 5,000 rolls that eventually will make their way from the plant at 72nd and F Streets in Omaha to businesses, government buildings and military bases around the world.
Faster and more efficient than the equipment it replaced a few months ago, the "rewinder" machine is a notable addition to an operation that stands out for another reason: The majority of its employees, both in the office and on the production floor, are blind or visually impaired. Clark, the man at the controls of the new machine, is both legally blind and deaf.
Outlook Nebraska, the nonprofit group that runs the plant, says new equipment that can boost production is just one of the ways it's trying to expand, provide more jobs for visually impaired people — and shift perceptions about what those people can and can't do in the workplace.
"It's our job to help show the general public that the blind are highly capable people," said Eric Stueckrath, the organization's chief executive officer.
The production area of Outlook's facility looks just like any other factory: machines, forklifts beeping as they cruise around the floor, conveyor belts and stacks of raw materials — in this case, towering, 2,500-pound rolls of recycled paper. The organization makes toilet paper and paper towels, primarily for use in government facilities.
But because most of the workers turning big sheets of paper into wrapped and packaged products are visually impaired — about 40 of Outlook's 60 or so employees are legally blind — it has a few special features.
Some machines are equipped with sensors that will provide a verbal message if a door is ajar or there's some kind of malfunction. A yellow pathway that runs through the plant has raised lines to help workers with canes tell when they're close to a machine or a high-traffic area. There are talking vending machines and microwaves in the breakroom. Workers in the office use programs that can scan an email, website or document and read it out loud. Just off the production floor, there's a room for service dogs to wait while their owners work.
Clark, whose eyesight has been degenerating since birth (he said his level of vision is a bit like looking down the tube of one of the paper towel rolls Outlook makes), uses an iPad with voice software to communicate with his co-workers. He often grabs his phone to send text messages, which can be turned into voice messages on the phone of someone with a visual impairment.
The idea that communication might be a particular challenge in the workplace doesn't seem to phase Clark. After all, he's figured out how to work his way up from a job putting rolls of toilet paper into boxes to being a machine operator, the second-highest-paying job in production.
He shrugged. "It works for me."
Often, Stueckrath said, employers have a hard time picturing someone like Clark having that sort of success, especially at such a hands-on job.
Or they can't imagine someone like Mark Plutschak, who lost some of his sight after an on-the-job chemical explosion at age 18, serving as a human resources manager after years of work in manufacturing. Or Rachel Carver, blind from birth, handling public relations duties and putting together a company newsletter.
As a result, about 70 percent of blind workers are unemployed — even though Stueckrath said it doesn't take much to make a workplace accessible enough for someone with limited or no sight.
"The technology is readily available and isn't that expensive," he said.
But until more employers catch on, the people at Outlook said they're trying to boost the number of opportunities in their workplace.
They hope that the investment in the new $4.8 million machine, which makes its public debut at an open house today, will lead to a significant uptick in production and help provide more jobs.
Most of the organization's funding comes from the sale of its products. It does not receive direct support from the federal government but uses some grant money to pay for its operations, particularly training for workers.
Without the new machine, Outlook could produce about 600 cases — with 80 rolls to a case — of toilet paper each shift. The new machine could more than double that number. Carver said she expects the company could get more contracts if it could produce more products, but it's hard to say how many — or how many new workers would be needed to keep up with added demand.
But the new machine comes with another plus for visually impaired workers. Because it comes with special features, unlike some of the older machines, it can be operated by a blind or sighted worker.
"That will give blind people more opportunity to work on their skill sets," Carver said.
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