Walking into 3M's sprawling Aberdeen, S.D., factory, one is greeted by all the hallmarks of an IndustryWeek 
Best Plant: bright lights and clean floors, high-tech tools and engaged workers; that particular quiet hum of an efficient, well-tuned factory.

But what really stands out in this respirator, filter and tape plant, is its obsession with safety.

You can see that obsession in the odd habits of its 650-person staff, the way they always stop at intersections, for example, or the way they always look in the same direction they are moving and power-lift pallets -- all of those ticks and traits of a truly safety-minded team. 

The results of this safety focus are proudly displayed on the chest of every worker as numbered stickers counting the days since the last recordable safety incident -- a respectable 17 when IW made our walkthrough. 

"These are like a badge of honor," says Paul Aufenkamp, manufacturing manager at 3M Aberdeen. "It's a reminder to everyone about staying safe." A reminder that everyone there seems to heed. 


After recording seven lost-time incidents and 22 OSHA recordable incidents in 2010, 3M Aberdeen overhauled its safety program, taking it from a backseat, protocol-based system to one much more in the face of all of its workers -- the Safety Observations Achieve Results (SOAR) behavior-based safety process.

Rather than simply enforcing safety policies from the top, the SOAR program helps create and reinforce good habits -- like stopping at intersections -- and brings the full staff on board to monitor the teams' progress by way of daily covert observations until the new habit is mastered. 

In the past three years, Aberdeen employees have collected 610,000 of these observations, identifying 877 near-miss hazards in the process. In all, they have helped create 113 new safe habits -- which translates to 113 new standard practices, 113 new self-enforcing safety rules and 113 reasons why 3M Aberdeen is an IW Best Plant this year.

"What we did here was apply that same kind of methodology and thought process to our safety program's results as we would with a cost program," explains Keith Kelble, 3M Aberdeen plant manager. "There's a real culture around change and continuous improvement in this plant that is very healthy. But without a strong safety culture, it's hard to build the rest of your continuous improvement culture. It's key."

And the result of this experiment speaks for itself: "We are at over 2 million hours since the last lost-time accident," reports Kelble. "Actually, 2.3 million hours and counting." 

Read more about 2013 IW Best Plants winners.

See the IW Best Plants winners at the 2014 IW Best Plants Conference.