By Peter Strozniak Brass Craft Manufacturing Co. of Brownstown, Mich., got a wake-up call in the early 1990s when it was slapped with 53 safety violations by Michigan's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MOSHA). "We preached safety but we weren't walking our talk the way we should have been," says Eric Neer, the director of operations for the Brownstown plant, which manufactures home-improvement products. The company launched a full-court press to improve plant safety six years ago. Since 1994, the plant's recorded just 15 MOSHA violations. Workers' compensation costs plummeted from $250,000 in 1997 to $811 last year. Moreover, the plant has not posted a lost-time accident since September, 1997. But from the plant's safety awareness initiative, management and workers developed a new ergonomic standard that received a state-wide award this month from the Michigan Dept. of Consumer & Industry Services. The Brownstown facility was the first employer to receive Michigan's Ergonomic Success Award since 1997. Because of the award's stringent criteria, no companies qualified for the award in 1998 and 1999, according to state officials. In addition to its manufacturing operations, the 175-employee plant packages plumbing products that are distributed to major retailers. Workers move, stock and load millions of boxes a year, which made them prone to sprains and strains. While making plant-wide safety improvements, management and workers realized they needed to develop an ergonomics program to help reduce sprain and strain injuries. Initiating 14 specific ergonomic improvements, the plant saw a dramatic decline of sprain or strain injuries. In 1997, the plant had 22 recordable incidents, 10 of which were ergonomics related. Last year, the plant recorded three injuries, with only one related to ergonomics. Extensive employee safety training includes showing employees how to prevent sprains and strains. "We just went back to basics," Neer explains. "It's really a cultural change. You have to keep on it and it's something you almost have to be obsessed with." In addition to the success of its ergonomics program, the plant took safety awareness to a new level with its near-miss hazard program. When employees observe a near-miss hazard involving another employee, they fill out a form. Management responds to it within 24 hours and corrects the hazard if needed. To avoid retaliation or conflicts among employees, there are no reprimands given unless a hazard is considered to be a blatant safety problem that can cause injury or death. "We don't write up employees for doing something wrong," says Neer. "We talk to them and show them how to improve." Employees have filed 325 near-miss hazard forms. Brass Craft Manufacturing Co. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Masco Corp., a manufacturer of more than 7,000 products.