Taking A Stake In Safety

Nov. 20, 2006
Instead of identifying employees as part of the problem, the safest plants make them part of the solution.

Before Ronney Lovelace arrived as the safety director of TRW's OSS Mexican Operations, the division's Reynosa and Del Norte plants averaged about six lost-time accidents per month. Injuries were so common that managers stopped tracking consecutive hours without an accident, he says.

The problem, as Lovelace saw it, was the absence of a "safety culture." Sure, regulations were in place and enforced, but safety hadn't become a way of life. Employees weren't consistently thinking about what behaviors led to a healthy work environment.

So instead of implementing more rules and disciplinary procedures, Lovelace and his safety team created programs that encourage employees to take ownership of their safety at the two plants based in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. This includes employee involvement in the creation of safety videos, the implementation of a safety hotline phone and a job observation process that is completely voluntary.

The result: As of September the 175,000-square-foot Reynosa plant logged more than 18 million hours without a lost-time accident, while the 147,000-square-foot Del Norte plant recorded more than 7.5 million hours with no lost time, Lovelace says.

A Cyro Industries' employee inspects a cell-cast manufacturered sheet for quality. The plant was re-certified an OSHA Star in February.

"The point is, just enforcing codes does not guarantee that you're going to limit or reduce or eliminate accidents," Lovelace says.

Approaches similar to those undertaken by TRW's Mexican Operations are working at other plants. Such safety programs combine enforcement with a high level of employee engagement.

"One of the key components of a health and safety program is employee involvement and the assessment of hazards," stresses Richard Fairfax, director of enforcement programs for the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The main payoff is reduced workers' compensation costs and fewer employee absences. An added benefit may be an increase in business. That's because safe plants frequently translate into safe products, Fairfax says. "Oftentimes with county, city and state governments, they don't want to have any bad publicity with somebody who doesn't treat their workers properly."

Customers sometimes inquire about safety records at Cyro Industries' Sanford, Maine, plant, says Steve Jocher, safety, health and environmental manager. "Customers are going to be interested in a safe facility because that then is going to provide them with better quality products on time to meet the needs of their price," he says.

Indeed, top-performing plants also are some of the safest plants. The median OSHA-reportable incidence rate per 100 full-time employees for the 25 finalists in IndustryWeek's Best Plants competition for 2006 was 3.6. That's almost half the industrywide rate of 6.3 cases per 100 full-time workers recorded in 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Seeing Is Believing

The incidence rate at the Sturtevant, Wis., operations where Bombardier Recreational Products USA Inc. makes outboard motors for boats was already one-third of its OSHA industry standard. But the plant's managers thought they could do better. Like TRW's Mexican Operations, previously employees at the Sturtevant plant were perfunctorily following the safety rules. "We didn't feel like we were tapping the knowledge of the employees who do the job every day and we weren't affecting them from a culture standpoint," says Tim Budrick, environmental, health and safety specialist at the division of Valcourt, Quebec, Canada-based Bombardier Recreational Products Inc.

A technician at Mattson Technologies Inc. performs a "lock-out/tag-out" procedure to isolate energy from idle equipment.

That recently changed when the plant purchased several magnetic safety-record scoreboards from Magnatag Visible Systems. The boards are situated in each work department on the plant floor. The team leader from each department must update the board daily by placing a green magnet in the corresponding square for no injuries, a yellow magnet for an injury that didn't result in any lost time or a red magnet for a lost-time injury. Any time an injury occurs, the team leader also must write on the board what happened and the corrective action taken.

The board has made the issue of safety more visible to employees and has spurred discussion among the workers, Budrick says. "I've had people come into my office and say, 'I noticed somebody injured their back by lifting something; I have a great idea; here's what I'd like to propose,'" he explains.

More importantly, injuries were down from an average of four to five OSHA-recordable injuries per month to just one during the first two months of implementation, according to Budrick.

Safety "Stars"

Updated safety measures helped Mattson Technologies Inc., a $211.6 million maker of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, reduce workers' compensation rates by 50% since 2005 at its plant and headquarters in Fremont, Calif., according to James Oswalt, environmental health and safety director.

Oswalt attributes part of the company's improved safety performance to its participation in California OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Like the federal OSHA program, the Cal/OSHA VPP recognizes employers that demonstrate excellence in safety by designating them Star sites based on a safety audit and evaluation. Mattson Technologies attained Cal/Star status in February after acting on recommendations made by the Cal/OSHA team. Oswalt describes the process as an opportunity to refine already solid safety programs at the facility.

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For instance, the company replaced aging vacuum pumps that created noise above an 85-decibel threshold that requires employees to wear hearing protection and to make an annual doctor's visit for a hearing survey. The new quieter pumps have made the yearly doctor's visits unnecessary, which already has offset the capital investment, Oswalt says.

Plants vying for OSHA VPP Star status also must show that employees are involved in safety programs. The Sanford plant of Cyro Industries, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dusseldorf, Germany-based Degussa Corp., a manufacturer of acrylic sheet and polymer products, was recertified as a Star plant in February. About 25% of the plant's 310 workers, including hourly and salaried employees, comprise eight safety work teams that meet at least once a month, says Cyro's Jocher. "Through that we end up with a lot of people with great experience and great abilities to conduct hazard analysis and take part in facility safety as a whole."

Don't Hesitate

Another key element of Cyro's safety program is the plant's injury-reporting policy. Any injury -- even something as minor as a paper cut -- must be reported immediately. That's a smart policy to follow, says William Barath, a partner with and chairman of the workplace safety group for the Columbus, Ohio, law firm of Schottenstein, Zox and Dunn. "If an employee never told me they got hurt, then I'm at a disadvantage, so the first thing you need is a requirement that is disseminated to your employees that [they] have an obligation to report any workplace injury within one or two days; I would say immediately would be even better," he says.

In some states, such as Ohio, employees can file a workers' compensation claim up to two years after the accident occurred, which makes building a case to contest a claim more difficult, adds Barath.

At Cyro reported injuries are entered into an electronic database that generates an incident report that is then e-mailed to the plant managers and supervisors. "When you have that kind of reporting and you're able to give it the attention that top-down management strives for, then you're able to really focus on the incident and drive improvement," Jocher relates.

Barath also recommends identifying potential hazards through a safety assessment of each job. This should include looking for accident patterns through observations and interviews with employees. Once plant managers discover hazardous situations, they should correct them as soon as possible, Barath says. "Don't just sit on it because once an employer knows that this danger exists, they have an obligation to do something about it."

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Former Managing Editor

Former Managing Editor Jon Katz covered leadership and strategy, tackling subjects such as lean manufacturing leadership, strategy development and deployment, corporate culture, corporate social responsibility, and growth strategies. As well, he provided news and analysis of successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

Jon worked as an intern for IndustryWeek before serving as a reporter for The Morning Journal and then as an associate editor for Penton Media’s Supply Chain Technology News.

Jon received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kent State University and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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