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W.R. Grace Tries to Overcome Safety Program Pitfalls

March 12, 2009
Getting complacent with low injury and illness rates could lead to painful incidents down the road.

One of the greatest safety dangers manufacturers face on the plant floor is complacency.

Outright negligence, such as the alleged oversights at the Peanut Corp. of America linked to a salmonella outbreak, generally involves a cover-up of deliberate wrongdoing. Much more common, though, is a situation when everybody thinks things are fine from a safety standpoint. Paradoxically, when a facility with an established safety program achieves a significant "days without incidents," that can lead to plant workers and managers shifting their attention elsewhere in the mistaken belief that they're doing everything right.

In such instances, manufacturers tend to think, "Our safety statistics and OSHA recordable numbers are below the national average, so we're doing OK," says Gary Ganson, a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, who has written extensively about implementing health and safety plans. However, statistics are not indicative of proactive company safety and health programs, explains Ganson, office and environmental health and safety manager for engineering consulting firm Terracon Consultants Inc.

"OSHA admits that compliance with their regulations is considered a minimally effective safety and health program," he says. "Compliance will not prevent all potential exposures or potential incidents."

Chemicals manufacturer W.R. Grace & Co. has received attention over the years for safety issues, including the recent trial of five former executives charged with hiding dangers posed in an asbestos-laced mine that closed in 1990. The company reached a settlement for $250 million last year to clean up the site.

But today Grace, which is trying to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, has a new strategy for keeping safety at the forefront of its staff's daily activities. "If you come to a Grace meeting, whether it's a manufacturing environment or finance, the first thing on the agenda is always safety," says Bill Corcoran, vice president of public and regulatory affairs for the company. A typical meeting might start with an overview of where to find the emergency exits or a discussion about a recent safety incident in a particular department, Corcoran says.

A W.R. Grace chemist weighs silica to create a water-based ink jet paper coating at the company's Columbia, Md., research center.

Another potential safety program pitfall is a lack of ownership among employees to prevent incidents from occurring on the plant floor, Ganson says. "A common error on the part of a production worker is that safety is someone else's job," he explains. "A quality-managed program enlists all employees as part of a team effort."

At Grace not only are the plant workers expected to be engaged in safety enforcement but departments outside production also are involved. About one-third of the company's staff is involved in non-manufacturing processes, such as sales, administrative work, and research and development, Corcoran says. "We had a whole group of people who thought safety didn't apply to them because it was for the people in the plants, and a real breakthrough came a few years ago," he says, when the company involved the sales staff and other departments in sessions such as driver safety training and ergonomics assessments.

One other opportunity that's often overlooked by manufacturing plants is near misses. Grace doubled its near-miss reporting over the past year, Corcoran says. "That's a leading indicator. The more near-misses, the more opportunities you have to fix the situation before it becomes a problem," he says. "We get tons now because people are better trained to recognize hazards, which leads to numbers being more indicative of what safety performance really is."

Since 2005, Grace's renewed focus on safety has helped the company reduce its recordable incident rate to 0.83 from 0.97, slashing its lost days from injuries by 56% to 372 and the total number of recordable incidents from 67 to 55, Corcoran says.

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