National Gypsum: Building Safe Performance

National Gypsum manufactures gypsum wallboard, interior finishing products for wallboard and cement board. In addition, it operates its own quarries. In total, the company employs 2,700 people in over 40 plants and quarries.

By William Atkinson

Quite a challenge for safety. However, in 2002, the company''s total recordable case incident rate was 2.17, the second best in the company''s history. National Gypsum has been recognized for its performance. For example, its Shippington, Pa., plant won the 2002 Governor''s Award for Environmental Excellence. In addition, the company has won nine awards from the Gypsum Association, including one for its Harper, Texas, quarry, which has gone 20 consecutive years without a lost workday case.

"C.D. Spangler Jr., our chairman, has made safety his number one priority," explains Wes Harkins, corporate director of Safety and Health. "When speaking with plant managers, he always underscores this point."

It''s more than lip service, though. Harkins has been with the company 20 years, and the reason he stays is because he has the opportunity to continually make improvements. "A lot of my peers in other companies are in jobs where they just aren''t allowed to make improvements or get anything done related to safety," he notes.

Every company with a commitment to safety has a guiding principal. At National Gypsum, it is: "Safety is not something extra we do. It is the way we do what we do." The culture says, "We will not perform any task in an unsafe manner." For example, the company''s JSA/SOP process is directly integrated into its accident investigation and operator training processes.

Maintenance and Safety. Another prime example of the integration of safety with other processes is how maintenance is performed. The computer-based preventive maintenance program the company utilizes includes safety inspections, lockout and confined space entry processes that are fully integrated into it. "For instance, when it prints out work orders, it provides details on how to do the work safely," says Harkins. The system identifies maintenance, for example, that can be done while the equipment is running as well as maintenance that needs to be done while the equipment is shut down. When equipment needs to be shut down, there is a note on the work order to remind the maintenance person to lock the machine out. It also identifies the lockout procedure for that equipment.

The program also creates work orders specifically for safety inspections. For example, the first week of the month, it may put out a work order saying: "Access the master corporate fire extinguisher inspection checklist. Then inspect the fire extinguishers." It will then keep track of who does that and when it is done. "It does the same for inspecting emergency lighting, emergency eyewash showers, ladder inspections, etc.," Harkins explains.

A third feature of the program is the ability to enter special safety work orders into the system. Examples might be repairing a broken handrail or replacing a guard. These work orders are highlighted, so they can receive higher priority than regular maintenance work orders.

Improved Safety Training. As noted earlier, one thing that drives Harkins is identifying and pursuing opportunities for improvement. One area that currently has his attention is safety training. In the past, much of the safety training was done on video, where employees sat in a room, watched a video and signed a sheet saying they participated in the training. "We realized this wasn''t an acceptable form of training, because there was no way to guarantee that the employees actually learned what they needed to learn," he reports.

As such, many of the company''s courses are now computer-based interactive video programs, supplemented with hands-on training. As part of the interactive training, employees have to learn the material and then take tests to demonstrate their mastery. "In some cases, we require 100 percent correct on the tests before employees are allowed to pass," he adds. The message the company is sending to its employees: When it comes to safety, anything less than 100 percent is not acceptable.

The Future of Training?

In looking toward the future of safety training, National Gypsum''s Wes Harkins expects it to be Internet-based. "This will provide the opportunity for much greater variety in training courses," he explains. He does see a problem, though. "All of the providers have their own administrative systems," he states. "However, no one provider has all of the courses that we want."

He believes that the safety training industry needs to create a uniform administrative system that can go out across each provider''s platform, allowing users to access training courses from various providers and then maintain their training records on the same system. "This will really provide us with what we need," he concludes.

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