E.J. Ajax & Sons might be the smallest company to secure an America's Safest award this year, but its management and employees are big on safety. The manufacturing and metal stamping company, based in Fridley, Minn., employs a staff of 50 and boasts 17 years without a lost-time incident and 5 years without an OSHA-reportable incident.
“Worker's safety is one of our company's highest ethical responsibilities,” says Vice President Erick Ajax. “Our employees trust that their personal safety is what we value above everything else.”
In a small company that can sometimes feel more like family than work, ensuring everyone's safety is a priority. E.J. Ajax provides every new employee with safety gear, including work boots with full metatarsal protection, safety glasses, ear protection and elbow-length Kevlar gauntlets for workers who handle sharp metal pieces. Workers also have the authority to shut down any machine or operation at any time if they question its safety. The bottom line is to keep employees safe.
E.J. Ajax closely involves employees in the safety process. On average, workers make more than 60 safety improvement suggestions every year, and the majority of these suggestions are implemented. And employees reap the benefits of their own safe work habits by receiving half of the company's savings from low workers' compensation rates as annual bonuses.
The company's commitment to safety has earned E.J. Ajax the Minnesota Safety Council Governor's Award of Honor 14 times between 1992 and 2007, as well as being honored as the nation's safest metal stamping company in 1999. E.J. Ajax also was the first Minnesota metal stamping company to achieve OSHA SHARP designation, which is awarded to small employers who operate an exemplary safety and health management system.
When E.J. Ajax received the largest order in company history last summer, the job presented a possible threat to worker safety by requiring the production of large parts weighing up to 100 pounds and more. While several workers could have handled each part manually, Ajax explains, the possibility of injury was too big a risk. It would also break the company's 50-pound lift rule, a limit that Ajax says has been successful in eliminating employee strains and injuries.
Instead of ignoring risks to manage the new order, E.J. Ajax went on the offensive. After researching the safest approach to materials handling, the company installed an overhead crane system with a mechanical assist to move parts from machine to machine. “It allowed [workers] to move parts safely and efficiently,” Ajax says.
E.J. Ajax also prevents injuries through its wellness program, which calls on periodic visits from ergonomics professionals, including every time the company defines a new manufacturing job — like the large order placed last summer. This way, the company catches any potential ergonomics issues before they become problems.
The American Dream
E.J. Ajax has found that doing the right thing — protecting the workers and putting ethics first — is actually good for business. “We will spend the resources and invest the capital to ensure we have a safe work environment,” Ajax says, adding that safety and profitability aren't as contradictory as some think. In fact, Ajax attributes his company's ability to outlast competitors based in part on a workers' compensation rate that saves thousands of dollars in insurance premiums.
E.J. Ajax's safety record also helps the company's retention rates and builds a strong reputation. Ajax recounts the story of a recent hire pulling him aside and telling him he chose to work for the company because of its excellent safety record. Ajax adds that it's not unusual for spouses to approach him at the annual holiday party and thank him on behalf of their families for ensuring a safe work environment.
“People stay with us,” Ajax says. “Quite honestly, we provide a lot of opportunities for advancement.” Ajax explains he loves watching his workers achieve the American dream — advancing through the company, purchasing homes, having children and taking advantage of educational opportunities.
But what matters most, Ajax says, is seeing his workers “go home safely to their families, year after year.”