OxyChem Profits from Partnership

Replacing hazardous materials with safer ones is an important strategy for protecting workers and the environment.

When J. Roger Hirl, the president and CEO of Occidental Chemical (OxyChem), joined the company nearly 16 years ago, safety was one of the first keys he seized upon in his quest to change the culture of the old Hooker Chemical Co.

"The thing that occurred to me as having the greatest ability to get people's attention and get them to think more productively and be more disciplined in the way they did their jobs was safety," recalled Hirl, who heads the Occidental Petroleum chemical subsidiary based in Dallas, Texas.

In 1989, Hirl convened a World Safety Conference to examine the company's safety systems and develop a plan for achieving an ambitious goal: the reduction of the injury incident rate to zero. Safety professionals, senior managers and consultants were flown in to Dallas, but most of the people who attended were line employees, such as operators, technicians and mechanics.

Out of that three-day meeting what Hirl called "intensive care on the subject of safety" came 19 key safety issues that the company would focus on in order to be successful. Perhaps the most important insight from that meeting, Hirl told the Voluntary Protection Program Participants Association (VPP) in a 1996 speech, was that "everyone in OxyChem would have to work together with our contractors, our customers and our suppliers if we were to really make a difference."

It was also clear to OxyChem officials that employee involvement would be the underpinning of a successful safety effort. "VPP is a cooperative effort between industry, labor and government to go after one of our guiding principles, which is the protection of the health and safety of our employees," said Stephen Kemp, OxyChem's vice president, health, safety and Responsible Care. "In order to make that work, and work well, you've got to get employees involved in the process."

OxyChem was now headed down a path that put great value on superior safety performance, employee involvement and partnerships. Not surprisingly, OxyChem officials had already recognized that there was a government program designed to foster the same goals: OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs.

Started in 1982, VPP was designed to encourage and recognize safety and health programs that go beyond basic compliance. It also provided the agency with a politically appealing answer to charges that the agency was concerned only with policing business, and not in actually building safer workplaces. Companies that meet a comprehensive set of OSHA program criteria in the VPP program are exempted from routine scheduled inspections. Star participants meet all the VPP program criteria, while Merit sites are in the process of meeting them. The program has grown from 11 initial sites in the federal program to approximately 400 today.

By the time OxyChem had its 1989 safety congress, Hirl had already committed to having all of the company's sites qualify for VPP. At the meeting, he promised them his "absolute dedication" to the safety goals that they would set and the "necessary capital, in the way of procedures, processes and programs, to help them achieve the goals." He shared with them his belief "that there was no such thing as a successful unsafe company."

Moving into the Fold

Today, Occidental Chemical has 13 plants in the Star program and, counting plants that have been divested, has successfully prepared 26 plants for VPP entry. Each year, the company encourages a few more plants to enter the program.

Occidental has a corporate program called Safety Process System Guidelines which provides the framework for OxyChem site efforts. Each OxyChem facility must have a safety and health program that contains the following 24 elements:

  • Direction/Leadership/Communication/Accountability: Safety performance accountability, employee involvement, contractor quality, stairstep meetings and safety quality review.
  • Cross-Function Hazards: Lock, tag and try; confined space entry, hot work and line breaking.
  • Focused-Function Hazards: Emergency response, hazard communication/chemical approval, industrial hygiene exposure assessment/monitoring, hearing conservation, exposure control strategy, personal protective equipment, respiratory protection, medical program, facility safety/condition, job observations, accident/incident investigation and reporting, safety training and certification, planned inspections, design and modification, and security procedures.

The corporate safety department's function is to help sites develop their capabilities in these program areas and then encourage them to seek Star status. Because the company sees safety as a line responsibility that ultimately resides with employees, Kemp noted, VPP actually encourages site programs that are in line with OxyChem's corporate view that employees should be "involved to the point where they feel responsible and want to be held accountable for safety performance." Depending on how well-developed the site's programs are, that process can take from several months to many years, said Kemp.

OxyChem uses three levels of audits plant, corporate and Occidental Petroleum to help ensure compliance with OSHA standards and its own safety requirements. The company also has contractors periodically conduct surveys to get employee feedback on how well safety programs are working.

OxyChem encourages attention to safety and health by including safety goals in annual performance reviews for all employees. Bonuses for company executives and plant managers also are tied to achievement of safety and Responsible Care goals.

Hirl noted that 43 of OxyChem's plants had injury incidence rates below 0.5 in 1998, and 18 of them had injury rates of zero. What had once seemed an almost "ridiculous" goal doesn't seem so now, he told Occupational Hazards. Moreover, he can "match the productivity and the contribution that these plants make to our financial success with their injury incidence rates."

Other business benefits occur as a result of OxyChem's dedication to safety. Hirl noted that there were at least a couple of instances where OxyChem was "competing for a very substantial contractual relationship or investment relationship" and its record with regard to employee health, safety and environmental responsibility "was a key element in our winning the competition for business." He also cited recognition from industry peers, such as the presentation last June of the Chemical Manufacturers Association's first award for sustained excellence in employee health and safety.

Building Trust

OxyChem's Niagara plant sits on 115 acres in the heart of Niagara Falls, N.Y., on the banks of the Niagara River. The 700-person workforce produces a variety of chemicals, including chlorine, caustic soda and hydrogen.

In the early 1990s, recalls Bob Donahue, the plant's safety and environmental manager, "We wanted to become an OSHA Star facility." But a major barrier stood in the way of that goal: a poor relationship between plant management and the Niagara Hooker Employees Union (NHEU), which represents about 400 employees.

Management's desire to pursue Star status was the "catalyst for a dramatic change in the relationship" between management and the union, said Donahue. Joint labor-management safety committees had existed in the plant for many years, but it was management who established the safety rules. Instead, plant officials agreed that "no safety rule would change unless there were agreement between the plant management and the NHEU."

Frank Marrone, NHEU's president, admits that union officials were skeptical at first about the new company attitude and about VPP. Some employees thought the company wanted to have the Niagara facility become a Star plant simply to lower insurance rates. Marrone pointed out that, where once OSHA had been seen as a "godsend" by unions, they had "lost a lot of faith in OSHA" during the Reagan Administration.

Marrone said it was the scope of the Star program that convinced union officials to back the program. "It forced the company and the union to look at procedures and mechanisms to make an environment safe that we had not looked at before," he said. Moreover, as it became obvious that the company would share meaningful responsibilty for the safety program with workers and employees, they came to understand that this OSHA program would really benefit them, it helped create a "cohesiveness" and a sense of teamwork, said Marrone. The efforts required to reach OSHA Star status, he said, "slowly got [us] to the point where everyone in the plant had that one goal, not unlike everyone on a team saying they want to be the champs."

Over the course of more than one year, plant and union officials began to prepare for the OSHA inspection that must be passed in order for the plant to become a Star facility. They visited other plants that were already Star sites. "We were confident that we were on a similar level," said Donahue. They thoroughly reviewed existing programs, making sure that written procedures and training records were complete. They also reviewed the written applications that other OxyChem plants had submitted in the past.

Marrone said union officers were surprised by the amount of interest and the level of participation that employees showed in preparing for Star status. "They were a lot more knowledgeable about some of the technical points of manufacturing the chemicals than we had assumed," he said.

Donahue said he was initially concerned about the amount of work that Star preparation would entail, but he said the process was worth the effort. "I"ve never seen anything that generated the amount of interest and enthusiasm and working toward a common goal as trying to achieve OSHA Star resulted in."

In October 1995, OSHA inspectors came to inspect the facility. They had an opening presentation on the first day and began the actual walkthrough inspection on the second day. "There was a lot of anxiety," recalled Donahue. As the inspection proceeded, employees were on a "rollercoaster of emotions," he said, at times worried that anything out of place might ruin their bid, then elated when inspectors had good things to say about their efforts.

Donahue found that without the threat of citation hanging over the inspection, communication was both more open and more constructive, with both OSHA and plant officials able to discuss safety concerns and ideas without being worried about legal ramifications.

When the inspection team told Niagara officials that they would approve the plant's application, there was "euphoria," said Donahue.

Marrone cited the development of more effective teamwork and of employee trust and security as lasting benefits of the Star process. "The company guys are looking out for our safety," he said. "They want us to go home unhurt because of us, not because of making a [injury goal] number."

Donahue noted the importance of recognition for the plant's safety work by a third party. "Safety is a difficult area to manage," he said. "This was an acknowledgement from OSHA that we had an outstanding safety program."

He also said Star status put the Niagara facility in a good light, both within the company and to its external customers. Occidental has invested $200 million in the past two years in improvements and expansion at the facility, and the workforce also has increased.

The Niagara facility has begun the process of preparing for its recertification this summer. While there is a natural letdown after attaining Star status, Donahue acknowledged, as if a runner had completed a marathon after training for months, he said that still left the plant operating at a higher level of safety than in the past. Moreover, countering any retrenchment is the "recognition that you are an OSHA Star facility. You have that reputation to live up to." In fact, the Niagara plant's injury rates have continued to decline since attaining Star status. From an already good 2.0 injury rate in the early 1990s, the plant last year achieved a 0.69 IIR.

Beyond Concerns

Many companies, of course, want nothing to do with a government regulatory agency, no matter what the benefits. Others are scared off by some concerns, such as that VPP requires too much paperwork. Kemp acknowledged there is work involved in developing the application and in organizing the documentation for OSHA's inspection team, but he pointed out that putting together the application report is a "great way" to tell the story of your health and safety program and affirm "even to yourselves" all the positive efforts that have gone into it. Moreover, there's never any harm to being better organized, he said.

Some companies also question why they would go beyond what they already consider rigorous government requirements in safety and health. Kemp's view: "If you start analyzing it, what you find is that the things you are doing beyond compliance not only help you improve in safety, but in many other areas of your business. We firmly believe that good safety performance leads to higher productivty, better product quality and overall improved performance as a company."

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