Putting Safety in the Hands of Workers

Employees at Hazleton Pumps design, implement and manage an award-winning EHS program.

When Charles Harris, operations manager at Hazleton Pumps in Hazleton, Pa., was given a challenge from the parent company in 1995 to improve the plant's EHS program, he knew the key to success was employee involvement.

Unlike some token efforts in industry, Harris sought an unparalleled level of buy-in from workers. To achieve that, he decided the plant's new EHS program needed to be unconventional.

What he came up with was a program created and administered by employees without the aid of an on-site safety professional. "We wanted to get the employees to tell us what was unsafe about their work areas and to write their own program around that," said Harris, a native of Australia who modeled the idea after ISO 9000 principles regarding worker involvement.

More than a few experts, including OSHA officials, and the parent company raised red flags over the idea of a safety program without a safety professional on site. They came to the same conclusion: The concept wouldn't work.

Nevertheless, Harris was given the OK to pursue his idea. Plant management held a meeting in October 1996 to explain the new safety strategy to all employees. Of the plant's 226 workers, 57 volunteered to be part of 10 teams that would learn about a specific EHS area and develop a program for that area.

The novel approach has worked quite well and turned skeptics into believers. The 2000 Champions of Safety recipient has had progressively lower injury and illness and lost workday rates from 1997 through 1999. In June, it became the first iron and steel foundry to be awarded Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Star status.

Hazleton Pumps, a subsidiary of the Scotland-based Weir Pump Group since last year, now employees about 185 workers and produces heavy-duty, highly engineered vertical and submersible pumps for industrial, chemical and mining applications with abrasive or corrosive duties.

Hazards include exposure to molten metal at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit; material handling of heavy castings; shot blasting, cleaning and grinding of castings; caught-between and struck-by situations; and exposure to silica sand, metal dusts and fumes.

Previous Safety Culture

Plant management realized by the mid-1990s that its off-the-shelf EHS program was inadequate for a high-hazard industry where the average OSHA recordable rate is 24.5. The goal of Hazleton Pumps' program, at the time, was to meet minimum OSHA requirements. The result was injury and illness rates as high as 28.8 in 1990.

Despite the many hazards, some employees were not taking enough safety precautions to protect themselves in the union shop.

"Workers wouldn't wear safety glasses. If someone was written up, nothing was done about it," said Joe Kadelak, a 37-year employee who serves as the plant's safety facilitator, a liaison between employees and management. "Workers who did wear safety glasses complained that the glasses were too heavy, so they'd pop out the lenses and just wear the frames."

Even when a worker was injured, not enough was done to find out why the accident happened and how to prevent another, according to machinist Mike Havrilla, a 25-year employee. "Life went on," he said, "and the number of accidents kept accumulating."

Employee Control

One thing was clear: Employees had little ownership in the plant's safety program. For ownership to occur, Hazleton management decided that workers should design, implement and enforce the program, a concept that employees found intriguing.

"Employees never looked at it as the company throwing the program at them," said Safety Coordinator Nancy Sisock, who serves as administrator of the facility's EHS program. "They took a strong interest in safety and did a lot of research when the program was being written."

Management knew the new program would not work unless they took their hands off the process and gave control to the employees. "We'd seen a lot of different safety programs that were top-heavy and had limited success," said R. Peter Haentjens, the plant's general manager. "What was necessary was to change behavior through awareness by having workers intimately involved in the process."

Intimate involvement included having the final say on all EHS issues except capital expenditures. A safety steering committee, made up of managers and workers, meets weekly to decide policy that even the general manager cannot overrule.

"They put in some rules and procedures that I don't necessarily agree with," Haentjens said, "but it's important that the employees believe it's their program."

One rule is that anybody who steps foot in the foundry area of the plant must wear steel-toed shoes or caps. Haentjens did not think the policy was necessary for visitors but agreed to abide by the committee's decision.

Employees have enough ownership in the program that few incentives are needed, Sisock said. "We have employees who are willing to take that extra step and make the safety program the best it can be."

Writing the program was no easy task for the employees. It took a year and a half, which was longer than expected, said Harris, the operations manager, because workers required education on every aspect of the program.

When the newly written safety program finally was put into effect in February 1998, positive results were immediate. The plant's injury and illness rate dropped from 14.0 in 1997 to 10.5 in 1998 and to 5.1 in 1999.

The lost workday rate was as high as 13.3 in 1990, but has averaged 3.9 the past three years. The industry average is 10.8.

Much of the improvement is attributed to employee education and awareness of safety issues and understanding how to make their workplace safer. "Workers used to think, 'This is just the way it is. It's a hazardous job, and you get hurt,'" said Richard Kashi, the VPP team chairperson and a member of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union. "They found out that it doesn't have to be that hazardous."

Hazleton Pumps sought out a consultant to work closely with management and employees and chose Safety and Compliance Services (SCS) of Kulpsville, Pa. Because the plant had no EHS professional, SCS guided plant personnel through the process of developing a safety program.

When Joyce Beerbower, president of SCS, made her presentation to the company to pursue VPP Star status along with a new safety program, she was surprised at who was sitting across the table. "It wasn't a proposal to management but to a team of managers and workers," Beerbower said. "It helped me believe the concept would work."

Program Details

Hazleton Pumps has developed more than 50 experts on various safety issues. From this group and other volunteers, workers were trained to teach their peers. Safety training is done on three levels: awareness training, affected employee training and job-specific training. Consultants and specialists are used for some training, such as industrial hygiene.

The EHS program includes teams for issues such as emergency response, lockout/tagout, ergonomics, spills, first aid and accident investigation.

Through its green slip program, employees are encouraged to submit suggestions for safety improvements. Every green slip must be acted upon. Suggestions are categorized by the steering committee, with a qualified worker given the responsibility of investigating whether the idea is feasible. Since 1996, more than 900 suggestions have been turned in by employees. "You have a group of workers with a lot of pride in their work," Kashi said. "They want to be involved."

Hazleton uses relatively few incentives in its safety program. With green slips, though, suggestions are ranked from low risk to high risk. Once a month, the person submitting the suggestion with the highest risk is awarded $50. A drawing is held from the remaining suggestions that month for two $25 awards.

Management at Hazleton Pumps has backed up its priority on safety by spending about $6 million since 1995 on capital improvements to eliminate or reduce employee exposure to hazardous air contaminants and physical agents. This has included upgraded equipment, retrofitting equipment with engineering controls and upgrading existing engineering controls.

Product design is affected by safety considerations. In the past, a product was designed, then the manufacturing department had to work out how to produce the part. This process could compromise safety because of poor matches between parts that needed to be moved and crane and machine capacities. Now, the weight of the object and how it will be handled is considered when a product is designed.

EHS planning is integrated into annual operating plans and the company's strategic business plan. Safety and health issues are included in long-range planning.

Because a foundry can easily become dirty and cluttered, housekeeping is a priority at Hazleton Pumps, with inspections conducted monthly. The plant's housekeeping efforts were noted by the visiting VPP team during its audit:

"Foundry operations are notoriously poor when it comes to housekeeping. ... The standards of cleanliness and organization consistently maintained at the Hazleton facility would be a credit to any facility in general industry, regardless of the specific industry. Considering that Hazleton is a busy, moderately sized gray iron foundry, the prevailing conditions from a housekeeping standpoint are nothing short of exceptional."

Daily, weekly and monthly inspections are done throughout the plant. Examples are daily overhead crane

inspections and weekly observations of personnel working at specific tasks, with checklists tailored to the department.

All accidents, no matter how minor, are investigated, as are near misses. A team of employees is trained in hazard recognition, accident investigation and job safety analysis. "Now, if somebody gets hurt, even if it's a splinter, it's investigated quickly," said Havrilla, chairman of the safety steering committee.

Industrial hygiene testing is conducted annually or more often if a new process or safety/hazard suggestion warrants. The plant's industrial hygiene program is designed to anticipate, identify, evaluate and control a variety of exposures. Air contaminants include respirable quartz, iron oxide, copper, nickel and chromium fumes.

Efforts to control exposures can be found throughout the facility. In the machine shop, for example, process machines have been replaced with machines that have housings equipped with local exhaust ventilation that captures and reclaims metalworking fluids to minimize exposure and noise. A sand mixer installed in the foundry significantly reduces quartz silica exposure. Silica sand is transported from storage silos to the mixer via enclosed piping.

Next Step

Even though Hazleton Pumps has achieved VPP Star status, employees are not done with the safety process and continue to seek ways to make the plant safer. Tasks this year included upgraded ergonomics and crane training.

With business improving the past several months, the company has begun hiring additional employees. With that comes the challenge of teaching new hires about the plant's safety philosophy. "New employees don't come in with the same culture because they haven't been here the past three years," Harris said.

While the faces may change, employee ownership of safety is not likely to waver anytime soon, said Sisock, the safety coordinator. "We couldn't pull the safety program away from our employees. They wouldn't allow it."

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