Safety Critical to Thiokol's Mission

As the maker of Space Shuttle rocket motors, the 2001 Champions of Safety winner has a lot riding on its safety program - both its employees and NASA's astronauts.

Keeping Space Shuttle astronauts safe has proven a powerful and lasting motivator for improving the environmental, health and safety (EHS) program at this year's Champions of Safety winner.

Utah-based ATK Thiokol Propulsion, which has manufactured and refurbished reusable solid rocket motors for NASA's Space Shuttle and America's intercontinental ballistic missile fleet since the inception of the programs, realizes the direct connection between working safely and producing reliable, high-quality rocket motors.

"In the case of the Space Shuttle, we have people flying with these motors," says Gerald Smith, Thiokol's president. "There can be no compromise on mission success."

Do not think for a minute, however, that Thiokol's safety focus is only on the astronauts. The company's 3,300 employees deal with about 7,000 highly hazardous, toxic, flammable, reactive or explosive chemicals, including processing 16 million pounds of propellant each year. So many chemicals on site contribute to the plant's inventory of more than 850 confined spaces.

"We mix and cast propellants for a variety of missile systems and the Space Shuttle. We have large equipment and make numerous moves with our flight hardware. There are all kinds of opportunities for people to be injured," Smith says. "Due to the nature of our business, for us to be successful, we have to focus on safety."

It's a challenge that ATK Thiokol has taken on with renewed vigor for more than a decade and one that led to it being named Occupational Hazards' 2001 Champion of Safety after being selected as a finalist in 1996 and 1997.

The main facility at the subsidiary of ATK (Alliant Techsystems) has 535 buildings on nearly 20,000 acres in a remote location west of Brigham City. Each "live building" (i.e., contains energetic material) is separated from other buildings by distance requirements so a fire or explosion will not put at risk other operations.

Despite inherent hazards at ATK Thiokol, which also provides solid-fuel rocket motors and other propulsion products for commercial launch applications, it completed 5.5 million labor hours without a lost-time injury last year. The accomplishment follows several periods during the 1990s of 1 million to 3 million hours without a lost-time case.

As a result of the company's 5.5 million mark, the lost-time rate for 2000 was 0.09, nearly eight times lower than the industry's already-low average of 0.70. The 0.09 mark is the company's lowest in six years, with no yearly rate going above 0.21 during that time.

The OSHA recordable rate has fallen the past four years from 2.75 in 1997 to 2.02 in 2000, 39 percent lower than the 3.30 rate for SIC 376 (guided missiles, space vehicles, parts). The company's rate last year was 70 percent lower than the Bureau of Labor Statistics' national average for the private sector.

Safety Management System

ATK Thiokol attributes its success to a safety management system based on three indisputable principles:

  • Management is responsible for ensuring that people are not exposed to unacceptable hazards.
  • Employees must be able to identify hazards.
  • Safety is the responsibility of the line organization.

"We have excellent support from top management, who understand safety issues and commit resources to correct safety problems," says Don Brown, director of industrial safety. "We have an involved work force right down to the employees doing the most basic tasks. They feel like they have every right and responsibility to give input on safety if they see something that needs to be corrected. We have a safety management system in place between that employee and the very top that is designed to get problems addressed."

The safety management system, begun in 1989, is ATK Thiokol's systematic approach for preventing and controlling hazards. The company's safety policy perhaps sums it up best: "ATK Thiokol Propulsion will never knowingly permit anyone to be exposed to unacceptable risks and will take whatever measures are required to bring residual risks to understandable, manageable and acceptable levels."

Because safety is so important, management prefers to use engineering and administrative controls to remove as many hazards, such as moving heavy rocket motors and components, as possible. The safety management system requires employees to participate in planning and procedure reviews, job safety analyses, job safety observations, safety inspections and monthly safety training/meetings to identify and eliminate hazards.

Brown says hazard elimination is always a primary focus as employees have enough to worry about when working around highly energetic chemicals. "The consequences of not being safe are that you can blow up buildings and injure and kill people."

To further ensure that does not happen, ATK Thiokol gives as much attention to a near miss as it does an injury or property loss mishap.

A near miss last summer, for example, led to a major change in training requirements. Employees in a cleaning operation ignited propellant residue by tapping a wrench against the solid fuel residue. No one was injured, and the resulting fire was too small to set off the sprinkler system. Nevertheless, Smith decided employee awareness was not what it should be in areas where propellant is used. The company now requires about 2,000 employees who work in these "live" areas to attend an energetic materials demonstration where controlled explosions show how quickly different types of propellants can ignite and burn.

"A significant amount of indirect labor has been committed to fixing this problem," Brown says. "I've never seen senior management reluctant to put resources into solving a safety problem."

Another near miss in 1998 resulted in a plantwide process change. A pressurized fitting on a 10,000 pounds-per-square-inch system came loose and struck an employee in the stomach. Although the employee was fine, a team of operators and engineers developed a pressure checklist to review fittings, hoses, regulators, etc., on all types of pressurized systems. The company even produced a training film to make employees aware of hazards in pressure systems.

Safety and Environmental Board

The safety management system uses an overlapping safety committee structure to ensure the up and down flow of safety information and decision-making. The backbone of this committee structure is the Safety and Environmental Board, made up of 15 members from the company president to line operators.

The board's task is to maintain an awareness of safety issues and incidents by reviewing significant mishaps and trending data. Department heads attend these monthly meetings, even if they are not board members, to become familiar with mishap investigation findings, identified causes and corrective actions, and to share "lessons learned" throughout the company.

The board does not limit itself to "significant" mishaps. At its September meeting, members discussed a problem with rattlesnakes and black widow spiders found when a building not used for several years was put back into service. "When it comes to safety, there's nothing too small for them to become involved in," says Larry Sorrell, CSP, safety engineer in the large motor test area.

As safety director, Brown facilitates the meetings, but the company president chairs the monthly meetings, scheduled only when Smith is available.

"The safety emphasis has to come from the top. It can't be delegated," Smith says of why he insists on attending the meetings. "I want the board to hear from me. ... I want to be aware of what's happening."

Employees say that one of the best benefits of serving on the board is access to top management, including the company president, about any EHS issue. They spend several hours a month serving in one-year appointments on the board, which has a new line member join every two months. After the year commitment, nonmanagement board members become safety board "alumni" and are looked to by co-workers for their safety knowledge and experience.

Steve Searle, a Thiokol employee since 1979, volunteered for the board because he wanted to see management's safety commitment for himself. "I wanted to see if our management was serious about backing us up for issues like shutting down a process for a safety concern. I was really surprised. These guys are serious about safety."

Management support does not stop with the Safety and Environmental Board. All vice presidents and directors who report to ATK Thiokol's president are responsible for no less than eight specific tasks related to safety:

  • Set and flow down progressive safety goals to encourage continuous safety improvement;
  • Provide leadership to safety management system initiatives;
  • Ensure safety issues are promptly reviewed and corrective actions taken;
  • Ensure frequent workplace inspections and hazard-free work environments;
  • Confirm monthly safety meetings are conducted to communicate safety information;
  • Ensure mishaps are promptly reported, thoroughly investigated and followed by timely, corrective actions;
  • Ensure personnel are trained to safely perform work assignments; and
  • Request industrial safety support to attain safety objectives as required.

"What it says is safety is everybody's responsibility," Smith says. "It's the only way we can be successful."

Employee Participation

ATK Thiokol employees, as a rule, did not always have a favorable opinion of the safety program. Searle, a lead technician in the large motor test area, recalls how "safety people were the bad guys." Sorrell also remembers how employees treated him and others in the safety department when he began working for the company nearly 17 years ago. "It was almost like safety was the enemy. Employees said, 'They are just going to tell us to do that which we don't want to do. They are always in our way, telling us things that slow down our work.'"

Now, instead of avoiding safety personnel, employees seek them out, he says. "They come to us when they have issues and concerns. We don't necessarily have to go out and find those problems all the time."

The safety culture change did not happen overnight. As EHS issues increased in importance to management, employees became empowered partners. All employees, when they recognize a potentially unsafe condition, can ask for a work stoppage until a supervisor and one of the 18 industrial safety department members performs a safety review of the operation.

What if an employee stops a process and nothing is wrong? Even then, Brown says, management does not mind because it does not want to discourage other employees from shutting down a potentially unsafe process.

"The performance of those motors is so critical that if somebody has a question, it's in the company's best interest to stop and get a good answer before letting it go through," he says.

Employees have other opportunities for recognition beyond the Safety and Environmental Board. One is the annual Henry M. Shuey Award, worth $1,000 to the winner, that honors an employee who goes beyond normal job requirements in identifying and eliminat-ing or preventing safety hazards.

The 2000 Shuey recipient, Reed Hart, used his "active imagination" to develop a process that reduces awkward postures and repetitive motions for employees refurbishing a joint area between two segments of a Space Shuttle motor. It took Hart, a production specialist in the casting department, nearly seven years to perfect his idea, which also reduces the amount of time employees are exposed to propellant, and for NASA to agree to the change.

Because ATK Thiokol employees are heavily involved in the safety process, training plays a significant role. All job training emphasizes safety aspects of tasks. In addition, hazard communication is a required annual course for all employees. Supervisors conduct ongoing training via safety meetings, tabletop reviews, operational readiness inspections, job safety observations, pre-operational checklists and post-operational debriefings.

An intranet safety Web site provides a plethora of information, including thousands of material safety data sheets, personal protective equipment required for specific tasks, hazardous waste instructions and labels, and regulatory requirements.

Every employee, including the company president, sets a personal safety goal each year as a way to improve his or her safety education or training beyond job requirements. The goal could be an off-the-job safety issue. For example, Smith's recent goals included installing a carbon monoxide detector in his home and always leaving for the airport early enough to avoid driving too fast.

The goal behind every aspect of ATK Thiokol's safety process is to keep employees safe, Smith says. "Continuous improvement in the elimination of injuries, mishaps, close calls and risk is always our primary goal."

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