Kroger's Six Key Elements: Recipe for Safety Success

March 5, 2001
Using behavior-based principles, Kroger internal consultants work closely with site personnel in bakeries, dairies and grocery products plants to reduce injuries.

In 1997, Kroger Manufacturing launched a corporatewide Six Key Elements initiative with behavior-based safety as a core component. As part of that effort, Behavioral Science Technology Inc. (BST) trained Kroger personnel as internal consultants who work closely with each of the company's bakeries, dairies and grocery products plants. At that time, Kroger's 26 plants were averaging approximately 1,200 recordable injuries annually.

As of November, those 26 plants, now of Kroger Manufacturing East, have reduced the number of recordable injuries by 59 percent for a total incident rate (TIR) of 7.7. In addition, in the two-year period of 1998-1999, workers' compensation costs were reduced by more than $3 million.


Geoffrey Covert came to Kroger in 1996 from Procter & Gamble (P&G). In the mid-1970s, P&G pioneered various behavioral strategies for safety. As a manager of P&G plants in Cincinnati and Sacramento, Calif., Covert implemented behavioral safety measures and came to rely on them.

At year-end 1995, Kroger's OSHA total incident rate stood at a sobering 17.9. The TIR had held steady at about 18.0 from 1992 through 1995, indicating to Covert that, in statistical process control terms, the Kroger safety system was in control. In control and producing recordable injuries at a rate of 18 per 100 employees meant that the organization could expect the same injury rate for the foreseeable future. This prediction was borne out in a 18.2 TIR for 1996.

The workers' compensation rate, however, was rising by about $500,000 a year. For the same four-year TIR trend of 18.0-plus, the workers' compensation expenditures had risen from $4 million to $6.5 million.

For Kroger, the search for a safety remedy was not motivated by workers' compensation questions. The rising costs did show the organization, however, that even if they held the TIR at 18.0-plus, workers' compensation expenditures would very likely continue to rise.

Kroger Manufacturing's Six Key Elements Initiative

In 1997, Covert explored ways to implement behavior-based safety at Kroger, including developing Kroger's "home grown" approach. After reviewing consulting resources, Covert was drawn to BST's internal consultant model because it allowed Kroger to develop internal sources of expertise about behavior-based safety. The internal consultant approach also gave Kroger complete flexibility in scheduling the implementation effort.

As BST helped Kroger assess, recruit and train the internal consultants, Covert and others formed a task force for manufacturing safety to lay the groundwork for the new comprehensive, companywide Kroger safety system. That task force included the general managers of the four divisions -- Joe Girone (grocery products), John Murray (dairies), Roger Bullion (bakeries) and Lou McTall (beverages) -- along with Covert, John Wagner and Bob Kuhlman.

The Kroger Six Key Elements initiative, launched by the task force, integrates the following elements:

1. Expectations and involvement reflects the importance of operational safety, as demonstrated by actions of plant leadership. The key elements assessment (KEA) for this element examines the structure of the safety organization with special focus on the overall priority that safety receives with respect to other important priorities.

2. Goal setting and action planning recognizes the importance of setting numerical improvement targets and action plans that can deliver results that reduce injuries in a measurable way.

3. Safe practices establishes the need for the organization to have safe practices and work procedures in place that begin at the plant level, become more specific at the department level and become very specific at the job level.

4. Plant training systems establishes the minimum safety training required to do a job safely, whether the job is that of a plant manager or an equipment operator. Plants that earn the highest KEA score for this element have training that is specific and standardized.

5. The behavior observation system is a nondisciplinary procedure in which employees observe their peers at work and provide feedback on identified safe or at-risk behaviors. Kroger Manufacturing uses BST's integrated behavior-based safety process for this key element.

6. Performance tracking and incident investigation carries out two related functions. It measures organization progress against safety goals and standardizes the accident investigation system. Using total quality and behavior-based tools, Kroger personnel investigate each OSHA recordable accident in a standardized way to prevent recurrence by identifying and eliminating the root cause(s) of the accident.

Each key element has five to nine subelements addressing a particular aspect of workgroup safety performance. To produce a key element rating for a site, a trained Kroger auditor scores each subelement and averages the scores. Documentation is required for all but a few of the subelements. Intent means that criteria for a subelement are met with meaning and value and not just activity or "busy work." A site with a model response sustained over time earns the highest possible rating of 10. The relatively high key element rating of 8 is the Kroger threshold for minimal compliance sustained over time.

While the internal consultants were in training, task force members conducted an ambitious key-elements benchmarking audit with the 26 sites. The audit rated plants on a scale of 0.0 to 10.0, where 0.0 meant that none of the key elements was in place and 10.0 meant that all six elements were established and had been effective for over a year. For all 26 plants, the combined benchmarking score of the task force was brutally honest, a low 2.0, with the plants ranging individually from 1.0 to 3.5.

During the roughly two-year implementation schedule, Covert included internal consultant updates in his period reports. At the same time, Roger Bullion, widely respected general manager of Kroger's former Memphis Bakery, tracked the progress of the internal consultants through all 26 plants, sharing the information with the entire corporation in what became known as the Bullion Report.

Kroger's Safety Coordinator Position

At the time that Kroger implemented the Key Elements initiative, the company created the position of safety coordinator at each site, and wage roll personnel were recruited to fill those positions. The safety coordinator job is a rotating position. Personnel serve in that capacity for two to three years.

Their next step is not formalized. Some return to the production line; others take supervisory positions at their sites. There were several purposes behind creating the position. Kroger saw its nonsalaried personnel as an untapped safety resource. Internal consultant Sandy Harmon says that the position opened a liaison possibility at each site that could help personnel move beyond the "us vs. them" thinking at all levels.

Westover Dairy

This nonunion site, employing about 115 personnel, has been a Kroger facility since the 1970s. It manufactures yogurt, sour cream and other milk products. Before the launch of the six key elements, internal consultant Debra Chevillot says, the site's TIR stood at 22.3 in 1996 and 12.8 in 1997. The site TIR for 1998 (5.7) and 1999 (6.8) indicates good progress. As of November, the TIR is 2.3, and the site's workers' compensation expenditures have been reduced significantly.

At the dairy, each of the six key elements has an "owner" who is responsible for directing and recording improvement efforts for that element. Key element No. 1, expectations and involvement, starts with involvement in the overall initiative. Concerning involvement at all levels, Chevillot notes that the Westover key elements steering team has always included, in turn, supervisors Newton Gordon, Robert Bailey and Chuck Garrett. Each has provided liaison to the other supervisors, communicating with them about behavior-based safety activities and benefits. The site steering team has trained about 70 percent of site personnel as observers. They use their observation data and comments to remove barriers to improved performance.

Westover Dairy general manager Larry Haller points out that key element "ownership" roles and responsibilities extend beyond managers and the safety committee to shop floor personnel. While management personnel are charged primarily with leadership duties, they are also accountable to perform the roles of coach and gatekeeper for their respective direct reports. These accountabilities are part of management's annual performance review. Articulating expectations and coordinating engagement of the total work force is the first step in setting up a total safety system. Human resource manager Melvin Jones says that Westover managers regularly communicate Kroger expectations in department crew meetings and in plantwide reports.

Key element No. 2, goals and action plans, is focused on individual and teamwork objectives for safety system improvements. Safety coordinator Jesse Hamlette says that hourly workers have specific objectives to accomplish, such as being trained behavior-based observers, following safe work practices and participating in an action planning session. Facilities and plant procedures have been improved as a result of analyzing operations from a safety perspective. Inspections of equipment and facilities are conducted on a bimonthly schedule for repairs or improvements. Additionally, Westover sets a goal of increasing its key elements assessment score on an annual basis, and develops and reviews action plans during quarterly internal audits.

Under safe practices, key element No. 3, the dairy has analyzed operations in each location of the plant for specific departmental safe practices. These practices are reviewed and updated annually and are covered during orientation sessions for newly hired personnel. Combining visuals with the printed text, creative illustrations of best practices are posted throughout the plant. An especially simple and novel example are the "hold me" labels affixed to handrails on steps and ladders.

Indianapolis Bakery

Sandy McIntosh is the Kroger internal consultant for this site. Personnel at the bakery are represented by two unions -- the Bakers, Confectioners, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTW) Local 372-A and the Operating Engineers Local 103. The site employs about 190 personnel. The bakery produces bread and hamburger and hot dog buns. In the 1990s, the TIR at the bakery plateaued at around 18.0. When behavior-based safety was launched there in 1998, the TIR stood at 19.0. As of November, the TIR for the site was 8.0.

McIntosh met early with the business agents and stewards of the two unions to outline the scope and activities of the behavior-based safety effort and to talk over any reservations or recommendations they had. As of this writing, the BCTW Local president is a member of the steering team, and all of the BCTW officers have received observer training.

The bakery's safety communication meetings represent a primary vehicle for plant training, which is key element No. 4. Thirteen times a year, all bakery personnel participate in those two-hour meetings focused on the number of behavior-based observations completed, TIR year-to-date, active recruiting for the behavior-based observer corps and improvement actions under way.

In the fourth quarter each year, Paul Farber, regulatory compliance manager; Lyle Lepper, safety coordinator; and Tom Bohn, human resources manager; lay out the safety training schedule for the next year. "Training all of our employees at the same time is the best way to make sure that all employees hear the same training message in each meeting," Bohn says.

At the bakery, the behavior observation system, element No. 5, includes managers. Each manager makes sure that the observers in their areas have the support they need to conduct observations. Furthermore, all of the bakery supervisors have been trained as observers, and each one conducts two observations per week. Safety team members coach the observers for the quality of their observations.

Performance tracking, key element No. 6, is very straightforward, Bohn says, because it has been required for some time by the general office. Incident investigation, also part of key element No. 6, is carried out by a team composed of the bakery general manager, safety coordinator, engineer, production manager, safety team leader and a supervisor.

Safety coordinator Lepper, who has worked at the site since 1969, says that behavior-based safety has brought the biggest culture change he has seen at the bakery. A longtime union member, Lepper notes that the work force and union leadership are proud that the site has cut its OSHA recordable rate and TIR by 75 percent since 1998.

Mike Stewart, a former BCTW Local president who has worked at the bakery since 1968, serves as safety team leader. Stewart works closely with the site's observer corps, developing action plans from the observation data and comments. That team recently helped put in place an equipment upgrade in the machinery that washes the bakery pans and trays. Bohn says that the work force has set new challenges for itself. "Compared with the mid-1990s when personnel here were used to an annual TIR of 16 to 19, now the work force has set its sights on continuous improvement."


As of 1999, Kroger's internal consultants began expanding this safety effort to include former Fred Meyer and Dillon plants acquired by Kroger. With those acquisitions, Kroger has 42 plants across the country with a combined total of approximately 7,500 personnel in operations, marketing and sales, and with revenues in excess of $3 billion per year.

Covert feels that the implementation of the Kroger Manufacturing safety system is a success. He says that the key element approach, with behavior-based observation and feedback as a core component, "has allowed us to manage safety. BST was a very valuable partner during this effort. While the implementation required a considerable investment of human effort and resources, the results are well worth it. We have a system that will deliver excellent safety results for the indefinite future. We are proud of the fact that Kroger Manufacturing employees can do their work in a safe environment and that they know that it's highly likely they will return home at the end of a day's work in the same physical condition they enjoyed when they came to work that day."

Geoffrey Covert is a Kroger senior vice president and president of manufacturing. He is responsible for manufacturing throughout Kroger's four business groups: grocery products, bakery, dairy east and dairy west. Stan Hodson is managing editor with Behavioral Science Technology Inc., a consulting firm specializing in behavior-based performance improvement. BST is headquartered in Ojai, Calif., with offices in the UK and affiliates in Europe, South Africa and Australia.

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