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ASC: At Freudenberg-NOK, Safety is Part of the Job Description

Freudenberg-NOK General Partnership has learned that incorporating safety into the manufacturing process is not an easy task, but it is rewarding in terms of employee satisfaction and financial returns.

Awards are handed out all the time. There are safety awards, like America's Safest Companies or the National Safety Council's Green Cross for Safety. There are awards for being one of the "101 Best and Brightest" companies in a state. There are governor's awards, awards from the Environmental Protection Agency, association recognition and awards from OSHA. Freudenberg-NOK General Partnership (FNGP) has received them all some of them multiple times.

Dr. Mohsen Sohi, president and CEO of Freudenberg-NOK, says the company strives to be perceived as an industry leader in employee satisfaction. FNGP, he says, is committed "to the company's greatest asset our hard-working associates." As a result of its efforts, FNGP, headquartered in Plymouth, Mich., was recognized by the Michigan Business and Professional Association (MBPA) for the third consecutive year as one of "Metropolitan Detroit's 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For."

"At Freudenberg-NOK, we believe that all accidents are preventable, and therefore, unacceptable," says David Lawson, director of health, safety and environment. "Regardless of a company's level of profitability, safety is the one thing that can never be compromised."

The key elements of FNGP's safety program, he adds, are:

  • Intensive, daily risk assessment
  • In-depth accident root causation analysis
  • Measured accountability at all levels of supervision
  • Safety coaching for first-line supervisors
  • Use of lean systems to integrate safety into production processes.

All these elements, says Lawson, work together to build a strong safety culture for the 5,600 employees in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Lawson says that a strong safety culture comes naturally to employees at FNGP, because the safety culture is part of the manufacturing process.

"A lot of people talk about the integration of safety into the manufacturing process as an ideal, but when I read what people say about it, I don't get a clear picture of how they do it or if they even understand how it's done," says Lawson. "The concept is a good one, and in terms of making it happen, we've actually taken some important steps, starting with plant managers."

Manager Buy-In

Freudenberg-NOK, which supplies automotive sealing and noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) products to North American automakers, holds joint goal-setting meetings between the Safety, Health and Environmental (SHE) group and the managers of every facility. The plant managers have to create a plan to help their facility achieve zero injuries. The plant manager then signs a formal document based on that plan with Sohi.

"The plant manager accepts the responsibility of the entirety of the HSE process at that facility," says Lawson. "He ensures there will be adequate resources and that the goal of worker protection will be met and reflected in results" such as reduced workers' compensation costs and lower injury and illness rates.

Sohi "holds the plant managers' feet pretty closely to the fire," says Lawson. "Safety is a component of a manager's overall performance review and it's not just his reputation that's at stake. There are financial repercussions when it comes time for bonuses or salary review meetings."

As part of a manager's responsibility for safety, he must ensure that employees are engaged in the safety process. To do that, he needs the help of the front-line supervisors.

First-Line Supervisors

Safety coaching for first-line supervisors is an important aspect of safety at FNGP. "We believe the first-line supervisors are critical to the safety process. They're in the middle of the fray. They're on the floor," says Lawson.

One of the first things supervisors are asked to do is to examine their own patterns of behavior. If they start out each meeting or interaction with employees talking about production, for example, then what message does that send? "That sends the message that some things are more important than safety. That's not true," says Lawson.

If every meeting starts out with a message about safe production, then the message is clear: "As your supervisor, I care about safe behavior and it is a priority."

While some great safety coaches are probably born with the knowledge of how to engage employees in the safety process, others are made; that's the point of safety coaching.

"We spend a lot of time teaching them about collaboration and in establishing one coaching approach. While everyone has his own coaching style, we want some structure to the coaching. For example, the primary assumption is that every operator wants to work safely. The job of the coach is to work with employees so they work safely. The emphasis is on working collaboratively, rather than dictatorially," says Lawson.

Coaches are expected to talk to employees and find out if there's a reason for unsafe behaviors and work with the employees to change the behaviors. While this type of observation and discussion sounds similar to the process used in behavior-based safety programs, and Freudenberg-NOK utilizes a behavioral safety program, that program does not include first-line supervisors.

"We keep supervisors out of the behavior-based safety process so that when an employee sees a supervisor approaching him and asking about unsafe behavior, there's a very different flavor than that of a peer doing it as part of a behavior-based safety program," Lawson admits. "While the employee's approach as part of a behavior-based safety program might be 'I saw you do this,' the supervisor has the role of a coach, saying, 'I'm working with you until your behavior changes.'"

Employees Play a Role

In addition to manager buy-in and supervisors who are adept at safety coaching, FNGP has some innovative programs to engage employees in the safety process.

Teams of employees participate in a program known as "We All Take Care." The employees make a personal commitment to work together to develop projects that improve environmental protection and occupational safety in the workplace. The teams that produce the top safety projects are awarded prizes.

Another program is called "Safety Quest." That program examines every piece of equipment at FNGP facilities and inventories any corrective actions on that equipment related to safety.

Lawson has access to a complete and up-to-date list, which is controlled and tracked, of equipment at all 33 Freudenberg-NOK facilities and the state of the corrective action on that equipment.

"Safety Quests always include line operators," he says. "We include so-called 'experts' that's helpful too but we find employees know the equipment and understand the real-world operating conditions of the equipment."

In addition to participating in behavior-based safety programs in which they observe and audit co-workers' safety behaviors, and participation in programs such as "We All Take Care" and "Safety Quest," employees are members of safety committees, engage in targeted and focused safety training and help with in-depth accident root causation analysis when appropriate.

Lawson says that for employees, as with first-line supervisors and managers, the ability to work safely is as much a part of the job description and performance assessment and accountability as technical skills and education.

"Being recognized as one of America's Safest Companies for something Freudenberg-NOK views as critical to our business success and culture keeping our employees safe and providing the best work environment possible is a great honor for our company," says Lawson.

(Find the announcement of America's Safest Companies 2005 here.)

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