Environmental Protection Takes Flight at Sikorsky

Aug. 1, 2008
The company that builds Black Hawk helicopters is on the flight path to reducing its environmental impact while keeping employees safe today, tomorrow and beyond.

You might expect that the designers and builders of some of the world’s most advanced military, commercial and industrial helicopters have to be progressive and innovative to succeed. But the team at Sikorsky, a United Technologies Corp. (UTC) company based in Stratford, Conn., goes a step farther to ensure its workers and the environment remain protected both today and well into the future.

To accomplish this, Sikorsky is willing to invest the time and money to seek solutions for risks and problems that might not manifest for years. This includes developing new, safer primers and coatings, exploring solar power or taking company headquarters off the electrical grid – initiatives Sikorsky already has started to tackle.

By protecting its employees and remaining dedicated to “doing the right thing,” Sikorsky has reduced its accident rates, workers’ compensation costs and carbon footprint to become a company synonymous with strong leadership, safety and environmental responsibility.

Eliminating the Risk

Hexavalent chromium is a potentially fatal carcinogen that can lead to lung cancer, respiratory problems and other serious ailments. Employees in various industries may be at risk for hex chrome exposure – including those who maintain and repair helicopters, like the workers at Sikorsky.

David Eherts, vice president of environmental health and safety at Sikorsky, recognized that both using hex chrome and not using it posed safety hazards. Hex chrome introduces an industrial hygiene risk for workers, but it also effectively protects against corrosion. Without proper corrosion protection, helicopter pilots and crew face serious safety-of-flight risks.

Furthermore, the presence of hex chrome in Sikorsky’s coatings and primers isn’t just a hazard for employees who initially apply the coatings, but also for those working in the future. The larger issue, Eherts explains, revolves around the aircraft maintenance and repair, which could stretch on for the next 40-50 years.

Eherts and others at Sikorsky set about finding a solution to their hex chrome dilemma. If an adequate coating and primer substitute existed, then the company could eliminate the hazards not only for employees who initially apply the primers and coatings, but also for those working in the future.

“If we took hex chrome off, all those workers wouldn’t have to worry about respiratory programs and the potential for cancer in the future,” he explains. “So we saw a huge benefit to doing it, but we also had to manage the risk very carefully.”

The challenge, of course, was to banish the use of hex chrome on helicopters without sacrificing any corrosion protection.

“We had to come up with a system that had at least as good, if not better, corrosion resistance on the parts,” Eherts says. “And more difficult, we had to convince our engineers of that so we could get hex chrome out of the work environment.”

After spending 2 years developing and extensively testing new primers and coatings, Sikorsky’s engineers arrived at a solution. The result, according to Eherts, is a better system for corrosion resistance and the elimination of hex chrome from the outside of the aircraft. He adds that this process fits in with OSHA’s hierarchy of controls, which states that the first step should be to eliminate or substitute the risk.

“And that’s exactly what we did,” he says.

Sikorsky recently implemented the hex chrome replacement program for its military helicopters, which resulted in the company receiving the Secretary of the Army Award, an environmental award that honored Sikorsky for removing hex chrome from aircrafts. The company also recently began using the new coating on its commercial helicopters.

Evaluating the Cost

“I’ve come to understand that the hierarchy of controls saves money,” Eherts says. “The best cost benefit comes from elimination or substitution of the hazardous product.”

Eherts says that this concept might be counterintuitive to someone new in the field who first may be tempted to manage the hazard with a $35 respirator. But this person, Eherts says, is not factoring in the additional financial impact of the PPE, which can include subsequent medical surveillance, training, time spent donning the respirators, buying new cartridges and time spent maintaining the equipment.

“If you add all that up verses the investment we made in engineering, it’s always cheaper to engineer it out than put an engineering control in place,” he explains.

To define the effectiveness of the hex chrome replacement process (as well as any of the company’s other new programs), Sikorsky uses software to extensively calculate the return on investment. According to Eherts, this information helps EHS professionals “speak the language of the boardroom.”

“You do it for ethical reasons. You do it because it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “But if you can demonstrate to management that the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do financially, it gets things done very quickly.”

Off the Grid

In addition to protecting workers from the hazards of hex chrome, the company also is taking some serious strides to reduce its environmental footprint.

With approximately 8,000 employees and a 2-million-square-foot facility, Sikorsky’s main plant is one of the largest workplaces in southwestern Connecticut. Eherts says this facility also is one of the largest users of electricity in the area, which, he adds, is significant considering the challenges southwestern Connecticut faces in electricity transmission.

Sikorsky won’t be contributing to that problem for long, however. By the end of 2009, the entire facility will be off the grid.

For starters, solar panels will be installed on the building’s roof to generate a few megawatts of power. Sikorsky launched this initiative after a group of investors used Google Earth to determine that the Sikorsky facility has one of the largest roofs in the state; they then approached the company with an offer to install the panels.

Next, Sikorsky will take advantage of the high-pressure gas letdown station at the corner of the property, where electricity is generated when the natural gas pressure is reduced. Sikorsky can take that energy, which essentially is free, and put it in fuel cells to generate another 1 to 2 megawatts.

Finally, for the largest energy-saving initiative, Sikorsky is investing $26 million this year and next to build a co-generation plant to create its own electricity. Eherts say this process will be two to three times more efficient that what the electric company can offer because Sikorsky will capture the waste steam and use it for heat in the winter.

That same steam can even provide cool air in the summer. With the help of Carrier, a fellow UTC company, the steam will be converted into cold air for air conditioning in warm weather.

“That will help us in the summer, because big parts of the plant aren’t air conditioned,” Eherts explains.
In all, this unit will generate 10 megawatts of electricity. The facility runs on only 11 megawatts, which means that Sikorsky not only will be off the grid by the end of 2009, but it also will be generating extra electricity. And it won’t be long before the company makes good on its initial $26 million investment.

“Because that energy is generated so efficiently, the simple payback period is a little over 3 years,” Eherts says.

Slashing Greenhouse Gas

And that’s not all: Sikorsky is taking even more steps to ensure the company is leaving a smaller carbon footprint. With the encouragement of the UTC board of directors, Sikorsky is working to meet specific – and often aggressive – environmental and safety targets. For example, UTC has required the company to reduce greenhouse gases by 12 percent between 2006 and 2010.

That 12 percent rate, Eherts adds, represents absolute reductions even though the company rapidly is growing. While such greenhouse gas reduction rates are not current legal requirements in the United States, and while competing companies often have much more modest goals, such as only 1 percent reductions, Sikorsky remains devoted to that 12 percent.

“I think that demonstrates our commitment to the environment,” he says.

Sikorsky also has some big plans for accident reduction rates. From 1996 to 2006, the company saw a tenfold reduction in accident rates, and now strives for similar reductions by 2010.

“Sikorsky is on what we call the ‘glide path’ to get those numbers,” Eherts says.

The company also focuses on goals for reduced water usage, chemical usage, solid waste and air emissions. In addition, Sikorsky is committed to a closed-looping chemical process to ensure that chemicals are not released into the river. The company takes chemicals out of the water and then reuses that water, recirculating it so nothing leaves the wastewater treatment plant.

Sikorsky also is exploring a possible integrated health program that could provide employees with free, on-site medical care and reduce the company’s self-insurance costs.

Finally, even the small opportunities to save the Earth don’t go unnoticed at Sikorsky: The company offers energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs for sale to employees, celebrates Earth Day events and even gives away saplings and reusable shopping bags.

Ergonomics Investment

Sikorsky maintains a sharp focus on worker safety in all areas of the plant, especially ergonomic risks. In fact, the company signed an agreement with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Teamsters Union to invest $1 million in 2008 in ergonomics improvements.

Instead of bringing in an ergonomist to start at one corner of the plant and move to the other, examining every job and task, Sikorsky instead focuses on the specific tasks most likely to cause injury.

The company started this process by distributing a “symptom survey” to poll employees about any job-related pain they might experience. This allows Sikorsky to track problems before they turn into OSHA-recordable injuries.

Thousands of workers filled out the questionnaires, which Sikorsky submitted to NIOSH to learn which tasks should be fixed. After the necessary adjustments are made to these at-risk tasks, Sikorsky will resurvey employees to determine whether there has been an improvement.

So far, the system appears to be a success. The company determined that each ergonomics improvement costs $30,000 but saves an average of $130,000. In addition, workers’ compensation costs are down over $2 million from 2006 to 2008, despite the fact that the company has grown 15-20 percent at a time when medical costs are escalating.

“We’re seeing a huge return on investment, not to mention that this is the right thing to do, which is to fix the most dangerous jobs first,” Eherts explains.

Social Responsibility

Eherts explains that he and Sikorsky’s CEO, Jeff Pino, believe there are three pillars to a strong safety program: visible leadership, employee engagement and risk management.

“Those three pillars have contributed to this huge reduction in the accident rate,” Eherts says.

Plus, he points out, a company with strong environmental policies is indicative of bigger and better things.
“I think investors more and more are looking at social responsibility as a surrogate for strong management and strong leadership,” he says.

Whether it’s eliminating a risk like hex chrome, finding alternative energy sources or making wide-sweeping ergonomic improvements, it’s clear that Sikorsky is on the right flight path to maintaining a culture of safe and happy workers, strong leadership and social responsibility – not to mention a greener planet.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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