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I spent a few days in Las Cruces, N.M., last month, visiting a Rea Magnet Wire facility and hearing some of the 2007 America's Safest Companies talk about their safety processes at a safety share organized by Ken Vandeberghe, corporate health and safety manager at Rea. Ken billed the event as a “best practices” safety share, but it turned out to be something more exciting than that.

The safety share turned into a two-day discussion of the ongoing quest for safety excellence, which was particularly interesting coming as it did from companies that have achieved what many corporations and regulators would acknowledge as safety excellence.

So how does a company already pushing zero injuries and illnesses achieve even greater success? By thinking outside of the box, says Vandeberghe, who illustrated that point at the start of the share.

He asked two participants to make paper airplanes and toss them at targets. They were given a minute for the building and tossing, and their scores - despite slightly different plane designs - were about the same. Vandeberghe then picked up a piece of paper, quickly balled it up and hit the bull's eye. He did it again and again and again.

“It's about breaking the mold,” says Vandeberghe. “A different approach, a quicker approach, taking more shots at the target. Who's to say what a successful safety system is supposed to look like?”

The companies that participated in the safety share - Rea Magnet Wire, Louisiana-Pacific Corp., Parker Drilling Corp., WW Grainger Inc., Eaton Corp. and Raytheon (the National Safety Council and the city of Las Cruces also participated) - have been judged to be some of the safest in their industries with injury and illness rates far below those of their industry's average. Yet none of them are satisfied. Zero injuries isn't a goal for these companies, it is a journey, a passion, a quest, a mission.

“We all have different approaches,” says Vandeberghe, “but at the core there are two things: management commitment to making safety a key operational metric and employee engagement. Employees need to be passionate about safety.”


Keith Harned, corporate health and safety director at Louisiana-Pacific Corp., ascribes his company's success, in part, to what he calls “felt leadership.” Employees “don't care if you know, but they know if you care,” he says.

When a company reaches the level of a Louisiana-Pacific, where all 5,600 employees have worked a month or more without a single lost-time injury and the incident rate is .9, “You've got management buy-in, otherwise you wouldn't be there,” says Harned. “But where the rubber really hits the road in safety is around the team concept: employees, supervisors and plant managers not only looking out for themselves but for each other. At a Louisiana-Pacific facility, you never hear the phrase ‘stuff happens.’ We take pride in the fact that stuff doesn't happen in our facilities.”


Later, listening to Casey Davis, Parker Drilling Co.'s director of Global OA/HSE, I realized, sometimes stuff does happen. Especially when your company is known for conducting drilling operations in some of the most environmentally and politically unfriendly and unstable parts of the world.

“How many of you had a new case of malaria diagnosed this week? How many of you had a group of indigenous people with guns and clubs hold your facility hostage? How many of you had a polar bear break into your infirmary and eat your morphine supply?” Davis asked the group.

All of these things and more have occurred at Parker Drilling facilities. So, Davis was asked, when faced with indigenous people carrying guns and clubs and polar bears - major distractions by anyone's standards - how do you not become sidetracked in the quest for safety excellence?

“I call it ‘applying techniques of readiness,’” says Davis. “We have unique risks that other companies don't have and that won't be addressed in safety textbooks.”

Therefore, Davis says, Parker's contingency planning is based on “worst-case escalation.”

“You know how some companies have procedures for snake bites or spider bites? We ramp the severity up and insert ‘polar bear.' In fact, we just updated our polar bear procedure for a job we're doing for BP in Alaska,” he says.

At Parker, depending on the location of the facility, civil unrest, terrorism, kidnapping, hostage taking and yes, polar bear protocol is part of employee training. It's all part of creating a work environment that encourages employees to stay on task and remember that everyone has the same goal: to work safely and efficiently and get the job done without suffering injuries and illnesses.

“It's all about being ready and prepared. That's how we continue to strive for excellence,” says Davis.

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