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COS Finalists Embrace Safety

EC Co. and Kent Neerhof of Louisiana-Pacific exemplify quality commitment to reducing workplace hazards.

The safety and health "ships" for Occupational Hazards' two 1999 Champions of Safety finalists have taken different courses to arrive at safe harbors.

For EC Co., an electrical contractor firm based in Portland, Ore., its safety and health (S & H) effort led to exploring unknown waters.

For Kent Neerhof of Louisiana-Pacific's North Central Region, the task was to take a rudderless regional S & H program and give it direction.

Here's the story of how each finalist reached its destination of a safe workplace.

EC Company

When EC Co. touts its top-down, companywide commitment to safety, it's not just talk. That commitment is backed by not holding the safety department to a preset budget. In other words, safety is not limited by what the budget will allow.

"To have a safety budget defeats the purpose of what you're trying to accomplish," said Stan Strickland, EC's corporate safety director. "You don't want to come up with a situation where you need a product, personal protective equipment or training and say you can't get it because it's not in the budget."

EC Co. wants to provide the safest possible work environment for its 1,000 employees. To accomplish this, EC approaches safety with an attitude of continuous improvement through involvement from every area and person in the company, Strickland said.

"We want to keep our safety program a living program," he said. "We don't want it to become stagnant or become something that's taken for granted. Safety is not an accomplished goal, buta journey."

That journey has included EC Co. being one of the first electrical contractors to develop a hot work policy and permit system, which has become a nationwide model, Strickland said.

The hot work program is much more than filling out a form, Strickland said. It requires that workers go through a thought process before performing the work. This allows a worker to thoroughly assess the task to be performed and the environment in which the work will be done so a safe work plan can be formulated.

"There's no way to know of hazards associated with the work until you've determined how you're going to perform that work," he said.

The program, which includes ongoing training, has work guidelines and qualifications for each hot work team member. Every permit requires approval from the foreman, the general foreman, the superintendent, a vice president, the safety director and the corporate office.

EC has had no fatalities or serious injuries of workers performing hot work since the program was developed 12 years ago, Strickland said.

A thought process similar to the hot work program is used for job hazard analysis and pretask planning, which EC considers to be critical elements of its safety program. This process, used every day on every project, involves an electrician arriving at a job site with an understanding of the work assignment.

Before beginning the work, a pretask planning form is filled out, using a job hazard analysis manual. While work is being performed, the form is used as a guideline. At the end of the day, a supervisor reviews the work and performance of the electrician and discusses the next day's work assignment.

As a result of these and other efforts, the company's TIR has gone from 6.1 in 1991 to 2.7 in 1998. The industry average for SIC Code 173 (specialty contractor, electrical) is 9.5. EC's lost workday rate in 1998 was 0.86, its lowest point in the 1990s. The industry average is 4.4.

EC's safety commitment includes a safety department staff of seven and a requirement that all supervisors have first aid and CPR certification.

EC Co. has been willing to spread its safety message to other companies and serves as a mentor. For example, Intel sought out EC for training help when one of its sites was having difficulty getting its contractors to understand and implement concepts behind pretask planning and job hazard analysis.

Kent Neerhof

When Kent Neerhof became health and safety manager for Louisiana-Pacific's North Central Region in early 1996, his arrival did not go over well with managers at the region's 13 plants in the upper Great Lakes states. His position was new to the lumber and wood products company and to the region, and so were his ideas.

"At first, the plant managers and operations managers didn't understand my role in the company," he said. "It wasn't a warm reception right away."

The cold-shoulder treatment did not keep Neerhof from his appointed duty: "beef up" compliance, revamp training and regionalize safety efforts.

Neerhof worked to get all 13 sites into federal compliance by instituting a comprehensive safety assessment program. A key element is an abatement process that ensures timely and accurate follow-up of noted deficiencies. The annual process includes an opening conference with each site management team, up to two days of assessment, a closing conference, two to three days of evaluation and analysis, and report preparation.

The catalyst to training upgrades was computer-based safety training, which supplements hands-on training. The computer-based training was implemented at all 80 company sites.

A regional emphasis on safety has been the main thrust of Neerhof's work. He formed a regional network to share best practices and other ideas.

In short, Neerhof was brought in to be a "change agent" of the S & H program for the region's 1,900 employees. Although human nature is to resist change, he was able to overcome that resistance once plant management realized that change was good.

"Now, I think it's totally different," he said. "They see the value of what I'm trying to accomplish."

Neerhof, based in Sagola, Mich., also instituted behavior-based safety observations, contractor safety management, supervisor spot checks, tailgate safety meetings, job safety analysis, one-on-one safety contacts, a supervisor safety scorecard and a safety training video library. Most of these programs have been implemented companywide.

These programs helped the region's manufacturing facilities change from accepting injuries as a productivity cost to committing to safety and giving it value as a productivity tool, said Steve Danielson, corporate health and safety systems manager at the company headquarters in Portland, Ore.

"The employee health and safety systems have undergone a true genesis and realized tremendous improvement both statistically and philosophically," Danielson said.

Under Neerhof's direction, Danielson said, the fear of reporting injuries and near-miss accidents has been driven out. Neerhof even went so far as to instill 24-hour safety awareness by highlighting off-the-job hazards.

The result: The total injury rate (TIR) at Louisiana-Pacific's North Central Region has dropped from 8.12 in 1996 to 7.33 in 1997, 6.45 in 1998 and 5.84 through August 1999. The last two years, the region has been below SIC Code 24's TIR average of 6.57.

"I don't focus so much on the incident rate, but on leading indicators that will reduce that rate," Neerhof said of such things as safety meetings, inspections, training and spot checks. "If we're meeting those goals, the incident rate numbers will drop."

The direct cost of work injuries (incurred liability) in the region has declined by more than 60 percent in the past three years, falling from $220,600 in 1996 to $86,500 in 1998.

Before Neerhof arrived, the region's S & H program mostly centered on safety committees and meetings, he said. Steve Feira, the regional human resources manager, had a vision for the regional health and safety manager to implement programs and coordinate safety efforts across the 13 plants.

"We needed a resource to provide some best practices and a plan to share these best practices across the region," said Neerhof, who previously worked for Wisconsin Electric, the state's largest utility company. The concept worked so well that the company's other three regions now employ a regional health and safety manager.

His work did not stop with changing the thinking of plant managers. Workers also had to accept the proactive safety philosophy. Employees are encouraged to participate in team safety committees, to lead safety meetings and to promote safety changes.

"We focused on them taking more ownership in their safety and the safety of their co-workers," he said. "That was a big paradigm shift for them."

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