The Vietnam War was winding down when Stephen Brown got a job at Potlatch Corp.'s Consumer Products Division (CPD) in Lewiston, Idaho. The plant turns thousands of tons of paper pulp into facial and bathroom tissue, paper towels and related products. Young Brown saw it as "a six-month job with a good paycheck."
Twenty-five years later, Brown's kinetic energy has brought the firm to national attention as a Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Star site, energized its safety program and thrust him into prominence as an advocate for safety through his dual roles as the company's union safety representative (PACE Local 712) and as a VPP advocate.
In the latter role, Brown serves as secretary and former director-at-large of the national Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) VPP, a chapter vice chairman and a member of the board of directors for the Region X Voluntary Protection Program Participants' Association (VPPPA), a member of three regional and six national VPPPA committees, a member of the OSHA Resourcing the VPP/Protocol Committee, a popular speaker at safety and VPPPA conferences, an OSHA special governmental employee and a mentor to corporate safety programs throughout the United States.
For all his prominence, Brown thinks and talks about safety as a common goal for the common good, and all of his energy is directed toward that goal.
Taking Safety Seriously
Brown, who first became involved in Potlatch's safety efforts as a union representative, believes everyone should understand the company policy on health and safety, so he makes sure every employee carries it onto the job, literally. The policy statement is printed on a business card issued by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 73 and Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) Locals 608 and 712. It reads: "There is no job, no service and no customer order so urgent that we cannot take the time to do our work in a safe and healthy manner."
Should an employee be spotted committing an unsafe work practice, Brown likely will ask him to state the company's safety policy. If the person cannot do it, Brown hands him another card as a pointed reminder.
His flamboyant personality and linebacker stature make him an imposing figure, but Brown advises, "The key (to making safety part of an employee's work ethic) is to coach and counsel, make sure everybody knows the rules and be consistent. Rarely do we have to discipline anyone over safety.
"We are all stockholders. We want to make money. We just want to do it safely. You can set all kinds of production records and still not have people going home safe. Some people never understand our belief that safety is the most important thing. Then we tell them, 'Don't worry about production. This is how we do business here.' Once that's understood, it's easy to set production records without people getting hurt. Safety pays."
Getting on the VPP Track
Until 1994, Potlatch's safety program was comparable to those of other paper mills and to the rest of industry in its scope andcontent. But budget cuts in 1994 squeezed funds to all programs, and it became apparent that creative resource allocations would be necessary to maintain programs.
"When we went to VPP, we went on a shoestring budget and very few resources," Brown remembers. "We made a conscious decision to work toward continuous improvement, but allocating resources is tricky. It's a matter of where your safety plan is culturally."
Brown and his counterpart on PACE Locals 608 and 712, Kent Lang, attended the initial VPP meeting in Atlanta and an OSHA-sponsored safety and health class in Reston, Va., to learn new ways to effectively use safety resources. The two returned to Potlatch brimming with ideas and persuasive arguments for working toward VPP Merit and Star site status.
"We had some holes in our safety management system, but we saw joining VPP as an opportunity to repair them and prevent their recurrence," says Potlatch Vice President Craig Nelson. "It makes you examine what broke down in your safety program. That eventually takes your program to a higher level."
Potlatch applied for VPP membership and worked with OSHA Region X representatives to conform its safety program to VPP standards. Conditions at Potlatch began to improve gradually, which did not disturb Brown. "Spikes of improvement are great, but really, what have you gained?" he asks. "There's no miracle turnaround."
When Potlatch became a VPP associate member, Brown was elected to the board of directors of VPP. He has spoken at every VPPPA conference since and is sought after as a speaker and counsel on VPP issues. Even with his frequent VPP-related absences, labor and management support his activity as a means of supporting safety in the company, the industry and the region.
As at many large companies, Potlatch's initiatives sometimes stratify along labor-management lines, but safety was an exception.
"We didn't have a perfectly harmonious relationship between labor and management, but we had a very strong mutual interest," Brown recalls. "Both sides recognized the need to improve safety on site."
When OSHA representatives arrived for the site review on the eve of contract negotiations, they met employees wearing unhappy-face buttons and expressing their support of the company's safety program and the unions' support of VPP. "Everyone understood that the contract issues were one thing, and safety was another," Brown says. Potlatch CPD got its VPP membership, and the contract was resolved.
Brown's VPP activities involve frequent visits to sites in the northwest Region X area to walk through facilities, look over records and help guide companies toward VPP qualification. He and Lang spend much of their time mentoring other applicants, spreading the VPP gospel to other firms and Potlatch sites, and participating in VPP conferences.
Brown recently developed a step-by-step, cross-referenced guideline for becoming an OSHA VPP Star site that walks the user through performing a site analysis, developing recommendations, delegating responsibilities, establishing a time line and benchmarking progress. The guidelines have proved so successful that they are taught to audiences at VPP conferences and in VPP corporate evaluations.
Brown's goal at Potlatch is to open as many opportunities as possible for employees and managers to participate in safety. With his help, the firm developed the POWER behavioral program: Process Of Workers Eliminating Risk. POWER team members observe co-workers (with consent) at their jobs, evaluate risks, identify unsafe acts and suggest improvements in body mechanics, equipment or work flow to make the subject aware of work postures and practices.
Said one POWER committee member, "When they told us about it, I thought it was a stupid idea. How could watching someone make us work safely? It does. There is a direct correlation between observations and incidents. When the number of 20-minute observations exceeds 300 per month, the number of incidents falls. We can teach people to work safely!"
Area chiefs in each department supervise shift safety captains. The chiefs report to the safety committee, which meets monthly to resolve problems, address concerns, plan safety fairs, initiate accident investigations and prepare reports.
The commitment to continuous improvement that VPP Star statuscommands means a never-ending journey. That's OK with Brown: "We have work to do. We're nowhere near perfect, but we have come a long way. It's not where you are; it's the direction you're headed that isimportant."