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Clothing a Safe Work Force

Lincoln Electric employees are some of the most skilled, highest-paid factory workers in the country. Protective clothing keeps these valuable assets safe and on the job.

Lincoln Electric of Cleveland employs 2,000 factory workers in northeast Ohio and 6,500 worldwide. There is no way, however, that it could afford to have John Nock sidelined by an injury for even one day. Nock welds hardfacing material to punch press dies to rebuild them after they wear down. The dies, which cost as much as $300,000 new, must be machined to within 1/1,000th of an inch of their original shape. Male and female dies that do not regain their fit can slip and harm people and product.

"People work 2 feet from the presses. I"m in the trenches keeping them safe," said Nock, whose protective gear includes a leather vest or jacket, gloves, welding cap and faceshield.

"John is the only one doing that job," said Lincoln spokesman Dick Sabo, who is as comfortable talking about safety to an operator as he is about profit-sharing to a CEO. "He is highly skilled and committed to his work. Our safety-conscious workers are our high-output people."

Productivity is king at Lincoln Electric, a worldwide leader in the production of machines, tools, electrodes and flux for arc welding, and of industrial motors. The 103-year-old company uses a piecework system, mandatory overtime and productivity bonuses in a layoff-free environment to drive its operations.

Operations include everything from clean rooms for printed circuit board manufacturing to welding stations, assembly lines and large punch presses. The company also has a large contingent of maintenance workers, an 80-member emergency response team and a welding school. Personal protective equipment (PPE) ranges from basic eye, head, hearing, hand and foot protection to welding gear, chemical protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus.

"We have hands-on jobs, so employees wear a lot of protective equipment," said Dave Neumore, safety superintendent for Lincoln"s northeast Ohio facilities. "Information about required training and PPE is part of every job description."

Safety Structure

Lincoln"s corporate culture is a boost to safety management and PPE use, according to Sabo, a 33-year veteran of the company who has been a special assistant to three of its CEOs. Employees are so well-paid through incentives and bonuses, he said, that they realize they are better off at work than on disability or even light duty. (The average factory worker earns about $60,000 per year.)

"Nobody wants to get hurt," said Neumore, who joined Lincoln as a millwright in 1975 and has been in the safety function since 1978. "I emphasize that wearing PPE is for their own good, and they see it"s true." He said he tries to work with employees, including his two sons who are pieceworkers, in "a fatherly way."

In addition, Lincoln Electric"s merit rating system rewards employees for their contributions to the safety effort and their compliance with safety rules. The system measures four factors: output, quality, dependability, and ideas and cooperation. The last two specifically include safety considerations, Neumore said. The company also rewards suggestions -- of all kinds, including safety -- with Lincoln apparel, gift certificates and other customized products.

Sabo said personal responsibility and accountability are at the core of Lincoln"s safety and PPE programs. "Our supervisor-to-employee ratio is 1 to 100. Employees control their own destiny. Each one believes he or she is the best worker in the system."

As a result, he said, employees, on their own or in their small groups, enforce and reinforce the importance of wearing protective equipment. If they identify hazards or have PPE-related complaints that cannot be dealt with immediately, Neumore said, Lincoln Electric provides them with "a lot of avenues" to air their concerns.

Since 1914, Lincoln has had an advisory board that meets biweekly with the CEO, president or a vice president to discuss common concerns, production processes and cost savings ideas. Members, who are elected by department, are free to discuss "the size of the candy bars in the candy machines or where their annuity is going," as well as productivity, safety and quality issues, Neumore said. "It"s like a little democracy," he said.

Employees at Lincoln"s Ohio facilities also work through the safety committee to address PPE needs. The 20-member committee includes employees from the Mentor and Euclid facilities in Ohio. For example, concerns about the durability of gloves and disposable chemical protective clothing drove the committee, Neumore and the purchasing department to seek higher-quality PPE.

Lincoln Electric does not expect its customers to pick up the bill for a safe workplace and worker protection measures. In fact, its Guaranteed Costs Reduction Program for the arc welding business promises that becoming a Lincoln Electric customer will result in a cost savings.

"We can"t afford injuries," Sabo said. "They are a detractor from productivity and profits." In fact, he estimates that losing a well-trained worker costs Lincoln Electric $100,000 in productivity and quality benefits, plus the potential costs of workers" compensation, medical treatment and litigation. He said "replacing one good person can require up to 10 mediocre employees."

PPE Required

Sabo is proud that Lincoln Electric does not have "a lot of operational rules that apply everywhere. We look at each individual situation. Where there are rules, they are strictly enforced."

For example, the company requires safety eyewear in all production areas. Hearing protection, on the other hand, is required only where noise levels approach or exceed 85 decibels; signs and training identify those areas. Lincoln Electric requires production employees to wear durable work shoes, but does not mandate steel toes because "we do not have a history of foot injuries," according to Neumore.

When it comes to head protection, hard hats are required for employees working around cranes and on construction. Workers involved in wire-drawing operations wear bump caps with the top cut out, which leaves employees with a visor-like cap. The visor brim, which is cooler than a full-fledged hard hat, protects workers" eyes from being hit by spinning wire from above the safety eyewear -- an example of risk assessment and hazard-specific controls in action.

Hand protection is a key component of employees" protective equipment. In fact, Neumore estimates that Lincoln Electric employees use more than 30 varieties of hand protection. These include general-purpose work gloves, leather welding gloves, heavy rubber gloves for chemical protection, and cut-resistant gloves for handling sharp edges.

Many Lincoln employees need to be protected from extreme heat, flame and sparks. Its rotor casting operations, for example, require leather spats over shoes and heat-reflective coats. When working near the iron powder oven, employees wear heat-reflective clothing, tinted faceshields and leather gloves.

In welding wire manufacturing, employees work with acids, caustics and powdered chemicals. Nancy Kershaw-Vaughn, R.N., occupational health nurse at Lincoln"s Mentor welding wire facility, said the heat and chemical treating operations are "carefully engineered, closed processes." Nonetheless, employees wear chemical protective aprons, gloves, arm covers and boots to guard against splashes and other inadvertent contact. Kershaw-Vaughn explained:" It"s not like our people are in space suits all the time, but we have normal operations where just leaning against a vessel could create an exposure."

Who Pays?

Deciding who should pay for PPE can be a difficult issue, especially because OSHA would like employers to pay for it, but has had trouble mandating that. Neumore said Lincoln"s approach is to pay for all mandatory equipment, but to split the cost with employees for voluntary use.

Lincoln pays for the first pair of standard safety eyewear, some gloves, and all hearing and head protection. Employee payroll deductions pay for work shoes and half the cost of replacement eyewear and gloves that are not mandatory, according to Neumore. Lincoln Electric pays for special equipment such as respirators and chemical protective clothing.

Neumore said Lincoln is concerned about the potential for gloves, particularly welding gloves that cost $30 to $35 per pair, to disappear from the workplace. That is why some departments require employees to cover half the cost or to turn in their old pair before getting new ones.

"The company pays for any equipment that is essential," Kershaw-Vaughn said. "We don"t want people to be reluctant to replace worn-out gloves. If they turn in the old stuff, we"re happy to replace it." She said it is a better to have a turn-in program than to buy cheaper, lower-quality gloves because employees are keeping them for personal use.

Special People

Lincoln Electric has at least two populations that have special protective equipment needs. They are participants in its welding school, and members of the hazardous materials and emergency response teams. Here is how the company deals with those two groups:

Welding school: Since 1917, Lincoln Electric has offered its welding school to employees, customers" employees and other interested people. The school attracts beginning students, as well as experienced welders looking to specialize. The company has 112 welding stations for training.

Welding instructor Lyle Binns spends the first day of training talking about safety equipment, safe work practices and environmental controls such as ventilation. Trainees who do not have the requisite protective equipment (leather gloves and coat, welding cap, welding faceshield and work shoes) are sent home or they can buy it from a tool crib.

"We tell them what to wear and what to do," Binns said. "We don"t allow any hand or power tools in the welding booth. They can"t bring in their own grinders. We make them use Lincoln"s because then we know the guards are in place."

Binns said the students listen because "they know they can leave here and go anywhere in the world and get a job. There is an extreme need for skilled welders."

Hazardous materials/emergency response teams: These two teams are being combined into one 80-person force for Lincoln"s Euclid and Mentor, Ohio, plants. They can get involved in everything from spill cleanup and confined space rescue to fixing cuts and bruises and delivering a baby, according to safety assistant Bertram Butts.

Many of the emergency responders have fire department, rescue squad or first aid backgrounds. Lincoln Electric provides them with extensive training in first aid, CPR, bloodborne pathogens and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) use. About once every three months, the team holds a surprise drill that might include a confined space rescue or a chemical spill. Depending on the situation, personal protective equipment for the team can include Class A chemical suits, SCBA, rubber boots and gloves.

"Our drills often include more than one incident -- a worst-case scenario where there is a spill in one area and a heart attack in another," Neumore said. Emergency responders practice in full dress to get used to wearing PPE and to identify potential problems. It was better to find out in a drill, for example, that the hazmat cleanup suits Lincoln was buying were not sturdy enough and fit too tightly, which led to rips and tears.

Keys to Success

In his 20 years on the safety job, Neumore has uncovered several key factors for getting the most out of protective equipment. His findings:

  • Review PPE needs often. Neumore said Lincoln Electric"s commitment to ISO 9000 has "helped me out a lot." It requires that every job description include safety training and PPE requirements and that they be reviewed at least every two years.
  • Keep it simple. Neumore involves employees in PPE selection. However, once there is a consensus about the type of equipment to buy, he standardizes it for the sake of simplicity and lower cost.
  • Comfort counts. He has found that comfort of PPE, especially hearing protection, is much more important than style. Style makes a difference in acceptance of safety glasses, however.
  • Make PPE easy to get. Lincoln Electric distributes PPE out of tool cribs in each area. It should be quickly available to foremen and operators.
  • Ask for help. Lincoln Electric takes advantage of vendor giveaways and training, and uses the American Red Cross for CPR and first aid training.
  • Deal with troublemakers head-on. Like many companies, Lincoln Electric has about 10 percent of its work force that is reluctant to wear safety equipment, according to Sabo. "They fight it constantly because they think it"s uncomfortable and inconvenient," he said.

Neumore, working with Butts, said the key is to "deal with the biggest offender, the person who"s leading the charge against the equipment. If I can convince him that he can get hurt at any time, he"ll convince everybody else. There are a lot of people who are just following an informal leader."

Sabo believes that Lincoln"s approach to productivity, employee involvement, compensation and training fits well with its safety management model. "A good safety program is one of the preeminent requirements of a good company," he said. "We want people to see that it"s more fun and rewarding to have safety as part of their work. When we protect our people, we protect our company."

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