There is a big celebration in the works in Erie, Pa., home to one of General Electric's largest manufacturing facilities. GE Transportation Systems (GETS), which manufactures freight and passenger locomotives, will soon become one of only about 550 workplaces -- out of about 6 million in the United States -- to achieve the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Star status.
GE's 350-acre Erie facility employs approximately 5,600 people and produces 900 locomotives from start to finish each year, making it the largest union site in Pennsylvania recommended for VPP Star status and the second largest site in the country to achieve this distinction.
According to Randy Hites, environmental health and safety (EHS) training specialist and VPP coordinator, GE employees have been preparing for the VPP certification for six years. As part of this work, plant safety officials scrutinized how employees were doing their jobs in search of ways to make safety improvements. Perhaps more important, Hites said, employees formed teams to come up with safety suggestions for their specific work areas.
Each year, VPP companies have to conduct a program evaluation; every three years, the plant must be recertified. "We need to improve year after year," said Bill Yuskovic, the facility's EHS manager. "That's the whole idea of this."
Nowhere is the plant's improvement more evident than in the way its union and management address safety issues. One-sided decision-making about worker safety has been replaced by the union and management working hand in hand to resolve safety issues. The result, both sides say, has been a sharp reduction in injuries and workers' compensation costs, and a dramatic increase in productivity.
Keeping Safety Sacred
Stellar safety was not always the hallmark of the Erie plant. "Back in 1991, we had a recordable rate of 20," Hites recalled. "We had a lot of injuries, and we were building only 200 locomotives. We had a quarter of the work and five times the accidents."
High injuries coupled with growing workers' compensation costs lead management to take action, Yuskovic explained. "In 1994, management and the union put their heads together and decided that safety would become sacred ground and would not be influenced by discussions of other grievances."
Hites and Yuskovic described the decision to separate safety from other issues as a giant step forward for the facility. "Before it was totally top down," Hites said. "The EHS department -- they were the bad guys. The old way of fixing things was through discipline. You didn't want to tell somebody you got hurt, because potentially you could get in trouble and lose your job."
Both admit the road was rocky at first. Management brought in a mediator to bring both sides to the table; even then, participants were wary. "In the beginning, we had knockdown-dragout fights," said Doug Bender, a GE employee who sat on the committee. "But over a period of time, we learned to work together."
According to Hites, the turning point for the group came when its members realized they had a common goal: to not have people get hurt. "Once we agreed on that, we began to make progress." The effort was the beginning of GETS' now well-established Safety Steering Committee.
One of the first things the committee realized, according to Yuskovic, was that the plant did not have enough hourly resources devoted to safety. "We looked at where we were in April 1994 vs. where VPP said we should be. We saw some huge holes." He said it did not take long for management to realize it needed worker involvement. "They do the work, they know what's going on, and they can make it happen."
Using criteria outlined by VPP, the committee established a safety coordinator program. Through it, employees in each area of the plant elected a representative to become a full-time safety liaison between the steering committee and the work force. Freeing up an employee in each area to concentrate on safety and talk about it with co-workers did much to change the culture and mindset, Hites said. Today, 19 hourly workers serve as full-time safety coordinators. Two coordinators also sit on the safety steering committee.
"It's a full-time job -- 40 hours a week working on safety," Hites explained. "They are people who have done the processes out there -- they're welders, they're painters, they come right from the shop floor." Along with safety coordinators, representatives from the EHS department, the union and management sit on the steering committee, which meets weekly.
The committee's goal, according to Hites, is to "develop and implement a simple, consistent, plantwide approach where safety is a priority and everyone, including employees, contractors and vendors, is committed to eliminating hazards and creating an accident-free workplace."
Communication is Key
Opening the channels of communication between management and the union has been integral to GETS' safety successes. "The relationship we have with the union leadership is the cornerstone of our entire system," said Gary Quinlan, manager of human resources and production operation.
Dave Adams, president of United Electrical Workers Local 506, the plant's largest labor group, said the union's contract with GE requires continuing safety improvements to better protect employees. "We've pretty much come to an understanding that safety is in the best interest of not only our members but also the company," Adams said. "What the safety steering committee and the safety coordinators did was open up that channel to the person on the floor who might have been working in unsafe conditions."
Safety coordinators play an integral role in maintaining a functioning labor-management relationship. "We are the common ground between management and the folks on the shop floor," said Bender, a safety coordinator representing workers in the area of the facility where locomotive cabs are built. He and his fellow coordinators walk a fine line every day. "We've got to remember where we come from, but we also have to remember who we work for." The coordinators tend to trust management more than their co-workers do, according to Bender. Through their close involvement, the coordinators have seen management's commitment to safety demonstrated. "We know if we go to management with a completed project, we're going to get the funding for it," he said.
Finding Common Ground
Unlike productivity initiatives or wage disputes, safety was the one area that management and workers could agree upon, Quinlan said. "As long as we don't use safety as a disguise for something else, we're OK. But if we use safety as a disguise to increase productivity, for example, that's when problems occur."
The important thing, according to Quinlan, is that safety is seen as a shared responsibility. "One group does not own safety. Every single person in that plant is an ambassador for safety. When the person on the shop floor has the same ability to react to safety as the CEO of the business, that's when you know you have a program," he said.
If an employee on the shop floor sees an unsafe practice or knows a process could hurt someone, Quinlan explained, that employee has the ability to shut down the process. Any employee in the plant can approach someone who is not adhering to GETS' safety practices and procedures. "Employees actually do that," he said. "It's a culture. It's accountability and ownership and responsibility."
Hites and Yuskovic credit VPP for affecting the way GETS formulates safety policy and for helping to drive continuous improvement. "There are guidelines set by OSHA that come from the top down," Bender explained, "but realistic, everyday living -- that comes from the bottom up."
Once a policy is set, the safety coordinators work to implement it within each area of the plant, Yuskovic said. "They inform the workers and get people lined up for training. They're our channel to take the program into the field." Management is still involved in the process -- conducting all accident investigations, providing funding and holding safety meetings and one-on-one chats with workers. "But the safety coordinators take it right to the workers. That's what makes the program work," Yuskovic said.
It is not uncommon for a safety coordinator to ask for and receive funding for a project, such as a costly lift-table, according to Yuskovic. "They go to a general manager, show them the ergonomics analysis, the payback and what it's going to do for their area and people. And they walk out of there with a check for $175,000. Six years ago, you never would have seen that here," he said. "Money has not been an issue. If you didn't ask for it, you didn't want it bad enough."
Bender has overseen more than $1 million worth of approvals for his area of the plant. "As long as we do our homework and prove our point, there's no problem getting the equipment these people need to work with out here."
Ergonomics is one area where the new approach to safety has benefited GETS and its workers. The most-common injuries at the facility are strains and sprains, primarily of the shoulders and back. GETS has trained more than 800 employees to conduct thorough ergonomics analyses of their areas. "We look at the workstations and fix them so people aren't bending and lifting," Hites said.
Many companies are hesitant to spend money to fix problems that have been around for a long time, but in Yuskovic's view: "You've got to fix, fix, fix until there's nothing left to fix. It costs a lot of money, but the pay back is tremendous in terms of employees' heath and well-being." He said being able to come to work every day injury-free and go home in the same manner not only helps morale but reduces costs. "It's a tremendous productivity payoff. We're getting a phenomenal return on our investment."
Since the extensive safety overhaul was started, the plant's production has nearly quadrupled, according to Yuskovic. The plant's rate of recordable injuries has fallen by about 80 percent.
"We've had over 5,000 people who did not get hurt -- no first aid, no recordables, no lost time," Hites said. "That's a huge number when you consider the industry we're in. There are so many different types of hazards. If you can think of one, we have it with the type of work we do."
The plant's injury rate stands at four recordables for every 200,000 hours worked, or four per 100 employees per year. "We're doing all of this while we've increased production," Hites marveled. "We built over 900 locomotives -- the most ever in this facility -- and now we have the lowest injury rate ever. We've set records in both directions. That combination of things says something's working."
"We still have the traditional sorts of issues common in a labor-management situation despite our progress," Hites admitted. "It's easy to drift from safety into other more-controversial issues, but we draw a very clear line of separation. We don't deny that those are issues, but that's not what we're here for."
Adams also agreed that, for the most part, workers at the Erie plant are happier.
GE is so pleased with the progress of it's Erie facility that the company has decided to pursue VPP status for its Grove City, Pa., manufacturing plant and another facility in Florida, according to Yuskovic. Until then, he is content to wait to hear from OSHA's Washington, D.C., office about the status of their VPP approval. "Once the secretary signs off on it, we're throwing a party.