Eye-opening Safety Improvements

Feb. 18, 2003
Chief Industries Inc. used to have a problem with eye and face injuries, but they haven't had a single one in over nine months. Here's why.

Last year, Occupational Hazards named Chief Industries one of America's Safest Companies. Yet not long ago, Chief Industries' Custom Products Division, a fabricator of metal prison furniture and fixtures, had injury rates above its SIC code average.

Now Chief Industries, a Grand Island, Neb. diversified manufacturer, is so proud of this division's safety record that plans are underway to apply for membership in OSHA's prestigious Voluntary Protection Program. One big reason for this turn-around story is a dramatic reduction in eye and face injuries, according to Jim Steele, the corporate safety manager.

During interviews with company managers, the following 10 steps emerged as key components of their successful eye and face protection program.

1. Conduct a job hazard analysis (JHA). The first step in solving a problem is to understand it. Chief Industries knew they had a problem with injuries to the eye and face, so the company undertook a comprehensive JHA, covering each step of every job. "It was a collaborative effort," said Steele, one that involved Steele, Diane Korth, health and safety coordinator for the division, supervisors and workers. "We developed work rules for each of the hazards we discovered."

Those work rules became the training document used for current employees and each person hired as well.

The JHA revealed that eye and face injuries at Chief Industries were primarily a problem in the welding and metal grinding operations of Customs Products Division.

2. Obtain upper management support. Steele said this was not a problem at Chief Industries, due to an alarming rise in its workers' compensation rates in the late 1990s. "The medical costs of injured workers and the incident rates were very high," commented Herb Slough, a supervisor in the grinding area. As an example, he referred to the "total injury frequency rate," which provides a nominal measurement of the number of incidents per 100 employees per year; it is used to determine workers' compensation premiums. It was up in the 20s, Slough said. It has now dropped to 5, and insurance premiums are soon expected to fall as well.

3. Use engineering controls. In addressing hazards, Steele said the company generally looks at engineering controls first. If it is not feasible to engineer the hazard out of the job, work rules are used in conjunction with personal protective equipment (PPE).

Chief Industries was able to reduce some hazards by installing curtains around grinding machinery. This move protected workers near the hazards, but it did nothing for those actually doing the work.

4. Develop a PPE program. At Chief Industries, a written eye protection program specifies that certain types of PPE must be worn for certain types of jobs. Non-prescription eyewear and faceshields are free and available on demand for all employees. The company shares the cost of prescription glasses with employees. Each worker is responsible for wearing and maintaining the eye and face protection.

Sometimes it takes more than one layer of protection to keep workers safe. "When I first came on board in 1999, all employees doing the grinding were wearing safety glasses with side shields," said Korth. "We put in a rule that they had to wear faceshields as well."

The extra level of protection met with some initial resistance, but it made a "tremendous difference" according to Korth, and injury numbers fell.

Even with the new double protection, some workers still sustained eye injuries. Why? The answer (see sidebar) shows why good accident investigations cannot be limited to the workplace alone.

5. Selecting and fitting PPE. "When we first started pushing eye protection, it was very helpful to look for that Z87 mark," said Steele, referring to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Standard for Eye and Face Protective Devices (Z87.1). "Particularly for prescription glasses, if it didn't have the ANSI stamp, we made them wear the overlays." This was not as comfortable, but it helped in the enforcement of safety rules, and led employees ultimately to get the right kind of glasses, so they didn't need the overlays.

Steele also said it is important to offer employees a wide range of sizes. Head shapes and sizes vary enormously, so "one size does not fit all." He recounted one incident of a worker whose glasses, because of his face structure, sat very close to his face. As a result, the glasses would fog up almost immediately. The company found him anti-fog glasses.

6. Win supervisors' and employees' buy-in. For Steele, this is the most critical element for success. "A safety director can't be everywhere," he said. "The level the immediate supervisor buys into the program is the level of success you'll have."

Steele won the support of supervisors in part by making them responsible for safety success. On each accident report, the supervisor has to explain what happened, and how he or she will work to prevent a recurrence. "As a corporate safety manager, that's the first thing I look at when I see an accident report," said Steele. "If they don't answer the question to my satisfaction, I send it back for them to re-do it." He also requires employees to explain incidents they are involved in, and to come up with ways to avoid future problems.

Steele also said that because the company has so many top-notch supervisors, it doesn't take a lot of convincing for them to realize the importance of safety.

According to an old Broadway maxim, 'Nothing succeeds like success,' and that seems to have helped advance the safety agenda in this case.

"I was kind of a non-safety person at first," admitted Slough, "but when you see people getting hurt and then you see things start to work, it changes your attitude toward safety." Safety managers may need to be patient: Slough said it took seven months of requiring workers to wear faceshields over their safety glasses before he saw the results that changed his attitude.

Korth said she obtained the support of employees in part by forming "employee empowerment teams." The teams, organized by work area, meet twice a month to discuss safety issues and find solutions. "They got involved in their area, and this gave them pride and a sense of achievement when they found something," she said. "When the teams started in 2000, I found there was a tremendous reduction in injuries."

Supervisors do not attend the team meetings, in order to encourage employees' candor. But the teams do communicate with the supervisors and they often work together to come up with solutions.

7. Educate employees. Chief Industries has an annual training program that includes eye and face protection. All new employees are required to go through a training program that includes the JHA for the job they will be doing. The JHAs are posted in work areas, and company safety officials say keeping the JHAs, with their PPE requirements, in a public place is a good way to reinforce the message.

8. Review/revise safety measures. Jobs change, and so do the attendant hazards. For this reason, in conjunction with the annual training, Chief Industries reviews all its JHAs and revises the PPE program as necessary.

9. Prepare for emergencies. Mistakes, or "accidents," can happen even with the best programs. Having emergency eyewash stations throughout the plant offers immediate, effective first aid.

"When some metal gets in somebody's eye, 60 to 70 percent of the time you can flush it out with water," said Slough.

10. Monitor compliance. If Chief Industries has a facility requiring an eye and face protection program, safety glasses must be worn at all times throughout the plant by everyone who visits or works in the location. Experience has shown that it is far easier to monitor compliance with the "everywhere, everyone, at all times" rule, than it is if exceptions are made.

Korth also developed an incentive program that ties prizes to safe work practices. Incentives are not connected to injury numbers, so the company avoids creating incentives for possible underreporting.

Employees who don't wear PPE or who violate other safety rules "get written up," which means the employee must explain to his or her team the type of injury that could have occurred because of the violation.

"Turning a violation into a 'lesson learned,' has been effective in cutting injuries and violations," Korth commented.

One anecdote illustrates how the rules governing eye and face protection have now become second nature, and how confident employees are of upper management support. The owner and CEO of the company was giving a tour to some visitors, and had just walked through the door of a plant that required everyone to wear safety glasses.

"An employee approached him and reminded him that he needed to wear his safety glasses," Steele said. The CEO quickly corrected the inadvertence and later wrote her a thank-you note.

Sidebar: Can Work-related Eye Injuries Happen at Home?

Yes they can, and supervisors committed to safety can sometimes be the ones who solve these difficult problems.

Chief Industries' Custom Products Division makes metal furniture, door frames and window frames.

"We have a whole building that grinds metal," said Diane Korth, the division's health and safety coordinator. She found that metal was still getting into the eyes of some workers even after they started wearing faceshields over their safety glasses.

"We found some of the guys were going home and they had the grinding dust in their hair and eyebrows," said Korth. "When they washed, it fell into their eyes."

It took the ingenuity of an enterprising supervisor, Herb Slough, and the help of two safety professionals, (Korth and corporate safety manager Jim Steele) to solve this safety problem.

"It all started out with a comb and a magnet," said Slough. Workers were asked to use the comb and magnet during the workday to get rid of the metal dust before going home.

"I decided to try to put the magnet on the face shield, to stop it from going into the eyebrows in the first place," said Slough. "Within an hour, the magnet was filled with grind filings."

According to Steele, Slough himself bought the magnetic strips with adhesive on one side, so they would stick to the shields.

The idea appears to have caught on with manufacturers. "Now I see they are selling faceshields with the magnetic strips on them," said Steele.

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