2007 National Safety Survey: Small Steps for a People Business

Oct. 1, 2007
While technology and standards often receive the headlines in safety, it is the decisions made by individuals – managers, workers and safety professionals – in millions of workplaces that really determine how safe our workplaces will be. And that can mean an often unpredictable path for safety.

Is safety getting better in America’s industrial facilities, service companies and construction sites? The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics certainly indicates a positive trend, with the latest statistics showing slight drops in nonfatal injuries and illnesses and in workplace fatalities. Still, 4.2 million injuries and illnesses occurred in 2005 and 5,703 work-related deaths occurred in 2006. Progress is steady, but very modest.

When you focus on individual companies and their safety managers, as our latest National Safety Survey does, you see why the future of occupational safety promises slow but unspectacular progress. OSHA largely has dropped out of the standards-setting business and has too few inspectors to make much of an impact on America’s workplaces. So don’t expect government intervention to cause the dramatic changes that it did in the 1970s.

Recently, the National Council on Compensation Insurance noted that a number of technology changes such as the increased use of robotics, modular design and construction techniques, power-assisted processes, advances in ergonomic design and proliferation of cordless tools were helping to reduce workers’ compensation claims. Yet, these technologies are far from universal and often only as good as their implementation.

Overwhelmingly, safety remains a people business, heavily influenced by corporate culture, top management and supervisory attitudes, the effectiveness of training and communications, unions (or the lack of them) and labor relations and the economics of individual workplaces. And as a people business, it reflects not only the triumphs in safety but also the frustrations and setbacks that can occur as dozens, hundreds or thousands of people in complex organizations attempt on a daily basis to implement the OSH Act’s call for “safe and healthful” working conditions.

“Soft” Safety Most Important

The infrastructure of safety largely is in place in surveyed workplaces, according to our respondents. For example, 83 percent of readers said they had eye safety programs, while 82 percent provide forklift training and 75 percent have a hearing conservation program. Less common in their workplaces were health promotion/wellness (54 percent), safety incentives (45 percent) and driver safety (43 percent).

When asked what is the most important thing they do to improve safety and health in their organizations, however, our respondents rarely listed involvement with specific programs. Instead, they cited a familiar litany of “soft” safety activities such as:

  • Be visible, proactive and caring
  • Change workplace culture to emphasize importance of safety
  • Communicate with the staff at all levels
  • Constantly promote a “safety pays” philosophy
  • Promote safety awareness

For the most part, National Safety Survey respondents work for the safety “haves” rather than the “have nots.” For example, the survey showed a high rate of “active and visible support for occupational safety and health” by top management. Some 78 percent show their support for safety through their involvement and financial support, our readers reported. This year, 32 percent of respondents said their budgets for safety and health increased, while 46 percent stayed the same. Only 5 percent reported their budgets had been cut.

Some 34 percent of our respondents rated the importance of employee safety and health in the everyday operations of their business as “very high,” while 32 percent reported it as “high” and 27 percent as “adequate.” Less than 8 percent called it “low” or “very low.” Approximately two-thirds of respondents said safety was on par with production in their organization.

First-line supervision received lower marks from our readers. Only 12 percent said supervisors’ attention to safety and health was “excellent,” while 35 percent said it was “good” and 31 percent said it was “average.” Another 14 percent said it was “fair” and 6 percent called it “poor.”

Wearing Many Hats

If one thing defines the safety and health profession these days, it is the transformation of many jobs at smaller companies or the facility level into generalist environmental, health and safety (EHS) positions. In fact, for all respondents, nearly half reported having safety, industrial hygiene and occupational health responsibility. Of the eight job areas we asked about, only workers’ compensation failed to be a responsibility for a majority of our readers.

Brian Kellogg, environmental health and safety coordinator at Hartzell Fan, represents this breed of do-it-all practitioners. Hartzell Fan, founded in 1927, manufactures a variety of industrial air moving equipment at two plants in Ohio and Indiana, and employs about 200 people. Kellogg is responsible for compliance activities relating to OSHA, EPA and DOD.

Kellogg said he prefers dealing with OSHA regulations because they are less detailed and more performance-oriented than EPA regulations, which he called “black and white and very inefficient.” For example, he said OSHA’s hazard communication requires a clear objective to label hazardous materials but provides lots of leeway in how that is done.

Like many other American manufacturers, Hartzell Fan is always on the hunt for ways to be more efficient in the face of global competition. The company has put an emphasis on lean manufacturing and Kellogg said safety fits right in with that philosophy. “Safety is one of the key points,” he noted. “If the workplace is safe, people are not hurt and that eliminates waste.”

Kellogg said the connection between safety and productivity is readily apparent. Employees need good lighting, for instance, to do their jobs properly and safely. That confluence may be one reason why lean manufacturing has prompted more communication and interest about safety. “Every time I go out on floor, I get stopped and someone ask, ‘Does this comply with lean?’” he said.

The previous reluctance on the part of some employees to bring up safety concerns is disappearing, helping bring to light issues such as the need for lift tables in the assembly area. “Everything I have seen indicates there is a lot more participation,” said Kellogg. “People are looking out for each other.”

That’s an important step as Kellogg seeks to strengthen the firm’s safety culture. When he came to the company a couple of years ago, his position had been open for a year and a half. A change of top management brought a renewed dedication to safety. Kellogg noted that Hartzell’s president is “extremely vocal” about safety, makes it a topic for state-of-the-company reports and sets an example by wearing safety gear in the facility.

Kellogg’s priorities have included purchasing training DVDs for basic safety issues and bringing in experts for more specialized topics such as bloodborne pathogens or slings and chains. He has urged product design changes, such as incorporating lifting lugs into major subassemblies, to benefit both material handling ergonomics and product quality. He also has stepped up physical security measures to better control access by suppliers and others entering the facility, and ensure they are wearing appropriate personal protection.

Rebuilding the safety program keeps Kellogg busy, but he said he enjoys it and looks forward to going to work every day. In particular, he said he welcomes the opportunity to get to know employees in the shop, listen to the issues they bring up and help make their job easier. With the flow of information, he noted, “They do half the job for you.”

Developing a Top 10 List

When we caught up with EHS Manager David Brickley, his company, Rockwood Electrochemicals, was in the midst of its annual risk review. Started in 2000, the review involves members of each department in the company, a supplier of proprietary chemical processes for the printed wiring board industry, discussing what they believe are the greatest risks in their area.

“We put those together and we come up with the top 10 risks for the year,” said Brickley, explaining that while other risks also are addressed, these identified risks receive priority. Last year, for example, the company addressed a bulk tank for ethanolamine, a strong alkaline solvent. When a tanker came in and filled the tank, bothersome fumes escaped, so a new ventilation system was installed to capture the fumes.

Another top 10 project involved installing large mirrors at blind spots so forklift operators could see if anything was coming around the corner. In another example, the company is set to purchase a bag handler to prevent any ergonomic injuries that could come from taking the large bags and pouring them into smaller containers.

“The first time we did it, it took 2 days. Now, it takes a half day,” noted Brickley. “We’ve been through it some many times that hopefully we have solved most of the big problems.”

One of the key benefits of the annual risk review, Brickley said, is that it provides them ownership in the safety program. “When they see management go out and spend money on it, they know they are serious. That really helps the program,” he added.

Rockwood Electrochemicals encourages involvement in safety in several other ways. The company operates a joint labor/management safety committee that includes the company president, a vice president, Brickley and representatives from different areas of the company. Once a month, the company holds an employee meeting and safety is a prominent part of the agenda. This year, managers were required to take an online loss control course to increase their knowledge of safety issues and their role in managing them. And the company conducts a variety of safety training classes to fulfill OSHA, DOT and EPA requirements. Brickley makes sure to address not only workplace hazards, but off-the-job risks such as seat belt use, drinking and driving, and heat exhaustion.

Rockwood Electrochemicals also promotes employee health through its wellness program. “We have a wellness program through our health insurance provider,” Brickley explained. “We have counseling services, and we offer a discount on heath club use.” The company also has offered flu shots and prescription safety glasses.

Targeting the Mobile Workforce

With a father who was a property/casualty underwriter, it doesn’t come as a shock that Eugene Mitchell ended up in the insurance field. But he’s the first to admit that the major enticement for his taking his first insurance job was the new car that came with his $10,000 job.

Now a senior consultant and vice president with Marsh Risk Consulting, Mitchell continues to have a keen interest in cars – not to mention trucks – as they constitute the most significant risk he sees among his client companies. “From a risk management perspective, we want to spend a commensurate amount of time, energy and resources on this,” he said, but he admits that “in general, not enough is done about this exposure in industry.”

Still, there are exceptions. One of his clients has instituted a driver safety program that includes screening of drivers, MVR checks every 6 months, check rides with managers twice a year, plus a recognition system that rewards safe drivers. The company also uses a 1-800 public observation program so that the public can report problems with company drivers they encounter. “This is by far the best program I have seen and it has had a material effect on the number of collisions and injuries with the drivers,” Mitchell observed.

While Mitchell encourages such programs, he is aware that they require a lot of resources and can present managers with “touchy” situations. For example, what happens if your best salesperson gets a DWI citation? “In the best programs, he would lose his driving privileges,” he noted, so organization must decide if they are “ready, willing and able to take the steps required” by these programs.

There are other hazards faced by the mobile workforce in addition to driving. For example, technicians who service commercial restaurant equipment routinely enter businesses that present “extremely challenging” environments – wet and/or greasy floors, hot surfaces, employees carrying hot plates or pans of boiling water and a hive of activity where work coordination and language issues can exacerbate the hazards.

Managers of these service workers have little control over their working environment and it’s a delicate matter to bring up with the people who really control these workplaces – the service company’s clients. “It’s a collision between safety and customer relations,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell said service workers also frequently face poor ergonomic conditions. They may be forced to get into difficult-to-reach areas or need to move heavy equipment. In his work, Mitchell said he finds that slips and falls and sprains and strains from material handling are usually in the top three causes of workers’ compensation losses.

Still, there are steps that companies can take to make maintenance and service safer. Employers can provide service and delivery workers with slip-resistant shoes. In the past, Mitchell said, designers of industrial and health care equipment did not pay much attention to people servicing the equipment. But he pointed to a manufacturer of dental chairs, each weighing more than 300 pounds, that has designed a special fixture and jig so that the chair can be moved around on wheels rather than pushed or slid. Mitchell said this company and others are bringing in master service technicians to get their input on how equipment can be made more maintenance-friendly.

Such efforts are part of a general improvement in safety that Mitchell has witnessed over the past few years. Perhaps as a result of Sarbanes-Oxley, company directors are taking a more active interest in safety and those who come from high-performing safety organizations are asking probing questions about why others can’t perform in a similar fashion. Mitchell also asserts that company CEOs are less tolerant of the idea that injuries are a cost of doing business and viewing high incident rates and workers’ compensation losses as signs of poor performance.

Proactive Industrial Hygiene

With stints at safety and health leaders such as Honeywell and Alcoa on his resume, Terry Parsons brought high expectations to Valspar Inc., where he has been global chemical safety manager for the past year and a half. At present, the company, a supplier of paint and coatings with more than 9,500 employees in over 25 countries, has an injury and illness recordable rate of 1.2, far lower, Parsons notes, than for his industry as a whole.

Parsons says that while safety performance is very good, there is always room for improvement and his company is committed to the protection of employees. So while he is a firm believer that there is financial and competitive advantage in excellent safety performance, he says he appreciates the fact that his company doesn’t try to financially justify its investment in safety.

“If people are equivalent to a dollar, are we truly concerned about the individual or the dollar?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m glad we take the approach we take. But that’s not to deny that the safer you are, the less direct and indirect costs you face in terms of replacing an employee that has been injured.”

Parsons has been working on a number of fronts to improve the industrial hygiene program at Valspar, which uses some 25,000 chemicals in its operations. He developed a chemical risk assessment program in visual basic that all research and development directors are required to complete before a new chemical is purchased. Chemicals are categorized as high, medium or low risk, with corresponding levels of approval needed.

Along with this effort to assess risk before chemicals enter the workplace, Parsons also is looking at substituting safer chemicals into the company where possible. “This is not about limiting or negating litigation,” he pointed out. “It is about protecting our employees now as they work and into their golden years. Our people are the most precious asset of our company. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Parsons also has been revamping the company’s sampling strategy and internal standards. He has been examining what chemicals are being used, categorizing them into similar exposure groups, and examining what toxic risks they could pose.

“Then you do the quantitative part where you do the sampling and statistical work to ensure you’re in compliance or not,” he continued. “We’re not using established OEL criteria like the ACGIH [TLVs] or OSHA PELs – that sets you up for future failure – in other words, future noncompliance. Those things are ever changing. We go with 30 percent of whatever occupational exposure limit we can apply. Generally, we use the most stringent level. We apply that and if we exceed that, we set up our sampling strategy for every 2 years, or even every year, versus 3 years. That helps us determine how we are going to run our IH program.”

Parsons’ responsibilities also include regulatory stewardship – doing research and answering questions from employees and others about the chemicals Valspar uses and their characteristics. He also is part of a team that has been updating the company’s EHS management system by integrating the OHSAS 18000 and ISO 14000 standards.

Making these changes, he notes, involves a lot of education, motivation and encouragement for managers and workers. He said such changes always involve some resistance and complaint – “that’s human nature” – but they are worthwhile, important changes because they result in safer, healthier working conditions.

One thing Parsons laments is fewer professionals with industrial hygiene training working in facilities. He said the shift to having industrial hygiene tasks performed by consultants is “not healthy – literally and figuratively.” He warned that consultants are not in a facility on a daily basis, and so don’t see the practices that can result in unsafe exposures. He advocates more generalists in facilities who have not only safety and environmental training, but also industrial hygiene.

Like many of his peers who responded to the National Safety Survey, Parsons shows little enthusiasm for more OSHA regulations. He said large corporations in particular, with professional EHS staffs, understand what needs to be done to protect employees. He welcomed the more consultative approach taken by OSHA in recent years. But he said there was still work to be done in smaller businesses, where professional expertise may be lacking.

Whether at large or small companies, safety remains a process that has no end point and where the successes – and failures – often are measured one workplace and one individual at a time.

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