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Employees Lead the Way at Herman Miller Inc.

Nov. 1, 2008
It's hard to pinpoint what's responsible for Herman Miller Inc.'s exemplary heatlth, safety and environmental record - hard, because the possibilities are so numerous

The Zeeland, Mich.-based designer, manufacturer and distributor of furnishings and interior products boasts a lost-time injury rate that's a fraction of its industry average, and a list of safety and environmental awards that goes on for pages. But the crowning jewel of Herman Miller's H&S achievements is VPP participation by all its manufacturing facilities, with four sites earning the prestigious STAR status.

In an industry that requires everything from light assembly to woodworking and steel-rolling, potential injuries can range from minor (small cuts or splinters) to devastating (entanglement, limb loss, death). Central to Herman Miller's “corporate safety vision” is the premise that all injuries are preventable, and that protecting its work force simply is the right thing to do.

Protecting the environment also is viewed as “the right thing to do” at Herman Miller. It's fitting that a global company - with 10 U.S.-based sites and operations in more than 40 countries - would have global concerns. Corporate Safety Manager Todd Miller explains: “Herman Miller's environmental stewardship was ‘inherited’ from company founder D.J. DePree,” who set in motion a way of doing business that later evolved into formation of an environmental quality action team. Year in and year out, the company is recognized for its environmental efforts, such as reduction of packaging, active pollution prevention and “green building” certification, and repeatedly has been listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index.


But it is the employees themselves who truly lead the way. “Ownership” is more than a buzzword, with all employees eligible to purchase company stock after 1 month of service. These employee- owners are invested in every sense, “driving continuous improvement in the creation of a safe, healthy and productive work environment,” says President and CEO Brian Walker.

This especially is evident in the company's peer-led, -designed and -managed behavioral-based safety program, which was phased in company-wide after a year-long pilot study at the launch site yielded an incident rate reduction of 36 percent. “But the larger impact,” says Corporate Safety Specialist Deb Lambert, “has been a heightened awareness and a renewed focus on safety.”

The voluntary program involves one-on-one peer observations of routine work activities. The peer's safety practices are evaluated based on a set of site-specific critical behaviors. After providing positive feedback for safe behaviors, the observer and “observee” then discuss the likely sources of any observed problems (habit, perception, physical barrier). On-the-spot feedback is provided and/or work orders submitted for resolution of non-behavioral-based problems.

Data from these observations are assessed at steering team meetings, and a software action base facilitates referral to other safety committees and assignment of tasks for needed improvement.


“Herman Miller's investment in its work force is simply a way of life,” says Miller. Lambert cites a list of health and wellness resources and activities such as:

  • On-site health and fitness facilities, providing everything from exercise equipment to nutrition counseling, with monetary awards for participation

  • Employee access to a corporate physician, health coach and physical therapists.

  • The “Safety Olympics,” in which all shifts at the Zeeland facility competed in events such as “eyes-on-path gymnastics” and “safety weight-lifting” To the winning team went the gold, and a department-wide luncheon.

“Safety is integrated seamlessly throughout the Herman Miller culture,” says Lambert. All facilities have a safety specialist and several continuous improvement team members. Each year, every site establishes three safety goals, and findings from injury/incident trend analysis, employee surveys and audits are used to create action plans. The “Working Together Guide” establishes an accountability framework for each department, and annual merit compensation packages are tied directly to employee safety performance reviews.

“Our corporate mission is focused on creating great places to work,” says Walker. In fulfilling that mission, Herman Miller has created great - and safe - places to work for its 4,000+ employees, “whose energetic commitment is responsible for earning this latest award.”

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