America's Safest Companies: Passionate about Safety

Nov. 1, 2007
America's Safest Companies, founded in 2002 by Occupational Hazards, was created as a way to honor the safest companies in the United States. This year's honorees are BWXT Pantex, CH2M Hill, E. J. Ajax and Sons, Kroger Manufacturing, Louisiana-Pacific Corp., M.B. Herzog Electric Inc., Parker Drilling Co., Rea Magnet Wire, Southern Ohio Medical Center and W.W. Grainger.

“Some companies still believe that on-the-job injuries and illnesses are a cost of doing business. Our honorees see things quite differently,” said Stephen G. Minter, editorial director and publisher of Occupational Hazards. “They understand that work-related injuries and fatalities are a cost – in human and financial terms – that no company should expect to incur! ”

“Although we are willing to place safety above the bottom line, the fact is that safety and profitability are not the polar opposites that some companies perceive them to be,” says Erick Ajax, vice president, E.J. Ajax & Sons Inc. “E.J. Ajax has outlasted many competitors in a challenging manufacturing environment in part because of a workers’ compensation rate that saves the company more than $1,000 per year per employee in insurance premiums.”

The 2007 America’s Safest Companies care about the welfare of their employees. At BWXT Pantex, which is a National Nuclear Security Administration contractor responsible for maintaining and dismantling the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, the strategic plan for the company states, “Providing work sites where workers believe their personal safety is a priority, and where there is knowledge that the company truly cares about their safety and health, is a major component of the BWTX Pantex safety program.”

The 2007 America’s Safest Companies believe that zero incidents is an achievable goal. Kroger Manufacturing has adopted four safety principles: nothing is worth getting injured over; all injuries can be prevented; safety will be managed; and safe behavior is a condition of employment for all employees. Louisiana-Pacific Corp.’s vision statement claims the company will be the employer of choice because, above all, it is a safe place to work. “The safety message is clear and part of our culture: No one should get hurt while working at LP,”says Keith Harned, corporate health and safety director.

The 2007 America’s Safest Companies are passionate about safety. “I believe that in life, people must be passionate about something,” says Ken Vandenberghe, corporate safety and health manager at Rea Magnet Wire. “We have ingrained in our employees that their safety is the most important element in what we and they do at work and away from work.”

The sponsors of America’s Safest Companies, Gold Sponsor MCR Safety and Silver Sponsor PureSafety, are to be commended for their commitment to promoting safe work environments and for their support in recognizing the country’s safest workplaces. A big thank-you from Occupational Hazards to our sponsors, and congratulations to the 2007 America’s Safest Companies!

Saving the Environment Safely at CH2M Hill

A work culture that stresses safety first protects CH2M Hill employees from hazardous conditions.

By Laura Walter

Fifty-three million gallons of radioactive waste lie buried beneath the ground within a 50-mile radius of Richland, Wash., and a mere 10 miles from the Columbia River. This highly radioactive, chemically toxic waste is stored in 177 underground storage tanks and accounts for 60 percent of the nation’s entire volume of high-level radioactive waste.

If that isn’t alarming enough, consider that the tanks have passed their intended period of use and many have leaked, sending contaminants within reach of groundwater and jeopardizing the health of the Columbia River. To protect the environment and the population of Richland, Wash., these tanks must be retrieved and the waste transferred to safer receptacles. But the toxic contents, which are the result of processing spent reactor fuel from the nation’s nuclear weapons program, must be approached and handled with extreme care to protect workers’ safety.

Enter CH2M Hill Hanford Group Inc., a defense contractor that works with and for the U.S. Department of Energy to retrieve these tanks and replace them with newer, double-shell tanks until the waste can be treated for permanent disposal. Throughout their work, employees must be protected from a range of occupational hazards: exposure to radiological materials, tank vapors, toxic chemicals, flammable gases, heat stress, confined spaces, ergonomic risks and more.

Despite these hazards, CH2M Hill maintains an impressive safety record. The company’s success can be attributed in part to a comprehensive safety campaign and multi-faceted safety programs that have been implemented since CH2M Hill took over the tank cleaning contract in 2004.

Safety Philosophy

At the core of CH2M Hill’s safety philosophy is the belief that employees are most productive when they are involved in the safety process.

“Workers are the most important experts in identifying hazards,” says Fran Ito, vice president of safety, health and quality. “We rely heavily on workers identifying hazards and proposing how those hazards can be mitigated.”

The company also institutes a stop-work authority, which Ito explains not only empowers employees to cease operations if a hazardous condition presents itself, but obligates them to do so. For such a system to work, Ito says employees must be confident they can safely stop work without facing adverse consequences. “That’s a company priority,” he says.

To ensure workers feel comfortable addressing safety concerns, CH2M Hill hires a third-party consultant to conduct employee surveys to assess workers’ impressions of the safety culture. Survey results found that 99 percent of employees would take action if they observe unsafe conditions.

When employees do have concerns, CH2M Hill is quick to act. Several years ago, when workers were concerned about the presence of simmering vapors, the company created a Vapor Solutions Act to investigate the threat of hazardous vapors. This initiative helped management determine the best PPE and safe work practices to protect employees and alleviate concerns. CH2M Hill also instituted a buddy system so employees could assist each other in putting on self-contained breathing apparatuses, which reduced injury and strain.

Nothing Left to Chance

Since CH2M Hill took over the contract 3 years ago, it has cut reportable events by 50 percent, has had no reportable lockout/tagout events in the last 2 years and has reduced clothing and skin contamination by 75 percent. The company maintains a total recordable case rate of less than one case per 200,000 hours worked.

The company’s comprehensive approach to workplace safety includes five safety councils and a host of programs that address issues including ergonomics, wellness, mentoring, safety auditing, electrical hazards, heat stress, chemical vapors, traffic and even insect bites. Clearly, the company isn’t willing to chance its workers’ well-being.
CH2M Hill employees managed to retrieve one toxic tank in 2004. Today, the company has retrieved seven tanks with three more in progress. Thanks to CH2M Hill’s commitment to involving workers in the safety process, the toxic waste is being cleaned up in the safest way possible to ensure employees can go home every day with their health intact.

Safety is the Bottom Line at E.J. Ajax & Sons

This small, Minnesota-based manufacturing company helps employees live the American dream.

By Laura Walter

E.J. Ajax & Sons might be the smallest company to secure an America’s Safest award this year, but its management and employees are big on safety. The manufacturing and metal stamping company, based in Fridley, Minn., employs a staff of 50 and boasts 17 years without a lost-time incident and 5 years without an OSHA-reportable incident.

“Worker’s safety is one of our company’s highest ethical responsibilities,” says Vice President Erick Ajax. “Our employees trust that their personal safety is what we value above everything else.”

In a small company that can sometimes feel more like family than work, ensuring everyone’s safety is a priority. E.J. Ajax provides every new employee with safety gear, including work boots with full metatarsal protection, safety glasses, ear protection and elbow-length Kevlar gauntlets for workers who handle sharp metal pieces. Workers also have the authority to shut down any machine or operation at any time if they question its safety. The bottom line is to keep employees safe.

E.J. Ajax closely involves employees in the safety process. On average, workers make more than 60 safety improvement suggestions every year, and the majority of these suggestions are implemented. And employees reap the benefits of their own safe work habits by receiving half of the company’s savings from low workers’ compensation rates as annual bonuses.

The company’s commitment to safety has earned E.J. Ajax the Minnesota Safety Council Governor’s Award of Honor 14 times between 1992 and 2007, as well as being honored as the nation’s safest metal stamping company in 1999. E.J. Ajax also was the first Minnesota metal stamping company to achieve OSHA SHARP designation, which is awarded to small employers who operate an exemplary safety and health management system.

Reducing Risk

When E.J. Ajax received the largest order in company history last summer, the job presented a possible threat to worker safety by requiring the production of large parts weighing up to 100 pounds and more. While several workers could have handled each part manually, Ajax explains, the possibility of injury was too big a risk. It would also break the company’s 50-pound lift rule, a limit that Ajax says has been successful in eliminating employee strains and injuries.

Instead of ignoring risks to manage the new order, E.J. Ajax went on the offensive. After researching the safest approach to materials handling, the company installed an overhead crane system with a mechanical assist to move parts from machine to machine. “It allowed [workers] to move parts safely and efficiently,” Ajax says.

E.J. Ajax also prevents injuries through its wellness program, which calls on periodic visits from ergonomics professionals, including every time the company defines a new manufacturing job – like the large order placed last summer. This way, the company catches any potential ergonomics issues before they become problems.

The American Dream

E.J. Ajax has found that doing the right thing – protecting the workers and putting ethics first – is actually good for business. “We will spend the resources and invest the capital to ensure we have a safe work environment,” Ajax says, adding that safety and profitability aren’t as contradictory as some think. In fact, Ajax attributes his company’s ability to outlast competitors based in part on a workers’ compensation rate that saves thousands of dollars in insurance premiums.

E.J. Ajax’s safety record also helps the company’s retention rates and builds a strong reputation. Ajax recounts the story of a recent hire pulling him aside and telling him he chose to work for the company because of its excellent safety record. Ajax adds that it’s not unusual for spouses to approach him at the annual holiday party and thank him on behalf of their families for ensuring a safe work environment.

“People stay with us,” Ajax says. “Quite honestly, we provide a lot of opportunities for advancement.” Ajax explains he loves watching his workers achieve the American dream – advancing through the company, purchasing homes, having children and taking advantage of educational opportunities.

But what matters most, Ajax says, is seeing his workers “go home safely to their families, year after year.”

Distributing Safety at W. W. Grainger Inc.

Taking big steps to prevent risk makes Grainger a leader in safety and corporate responsibility.

By Laura Walter

When a company is one of the nation’s largest distributors of safety products, it only makes sense to promote safety within its own operations. Facilities maintenance products distributor W.W. Grainger Inc. carries product lines in a dozen categories, including tools, plumbing, maintenance, metalworking and safety and security. The company employs 14,500 employees at 428 branches and nine distribution centers within its U.S. operations, and has additional locations in Canada, Mexico and China. Despite its large size, Grainger keeps a close hold on the importance of workplace safety and makes employees feel included in the process.

“We are committed to the safety and well-being of our employees as well as our customers,” says Tressa Chambers-Milton, Grainger’s director of environmental, health and safety programs. “We encourage employee involvement to help ensure they are engaged and helping to improve our safety program.”

As a result, some distribution centers encourage employees to create safety slogans that are printed on banners and t-shirts and used throughout the facility. Slogans such as “Before you start, be safety smart” and “Safety’s intention is accident prevention” help employees connect to Grainger’s safety operations.

“Grainger is a safety-conscious company,” Chambers-Milton says. “Our employees are very passionate about getting products to customers quickly and efficiently. We work hard to make their environment as safe as possible.”

Extreme Makeover

In 2006, Grainger invested over $4 million to redesign the 700 shipping docks at its distribution centers. The new design incorporated dock restraint systems to ensure employees’ safety as they load and unload trailers. The systems secure trailers to the dock to prevent them from separating during loading and unloading activities.

“We identified it as a risk,” Chambers-Milton says of the previous docks. “We had to make sure the truck could not move while the forklift is in operation.” She describes the redesigned loading docks as “a big step in improving the safety of our employees and enhancing Grainger’s safety operations.”

With so many employees and branch locations, it can be challenging to distribute safety information throughout the company. Fortunately, online technology has helped the company streamline employee training and allows workers to train on select topics at their convenience.

“The Grainger Learning Center is accessible through a website,” Chambers-Milton says. “Any field employee can do the training at their convenience.” The company requires training to be completed within a specific time frame. “Everyone is measured through individual and team goals,” she adds.

For distribution center employees working in warehouse environments, Grainger hosts monthly safety sessions. Past topics have included conveyer safety, forklifts, ergonomics and lifting practices. Just showing up for training isn’t enough – employees are tested every 6 months for both competency and participation in these training sessions.

“A distribution center team can’t be high on participation and low on competency,” Chambers-Milton explains. This way, Grainger ensures that workers are absorbing and retaining the safety information. It’s a system that seems to work, considering Grainger’s history of safety and employee involvement.

Corporate Responsibility

In its branches and distribution centers throughout the country, Grainger promotes a safety-conscious culture. The Robbinsville, N.J., and Greenville, S.C., distribution centers recently achieved over 2 and 3 million hours worked without lost-time incidents. In 2006, employees at three distribution centers received Grainger’s Executive Safety Award for outstanding safety performance. To be worthy of the award, each center must pass a rigorous 13-point assessment. The Jacksonville, Fla., employees have demonstrated their dedication to safety by winning the award every year since their center’s opening.

Grainger also is dedicated to charitable contribution programs and environmentally sound practices, such as implementing extensive recycling programs and using soy ink for printed materials. Additionally, the company publishes a corporate responsibility report with a section on safe working conditions, which emphasizes “doing it right, working safely and acting responsibly” to maintain a safe workplace every day.

Kroger: A Grocery Cart Full of Good Ideas for Safety

Kroger Manufacturing might be better known among consumers for the foods it provides to Kroger grocery stores, but in some circles, the company is known for safe production.

By Sandy Smith

When 10,000 employees at 34 manufacturing sites have a lost-time injury rate less than one-third of the industry average, there’s more to peanut butter, cakes, meats and cheese – and safety – than meets the eye.

A few years ago, Kroger Manufacturing would not have made the cut for America’s Safest Companies. From 1994 to 1996, Kroger reached an average high of 18 OSHA-reportable injuries per 200,000 hours worked. “To be honest, safety performance – at the stores, the distribution centers and manufacturing – was less than stellar,” says Joe Girone, senior director of Manufacturing Human Resources/Labor Relations.

At the time, Girone worked at a Kroger Manufacturing facility in South Carolina that on paper looked pretty good; it had operated for 5 years without a lost-time incident. Despite that fact, “Something was missing,” says Girone. “A system approach, to help with continuous improvement, was lacking.”

Girone and others were asked to serve on a committee that examined safety needs at Kroger Manufacturing. They benchmarked against companies such as Proctor and Gamble and DuPont, and examined ISO 9000 requirements. In 1996, Kroger Manufacturing implemented a behavior-based safety program from BST and adopted the following safety principles:

  • Nothing we do is worth getting injured over. Our work is important, but the safety of every employee is our most important responsibility.
  • All injuries can be prevented. Every injury has a root cause that can be eliminated and therefore, every injury can be prevented. Bad luck plays no part in an effective safety process.
  • Safety will be managed. Safety is a process and by utilizing an effective safety process, we can manage safety results and reduce and eliminate injuries.
  • Safe behavior is a condition of employment for all employees. Employees who do not accept responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others will not be retained.

“This was a multi-million dollar investment without a tangible measurement of return,” remembers Melvin Jones, manufacturing safety trainer for Kroger Manufacturing. “This was very out-of-the-box for our company [which has a philosophy of] showing specific return on investment.”

The efforts have paid off. Today, recordable injuries for Kroger Manufacturing are a fraction – one-sixth – of what they were in 1996 and behavior-based safety is one of six elements of a safety process that also includes: expectations and involvement, goal setting and action planning, safe practices, plant training systems and performance tracking.

Volunteer safety committees examine both the behavior-based and physical sides of the safety process. There is no fault-finding when incidents occur, says Girone. Instead, incident investigation teams, the safety team and the safety committees look for and analyze the root cause of incidents, whether they were recordable or not, and take proactive action.

All Kroger employees – from management to line employees – are asked to set safety goals. For managers, the goals are related to the safety process at their facilities. For employees, the goal might be to increase participation on a safety committee or to generate a work order to improve the safety of a work process. Empowerment and participation in safety at all levels is evidenced by:

  • Any associate has the authority to shut down a line if running equipment or doing a task is deemed unsafe.
  • Senior management serves on the plant leadership safety team at the corporate level.
  • General managers hold safety meetings at least monthly.
  • Each division has a safety leader represented at the plant general manager level.

“We care about the welfare of our associates and are committed to providing the safest work environment possible,” says William Boehm, senior vice president of the the Kroger Co. and president of Kroger Manufacturing. “This award is the direct result of the focus our entire company places on safety. In fact, in the past 10 years, Kroger has cut accident rates in half in our stores, manufacturing facilities and warehouses. We believe every individual throughout our organization is responsible for safe work practices and reducing accidents.”

Louisiana-Pacific Corp. Builds Safety into Everything it Does

At this Nashville company, zero incidents is not just a goal, it is an expectation.

By Sandy Smith

Occupational Hazards has to get in line to recognize Louisiana-Pacific Corp. for safety. The company has received more than 60 safety, environmental and industry awards, including having eight facilities named OSHA Voluntary Protection Program Star sites. Many of the company’s 29 manufacturing locations have experienced hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hours worked without a recordable incident.

Safety this good doesn’t happen by accident. Safety is an ongoing process and commitment for the company.

“At LP, safety is not our No. 1 priority. As a matter of fact, safety is not a priority at all,” says Keith Harned, corporate safety and health director for the company’s 35 health and safety personnel and 5,600 employees. “We view safety as a core value. The difference is the approach. When safety is a priority, it competes with other priorities and can be shifted based on the current needs. When safety is a true core value, it is always there serving as a guide for our thoughts and actions.”

At Louisiana-Pacific – which manufactures building products such as oriented strand board, engineered wood products and moulding – a Safety and Health Vision and Principles support safety as a core value. The Safety and Health Vision states LP works to create an injury-free culture by controlling operating exposures through robust management systems and by holding everyone accountable for “flawless execution” of its safety principles.

Examples of management’s dedication to an injury-free culture are many. In 2005, all LP plants were shut down for a half-day so employees could engage in safety-related activities. While Harned acknowledges the stand down cost the company money short-term, “the long-term benefit was that all employees remember this as one of the positive pivotal points in our journey to injury-free production. It was a true demonstration that we do care about the people who operate our facilities.” As LP’s CEO Rick Frost says, “No one should have to get hurt working at LP.”

At Louisiana-Pacific, employees are given the tools they need to participate in safety. In addition to traditional safety training, which is integrated into the facility training plan, employees are taught to recognize and report potential hazards, including near misses. Employees also are encouraged to participate in evaluating methods to eliminate hazards.

Employees participate in other ways: Recently, a cross-sectional group of employees gathered in Nashville to consolidate company-wide safety equipment items. The team was represented by safety, supply, supervision and line employees from several plants. “The end result,” says Harned, “was an LP-specific safety product catalog that was developed by the users along with our key supplier. In addition to providing the correct safety equipment for our operations, this effort will save LP a great deal of money on an annual basis.”

The company utilizes a Safety Management System composed of 12 elements: leadership and commitment, planning, accountability, safety organization, training, metrics, incident reporting and investigation, site assessments, job safety procedures and occupational health, contractors and visitors, emergency preparedness and behavioral observations and contacts. There are five levels within each element, ranging from awareness building to continuously improving. Employees are involved in the process of evaluating the Safety Management System to provide input for improvement.

Participation doesn’t stop with employees. All meetings at Louisiana-Pacific start with a brief safety message – including meetings of the board of directors. Senior management team meetings place a safety and health update on the agenda as its first order of business. Operations managers for each business participate in bi-monthly safety conference calls with plant managers and plant safety managers.

Business-level safety celebrations, which are conducted at 250,000-hour increments, are attended by the vice president, the operations manager and corporate representatives from human resources and safety. These efforts are paying off, as evidenced by a total recordable rate that declined from 8.12 to 0.94 since 1996.

“LP’s Corporate Vision Statement enshrines the message that LP will be an employer of choice because, above all, it is a safe place to work,” says Harned.

Safety is Electric at M.B. Herzog

With a lost-time injury rate one-third of the industry’s average, it’s not surprising the employees at M.B. Herzog Electric Inc. are taught their role in the company’s safety culture from the time of hire.

By Sandy Smith

You know safety is a priority at a company when the company president submits the application for America’s Safest Companies and signs his name with a flourish.

“Our corporate policy puts the safety of our employees at the top of our priority list,” says Ryan Herzog, president of Paramount, Calif.-based M.B. Herzog Electric Inc. “The time, training, culture and efforts we have communicated with all of our team has produced a perfect safety culture with zero accidents in 3 years.”

At Herzog Electric, executive management, the safety department, supervisors and approximately 80 employees are committed to the principle: “We’re in this together!” From the time of hire, employees are made aware of their importance to the company’s safety culture. Every employee is asked to identify any hazard he or she deems unsafe in his or her daily duties without any reprisals or consequences.

The company’s Web site shares this message with visitors: “Without question, the safety of workers and clients on our job sites is of paramount importance to our business. There is no more important component to the Herzog philosophy then creating an environment in which to work safety is no accident ... At Herzog Electric, the pride and craftsmanship of our work, along with the safety of our workers, is the hallmark of our business.”

In one unique aspect of the company’s safety program, every employee has been asked to spend a day as an “OSHA inspector.” He or she was expected to point out any unsafe acts or potential OSHA violations. “It was well-received,” remembers Herzog of the program. “It gave every employee a hands-on experience of our expectations for safety and was a true benchmark of our regular, onsite, daily safety culture.”

As an electrical contractor, Herzog Electric employees often are off-site, at different locations, away from the vigilant eyes of the company’s safety manager, Harvey Broadway. But he has confidence that the safety culture fostered at Herzog Electric and the training offered to employees in OSHA regulations, lockout/tagout, confined space, ladder safety, lifting and CPR/first aid will keep them safe when they are out on job sites. Unlike some of our other America’s Safest Companies, Herzog Electric complies with two sets of standards and regulations: OSHA and NFPA 70 (the National Electrical Code). Even though NFPA 70-E is not an OSHA standard, Herzog Electric has spent a significant amount of money on PPE, tools, kits and program implementation to comply with NFPA 70-E.

“Our employees are educated,” Broadway says. “They are union, and they’ve all served a 5-year apprenticeship, plus, they have to take continuing education classes to renew their journeyman’s licenses. They are well aware of the hazards.”

Plus, Broadway adds, “We have a low turnover rate, and our newest employee has been with us 2 years. Most employees have been with us 10 years or more and our supervisors have been with us 15 to 17 years.”

Broadway says he travels to each of the company’s job sites each week. Currently, Herzog Electric employees are working as contractors for Raytheon, Exxon-Mobile and Boeing.

“I make sure they have the tools, supplies and PPE they need to work safely,” he says. “And I know they have the knowledge they need to be compliant with OSHA and NFPA standards.”

When Broadway conducts safety training, he tries to link it to current job sites and activities. “The previous safety director thought a more general approach to safety was best. I try to tailor it to the hazards they might face on the job, personalize it for them by talking about situations that actually are occurring.”

As any small business owner knows, every dollar counts, and Herzog says safety has paid off his company. “Daily safety allows employees to go home safely each day, and also gives MB a competitive advantage in the bidding process because we have a very low x-mode rate. This directly affects our bottom line by r

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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