From Tragedy to Triumph: Safety Grows Wings at Golden Eagle

How a large refinery is taking a unique approach to incentives.

by Don Williamson and Jon Kaufman

Rich Leland has worked at the Golden Eagle Refinery for 24 years. He's survived a succession of name and ownership changes, tragedies and a recent change in the safety culture that may provide valid answers about the benefit of safety incentive programs. In 2005, the refinery completed the second year of a unique and successful safety incentive program that is changing the culture at a once-troubled facility.

Leland is health and safety superintendent at Golden Eagle. He began as a laborer, transferred to operations in 1983 and then to the Health and Safety Department in 1988.

He has experienced the management styles of different owners and their differing attitudes about safety. He notes that safety concerns took a turn for the better with the purchase of the refinery by Ultramar Diamond Shamrock in 2000 and has continued to improve under new owner Tesoro Petroleum, which bought the plant in 2002.

The Golden Eagle refinery, formerly known as Tosco Avon Refinery and Phillips Avon Refinery, is located in Contra Costa County on the east side of San Francisco Bay in the city of Martinez, Calif. It is Tesoro's largest facility and processes approximately 178,000 barrels of crude oil per day into transportation fuels. It also has been the site of some of the worst refinery accidents in the region.

"For me coming through the ranks and working as a laborer all over the refinery, I know more people than most and I grew close to people in the plant," Leland says. "When I came to health and safety, it became a personal issue. I don't want to see anyone I know injured or in a position to be injured."

It was a blow to that philosophy when a large portion of the health and safety department was eliminated under a former owner in 1998 and health and safety responsibilities were transferred to front-line supervision. In 1999, four workers were killed in a fire that started during a maintenance project. In 1997, a blast killed one worker and injured 46 others. There were a total of eight major incidents from 1983 to 1999.

"Following the 1999 incident, there was a massive, 4-month facility shutdown We retrained everyone on safety expectations, and created six new safety positions," says Leland. "Previous to that, we had recordable incident rates in the 3.5 to 4.5 range. Since then we've managed to lower that number to 1.64 for 2004 and 1.15 for 2005."

"Shortly after the shutdown, we were sold to Ultramar and the focus started to shift toward more safety training for folks in the refinery," says Leland. "The philosophy was to get people more engaged in safety behaviors. Then, when Tesoro took over, they addressed the safety culture and tried to get more people involved.

Tesoro brought in new management that was able to convey concern about folks in the refinery, according to Leland.

"That didn't happen quickly," Leland says. "It took time to take root. It took actions like putting money into the infrastructure and sponsoring new health and safety programs and being as concerned about health and safety as the bottom line."

Culture change is difficult to initiate and to sustain in an environment where things have not been done properly for years and when some employees believe that safety is not a top management priority.

"We still had a lot of folks who weren't going out of their way to follow our safety policies, much less talk to other people about their safety behaviors" says Leland. "There were attitudes and perceptions that needed to be changed. We had folks who felt the company was not concerned about them and wasn't willing to put effort into safety actions and making changes at the floor level."

Shifting the Culture

It was then that Leland began looking for a safety incentive program to help create ongoing momentum for a shift in the safety culture at Golden Eagle.

"The refinery health and safety manager and I had talked about a behavioral-based incentive program that rewarded people for what they actually did," says Leland. "We wanted something that was simple to manage and administer, was centered around behavioral activities and that encouraged everyone to participate."

Management did not want to use negative motivation. The behavior model was deemed preferable to offset concerns that programs relying on statistics like the number of hours without an injury might drive incident reporting down rather than actually improve safety. Management responded positively to the idea. They wanted to try new things to gain employee participation, as well as ensure a return on their investment.

Leland sits on a joint health and safety committee at the refinery that includes union and non-union members. He thought that committee was the logical group to shape the safety incentive program.

"We obviously needed buy-in from all sides of the house," Leland says. "We didn't want this program coming down from refinery management saying 'you shall participate.' I said we have some ideas and would like to know what you think.

"The initial reaction from the union was positive. We asked for people to serve as volunteers and began to look at several vendors who offered these types of programs."

A Web-based program was desirable because employees already utilized a company intranet site to log their work hours, overtime, benefits and other employment information.

The committee looked at programs operating at other facilities, discussed the materials provided by vendors and finally asked companies to make presentations. Kaufman, Levine & Partners Inc. of San Carlos, Calif., was selected because it offered an online, behavior-based program that required a minimum of administrative oversight at the refinery level. KL&P's Karen Thompson and Jon Kaufman met with the committee several times to help develop the concept.

"For years, we've been developing incentive and training programs that support behavior-based safety improvement initiatives. We recognize employees for their involvement, rather than the traditional milestone achievement, and this results in an empowered workforce. The old-school management method of top-down edict and fear just doesn't work anymore ... if it ever really did," says Jon Kaufman, vice president and creative director for KL&P.

"We feel that what makes significant sustainable improvement is to work on the culture of an environment. It's not what people do, but what they feel and what their assumptions and norms are," explains Thompson. "You know you have a safety culture when people are doing the right thing when no one is watching."


According to Kaufman, the biggest objection management usually has to incentive programs is cost. The recognition program at Golden Eagle is not inexpensive: It costs 67 cents a day (12 cents per hour) per employee, and there were 650 employees at Golden Eagle when the program started. There is a $20 per month/per person budget limit to what employees can earn, so the program was allotted a budget of $140,000.

"When a safety professional goes to management asking for a budget of 12 cents per hour to institute a healthy safety culture, a strong case for large return on investment can be made," says Kaufman.

"Another major objection to incentives is the question of effectiveness. That's because the approach has been dead wrong," he adds. "For years, safety incentive programs have been hinged to hitting monetary or numerical targets 6 months without a lost-time injury and everyone gets a jacket."

That leads to underreporting, he notes. Employees hurt themselves but bandage it up themselves or go home and see their personal physician. Plus, says Kaufman, "When everything is based on hitting a target and that target is not hit, there are winners and losers. It becomes a competition between departments and there are more losers than winners. It brings morale way down."

Ken Vier has been at the refinery since 1977 and knows about the effects of low morale. He is a health and safety representative for the Paper Allied Industrial Chemical and Energy Union, Local 8-5, sits on the health and safety committee and works in the Golden Eagle Health and Safety Department.

"My first thoughts were that we've tried this before and it hasn't worked. But since they sat down and said this is your program, set it up the way you want to, I thought it might have a chance. A lot of people remember how it was in the past," says Vier. "I'm a firm believer now. People who were hard sells are coming on board. It works because it's an individual thing. We had different programs that had a team concept and people were discouraged because they had no control over other folks."

KL&P offered Golden Eagle an incentive structure that was more in line with boosting elements of the safety culture and acknowledged employee activism and involvement. Kaufman asserts that better safety numbers will follow if people get involved.

"Judging the safety of a facility solely by the numbers is like judging a safe driver by how many tickets he or she has," says Kaufman. "Maybe that person is safer, maybe they're just not getting caught. If you measure things like checking the oil pressure, the lights, the signals, doing periodic maintenance checks and similar activities, that's a better measure of being prepared as a safe driver. It's a different approach."

Growing WINGS

It was an approach that the health and safety committee and ultimately the management at Golden Eagle thought was worth trying.The program was named WINGS (Willing Involvement Nurtures Greater Safety) to relate to the Golden Eagle name. The points that employees earn for engaging in safety-related activities are called "WINGS."

"We created the software and modified it along the way," Thompson elaborates. "The main feature that makes it different from other online incentive programs is that an administrator can add points to a worker's personal account for specific activities with point values that are preloaded.

"Management can access reports and get a dashboard on their computer screen to see how the facility is doing by department, supervisor, subgroup, date, person or whatever." Employees can also log on to check their points, see how close they are to a specific reward and then redeem WINGS 24 hours a day.

There are 28 activities available for WINGS rewards, including conducting safety meetings; taking emergency response training; conducting a company vehicle safety inspection; mentoring a new hire for a week; or taking a safety quiz. Employees can accumulate up to 400 WINGS a month and are able to earn from 50 to 200 WINGS for each activity. An administrator logs the points onto the company Web site after verification. Points also can be awarded through the issuance of coupons, good for 100 WINGS. Managers award these coupons on the spot as they "catch" people in the act of safe behavior.

Employees can redeem their WINGS for merchandise such as T-shirts, road atlases, power tools, DVD players, household appliances or sporting goods. Many of the items are even imprinted or embroidered with the WINGS logo and shipped directly to the employee's home.

"We liked the acronym WINGS and had a good feel about the program and about giving prizes and not cash," remembers Jeannie Kirstein, operations engineer at Golden Eagle, who serves on the committee. "We wanted tangible gifts and to reward people for safety. We started working on prizes that were things we would want."

Keeping the program positive was a key goal for KL&P and for the development committee.

"We didn't want to penalize people," adds Jan Bettencourt who works in administration in the Maintenance and Turnaround Department. "We didn't want to give people a set number of points and then deduct from them. We took a positive approach and let them earn as many WINGS as possible. It took quite a few months to put it together. There were eight people on the committee and each of us had a portion of responsibility. We brought ideas to the table that we felt would work best for our refinery."

Leland agreed that keeping the program positive was essential and noted that creating the point and activity structure was the most difficult initial process.

"If you have reportable injuries, it does not affect your WINGS. Even if you're injured you can participate in the program. There is no way of disqualifying," says Leland. "The hardest part was putting together a list of activities that applied to a broad range of people and not be so confusing that it would discourage people from participating. The committee met 2 hours a week for several months and everyone had homework to do and there was a lot of leg work for the committee and my department, but KL&P made the process easier."

The Unveiling

After months of planning, The Golden Eagle WINGS Safety Incentive Program was unveiled at a company-wide luncheon for all employees on Jan. 4, 2004. The plant manager spoke in support of the program, prizes were handed out and the inner workings of the program were explained. The heavy lifting of selling the program to the work force was the next major hurdle.

"Selling it to the folks out there was the hardest. Part of the problem is that we just were not ready for it before. Our safety culture just wasn't where we wanted it to be," says Jose Mendez, a health and safety representative for the Paper Allied Industrial Chemical and Energy Union, Local 8-5, who works in the Health and Safety Department and sits on the committee. "Then we had a terrible accident that opened people's eyes. That left us ready for the program when we set up WINGS."

He noted that some employees "had been slapped around pretty bad and still had hard feelings. When we set up the program, it had to be above reproach no negatives. If you have a misstep in WINGS you still have your points, because as hard as you try, every once in a while a person will slip up."

Mendez helps to oversee the Eagle Eye Program, which is called a near-miss program at most facilities. Employees submit reports detailing unsafe acts or conditions throughout the refinery. Initially, few people took advantage of the program and those who did made their submissions anonymously. That has changed dramatically and Mendez views the increase in the number of Eagle Eye reports as an indicator that the program is succeeding. Since WINGS was initiated, he says, the Eagle Eye reports have more than doubled.

"WINGS works. It's not some program the administration tried to force down our throats," he adds. "The work force was ready to accept what we were trying to sell and we had a good core group union, non-union, men, women, the office group and labor. The diversity made a difference."

Although WINGS is behavior-based and not tied to numbers, special WINGS bonuses were awarded to all program participants after major events like an entire year without lost-time due to injuries and 1 million hours without an injury. During the month of December 2004, the committee offered a double WINGS promotion and employees were able to earn double points for their safety activities.

"It wasn't held out as bait or even mentioned until the mark was passed," said Leland. "It was a way of saying congratulations. We don't want to drive injury reporting underground. One of the main objectives is to keep injury reporting on top and make sure there is no backlash for reporting injuries. We want to make sure people get the care they need if they are injured."

Employee Buy-In

One person at Golden Eagle who may have the best sense of the WINGS program is health and safety programs coordinator Becky Olson, who actually administers the program. All WINGS points are turned into her. She does the data entry and writes monthly reports on all WINGS activities.

Membership in the program increased over the year. Out of 680 employees, 412 have participated since the January kickoff, says Olson. "For a company that has had real trials and left people suspicious of any program brought to it, this was a real challenge. But there are some who said they wouldn't be involved and have been here for 20 years who are coming around," she adds.

One aspect with which Olson is especially pleased is the feedback provided to the program committee by the workers in the plant.

"There is a suggestion button on the Web site and people send in comments and ideas and we discuss them in the meetings. If people have a valid general information question, we put it and the answer on the Frequently Asked Questions page," says Olson. "People also suggest new items to add to the awards list and new safety activities to be added to that list. It was people in the plant that designed the new forms we're using. Some people are really gung ho and max out every month. Some get all their points in by the fifth day of the month."

Olson notes the company works to keep the program fresh for employees. "We keep looking at options as people send them in to us," says Olson. "If we let the list grow stagnant and there's nothing new and it fails, it's our fault. People are seeing that they can get WINGS points and hopefully keep someone from getting injured. If the program failed, that might affect people seeing things that are unsafe and ultimately endanger lives."

KL&P's Kaufman also has a broader vision for this brand of safety culture improvement.

"It's part of my job to empower safety directors. That is what this [program] represents to me. Safety folks are often not thought of as being valuable members of top management," says Kaufman. "But they should be empowered, because the entire culture of a facility can be impacted by a safety manager."

Kaufman says he tells safety professionals all over the country they should be able to ask the plant or general manager for a 10-minute meeting to impart three things: first, that they are dedicated to making their operation a world-class safety facility and the most profitable in the company; secondly, that in order to do that, the SH&E department will need 1 percent of the general manager's time and energy; and finally, that they will need a reasonable budget of 12 cents per hour per employee.

In his report to the executives, Leland highlighted several accomplishments in the efforts to improve the culture at the Golden Eagle Refinery in 2005. Among them:

  • A 1.23 recordable injury rate
  • 1.5 million work hours without a lost-time injury
  • 1.5 million contractor work hours without a lost-time injury
  • A 270 percent increase in near-miss reports
  • 500 employees completing respiratory protection physicals and 106 employees certified as HazMat technicians.

All of these event occurred in a year of major construction, retrofit and turnaround activities at Golden Eagle.

However, Leland thinks the real test of the program will be after WINGS has been in operation for another 4 or 5 years.

"It's difficult to use recordable injury rates as indicators for success of this program. Now there aren't enough injuries anymore to have a definitive trend. There's been a change in the culture because people are participating and as that happens, incident rates will continue to come down," says Leland.

With that prediction as a backdrop, injuries may be reduced, lives may be saved, people may feel better about where they work and it all happened for 12 cents an hour.

Don Williamson was selected as a fellow at Stanford University's distinguished John S. Knight Fellowship for Professional Journalists and has received the National Headliners Award for Outstanding Reporting, among many others. A former associate editor for the Philadelphia Daily News and columnist for the Seattle Times, his regular opinion columns were distributed nationally by the Knight-Ridder News Service. Williamson was also producer for Chicago Public Broadcasting and news and public affairs director for the Kansas Public Broadcasting Service.

Jon Kaufman is vice president and creative director of Kaufman, Levine & Partners Inc. Kaufman heads KL&P Motivation, and has been designing and administrating incentive and training programs for safety and productivity improvement for over 25 years. He is an associate member of ASSE and a frequent exhibitor at ASSE shows. He can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 359-7995, x-228.

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