Playing it safe? Well, yes and no

Jan. 1, 2003
W S Darley & Co, which has been producing fire trucks and equipment for 94 years, did not institute a series of wide-ranging safety changes just to reduce

W S Darley & Co, which has been producing fire trucks and equipment for 94 years, did not institute a series of wide-ranging safety changes just to reduce its insurance premiums.

The third-generation company did it because it was the right thing to do.

“Employees can now feel that they can bring any concerns out in the open, and the company will act on them and evaluate them,” says Jeff Darley, the company's 44-year-old executive vice-president and chief operating officer. “Before, perhaps nothing would get done and they'd have to bring it up again.

“The atmosphere for employees has increased in a positive manner. They know the company really cares. Before, I don't think that was the message upper management was delivering to employees. We might have taken the most economical approach.

“We want our employees out there every day. I can't deliver on time to customers if I don't have employees at work because they're injured. We said, ‘What's better?’ The answer was, ‘Making these investments in the long run.’ The return to our employees and customers has been significant.”

Darley & Co, which is headquartered in Melrose Park, Illinois, and has three manufacturing plants in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, is moving forward in a dynamic direction not just with the safety changes, but also with the construction of a 57,500-sq-ft addition to its pump-research facility and production of a patented fire truck body made of polypropylene and polyethylene.

The company knew in 1999 that something needed to be done. It had found itself on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 200 list because of a high rate of work days lost due to accidents. Its first steps were to hire a safety director, Paul Danielson, and establish a safety committee consisting of supervisors from all three plants along with a representative from the direct labor pool. The mandate: conduct safety inspections and meet monthly.

“The committee had kind of become a routine thing,” Darley says. “We had nobody driving it. We needed a single person.”

Paul Darley, the company's 39-year-old president and Jeff's cousin, said he initially was opposed to hiring a safety manager.

“It was primarily because I didn't see a payback,” he says. “It appeared to me as if we were adding unnecessary overhead. I'm glad to see I was proved wrong. We stress the importance of employees' safety, and not have it be a secondary benefit.”

Danielson leads a group that walks through all three plants in Chippewa Falls: a manufacturing facility that builds all components for the fire pumps (gears, shafts, casings, etc); a plant that assembles, tests, and ships what is made in that manufacturing facility; and a plant that manufactures fire apparatus, including the composite body made of polypropylene and polyethylene.

They check for potential safety hazards, whether it might be electrical cords or the way lifting is being done in the stock room.

A thorough investigation is performed after every injury. Employees are encouraged to report every incident to their supervisor — what happened and how it happened, even if it was a cut finger on a sharp edge. Employees are asked to make suggestions regarding how such an injury could be avoided in the future.

“It's gone well,” Danielson says. “A lot of it has been just training and awareness. The supervisors previously had all been responsible for training, but they had other things going on, and it became a situation where they asked: ‘Do I get production out the door or take care of safety issues?’ When I came on board, we were able to more carefully address the safety issues.”

A treat for employees

Darley & Co also has established a safety award program in which it celebrates significant time periods during which there are no lost-day injuries. For 100 days, all employees at a plant might be served doughnuts at their 10 am break. After 300 days, the company might serve a steak dinner. Savings bonds of $50 and $100 are awarded.

“People don't want to be the one that breaks the streak,” Jeff says.

The company also has partnered more closely with Liberty Mutual Group, which has been carrying the company's insurance for over 70 years. Liberty Mutual has evaluated the workplace and coached employees on ways to improve safety, rather than simply do a quarterly walk-through of the facilities.

Key changes have been made in equipment and the way it is used:

  • They studied the ergonomics of bending and grabbing the rope handle to manually start engines (i.e., Briggs & Stratton 11-hp and 18-hp) for their fire pumps. They've also studied ergonomics in an attempt to reduce back injuries caused by lifting a 50-lb shaft made of high-strength steel for the pumps, or by loading pallets on CNC machines. Most of the company's machines are CNC machines that require workers to feed their work into the jaws or chucks.

    “Rather than have employees pull them out of little pans on the floor, we made carts that they can sit in,” Jeff says. “They are elevated from the floor with a comfortable working height.”

  • The company has some large components, such as 100-lb volute housings for the pumps. Employees used to manually lift them onto a fixturing table that goes into the CNC machines for milling and tapping actions. After studying that setup, the company bought jib cranes that reach down into the basket and put the volute housings onto the fixture.

  • Acoustic padding was added to the walls of the facility where fire pumps are tested to reduce potential hearing damage in that environment.

  • The company invested in overhead hoists (OMi Crane Systems) and improved hand tools in the fire apparatus manufacturing plant. Previously, workers would combine two forklifts to lift fire bodies and pump modules and install them on chassis.

  • Clutter has been reduced in the machine shop, which had been expanded in numerous stages over the years.

  • Foam guards have been installed on some tools to reduce vibration that could lead to carpal-tunnel injuries.

Results of change

Work days lost to accidents have fallen from 51 in 2000 to 15 in 2002 (all due to one accident). The change has been so dramatic that Darley & Co has gone from a spot on the OSHA list to a Gold Award from Liberty Mutual Group. The Gold Award recognizes significant outstanding improvements in the number of work days lost.

“People can talk the talk, but if they don't walk it, it isn't going to happen,” Jeff says. “We know we're not going to totally eliminate every accident that could possibly occur in our workplace, but we definitely have come a long way in our focus and attention. That's one of the core values in our company. We state that in our core values to every employee. We didn't do that before.”

Although premiums have been lowered by $50,000 a year because of the decrease in work days lost, overhead has been increased by adding the safety director and making the equipment changes. But the overall gain has been immeasurable.

“There's a different feeling,” Jeff says of the environment in the plants. “We continue to make investments in equipment and changes, and I know we have a much happier workforce.”

New facility

The workforce will be even happier when the company completes the new manufacturing facility in May. When that's completed, the company will move out of its Walnut Street pump plant, which has been used since 1938 — 35,000 sq ft on two acres — but is now landlocked in a residential area about three miles south of the other two plants. That property probably will be sold or donated to the community to establish a park. Another option would be to keep it in anticipation of further growth.

The idea is to group all three plants on the same property. The new plant will be an expansion of the present facility, which was built in 1992 and houses pump final assembly and testing. That will eliminate material handling between the plants.

“We have the need to get under one roof,” Jeff says. “We have multiple CNC machines and they never were strategically located because the floor design didn't lend itself to that. Today, a lot of things are planned as far as strategically locating equipment to improve throughput and efficiency. We'll go to work coupling, as opposed to a machine that does one function of a component and then you go across the building to put it on another machine.

“Work cells are basically being established. Gear operations would be in one area. We've minimized material flow and handling.”

The new building will connect to the existing plant, which currently has 18,500 sq ft. A wall will separate one area of the assembly, testing, and inventory control from the actual manufacturing. Throughput walls will be built right into the new addition. The new complex will house all offices: engineering, customer service, purchasing, and quality control.

The addition will be dedicated to pump manufacturing and compressed air-foam systems, and to the development and manufacturing of the composite bodies.

Poly bodies

Darley & Co has a patent on a chemical composition it uses to create a virgin material that it forms and bends to build fire apparatus truck bodies.

“It's different than anyone in the industry,” Jeff says. “There are poly materials used in fire trucks, but mainly just with the water tank. We've taken that technology and used it in another method to manufacture fire truck bodies. We actually have brakes that are used, and a thermal couple runs underneath the piece of composite, flat-sheet material. You put it in a brake and brake the material at 90 degrees and retain it for a three-minute period. After it's heated up to the appropriate temperature, it forms a bent sheet of poly material.

“We can weld it and fuse it together, very similar to aluminum and steel. There are poly welders out in the marketplace that you feed your poly resin rod in a heated form. You heat up the material, very similar to methods you use with steel.”

He lists these advantages:

  • There is no corrosion. “Corrosion is one of the highly effecting reasons why fire truck bodies deteriorate so badly.”

  • In an accident, it has localized impact, as opposed to the accordion effect of aluminum and steel. “Poly materials break out and fracture in a localized area, making repair and service easier and more economical.”

  • It is warm-weather and cold-weather resistant. “A lot of people feel that when you get plastics in temperatures below zero, they tend to break and fracture. But the consistency we've put together lends itself well to a wide temperature range.”

  • It can be painted, which creates a beautiful finish. The paint includes a flex agent to allow for the expansion and contraction of the material without affecting the finish.

  • It is impact resistant. “You can actually take a hammer and hit it, and it won't dent.”

Niche found

He says Darley & Co felt it was not a “significant player” in the marketplace and needed to find a niche. The company had seen how well poly tanks had held up in fire apparatus, and felt it could be done with the truck bodies. Now the company has its niche.

Darley & Co partnered with ProPoly of America, which had been producing water tanks, and formed PolyBilt. The body is being offered to other fire apparatus builders and it is available on the open marketplace. Jeff says PolyBilt is the only company in the industry that is “doing it in a fully integrated fire apparatus body.”

Darley & Co has sold over 150 of these bodies domestically and internationally, including to China. He says that although the fire-service industry is receptive to new ideas, it is “definitely traditional.” The natural question is to ask, “Why go with poly?”

“Perhaps your first thought when I say we're going to make a plastic fire truck is, ‘It's inferior to a metal truck,’” Jeff says. “So by going out and demonstrating it and putting it in places where it's exposed to extreme elements, you're getting a track record.

“Everybody says, ‘You're in a fire environment. Geez, the plastic will melt.’ I think the tires would melt long before the body. We've done bending tests, fracture tests, painting and etching tests.

“It's so new. As far as acceptance and being able to establish a strong presence, it typically has taken a good number of years in the fire-service industry.”

CAFS technology

He says the company also has been somewhat of a pioneer since the early 1980s with CAFS (Compressed Air Foam System). Darley & Co took the concept of a water and foam system, and by injecting air into the stream created an integrated system that could bring all the elements together at a fire scene.

“We took the air compressor and mounted it directly and drove it proportionately right off the transmission of our fire pump,” he says. “We made manifolds on our pumps to have all of these mixtures flow into a central distribution manifold, known today in the industry as AutoCAFS.

“Today, we're not the only product on the marketplace. As a result of our initial steps into the market, our competition was shortly behind our footsteps. The ability of Darley to integrate these components has been somewhat met by our competition as well, so we all have these systems, but we have another company (Odin) that used to build fire pump systems specifically for the Bureau of Land Management and areas of that jurisdiction out in Oregon. We purchased that company in 1997 and that brought our product into a much broader line than anybody in the industry.

“We feel it's the leading technology, and the fire services are beginning to recognize it as the best technology in the last 100 years that's entered the fire service as far as suppressing fires rapidly with the least amount of effects from water damage. You use very little water today with a CAFS than with a traditional method of mixing just plain water and foam together at a high volume. It's 10 to 15 times more effective than just plain water. Independent agencies are studying this now to take these claims and actually prove the claims and set standards on them for the fire service. It's come a long way in 15 years.”

Darley & Co's new AutoCAFS II system is included on The FireTruck, which it believes is the industry's fire truck of the future. It was selected at the Fire Department and Instructors Conference as one of the top 10 products to enter the fire service in 2002.

It includes: a PolyBilt body; Robinson full-height compartments with roll-up doors on both sides; a slide-in ladder compartment at the right rear that can hold a 24', two-section ladder, a 12' attic ladder, 10' folding ladders, and two pike poles.

The FireTruck's main firefighting component: Darley's new LDMBC 1500 gpm, CAFS-equipped, mid-ship mounted single-stage pump; a 1000-gallon water tank, a 20-gallon foam tank, and a newly designed, color-embedded-vision wrap-around pump panel; an AutoCAFS II system that supplies a preconnected front-bumper discharge and CAFS foam to the deck gun, a rear 2" discharge, and two crosslays.

The FireTruck is built on an HME four-door chassis, powered by a Cummins 330-hp diesel connected to an Allison MD3060P automatic transmission.

Darley & Co has come a long way since 1908, when the company was started by Jeff's grandfather, William Stewart Darley.

“We're definitely in an expansion and growth mode as we speak,” he says. “Each year, we've had more market penetration. Our goal is to continue to see good, steady growth and to serve the world's fire and emergency services by providing high-quality, safe, and innovative products.”

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.