Pumping up plant safety

Dec. 1, 2003
There can be no work more rewarding and no job more fulfilling than helping to protect the lives and well-being of the working men and women who keep

“There can be no work more rewarding and no job more fulfilling than helping to protect the lives and well-being of the working men and women who keep our nation strong. We can make a difference and we will.”
— John L Henshaw, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA

HENSHAW unveiled the Occupational Safety & Health Administration's new strategic management plan in a speech at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo on May 12 in Dallas, Texas.

Under the new plan, OSHA's three goals are to: reduce occupational hazards through direct intervention; promote a safety and health culture through compliance assistance, cooperative programs, and strong leadership; and maximize OSHA's effectiveness and efficiency by strengthening its capabilities and infrastructure.

OSHA says its goal is to reduce workplace fatality rates by 15% and workplace injury and illness rates by 20% by 2008. OSHA will emphasize specific areas each year in an attempt to achieve its broader goal. This year, OSHA's goal is a 3% drop in construction fatalities and a 1% drop in general industry fatalities, along with a 4% percent drop in injuries and illnesses in construction, general industry, and specific industries with high hazard rates, including landscaping/horticultural services, oil and gas field services, blast furnace and basic steel products, ship and boat building and repair, and other high-hazard industries.

It came against a backdrop of rising concern about the cost of workplace accidents.

Employers spent over $40 billion in 1999 for direct worker compensation costs — a 3.6% increase over the year before — according to the 2002 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index.

The leading cause of injury was overexertion (5.5% of the total) related to lifting and moving heavy objects. Indirect costs include finding substitute workers, handling litigation, and developing return-to-work programs. In addition, there are thousands of unreported cases in which employees continue to work with minor back injuries and subsequently experience limited productivity.

According to Jim York of commercial insurer Zurich Services Corp, an analysis of 2,800 freight carrier claims between 1998 and 2000 revealed that the average worker compensation costs were $10,175 for pushing/pulling and $8,989 for lifting/bending incidents.

OSHA fine

Earlier this year, OSHA slapped a $175,000 fine on a Houston sheet metal fabrication shop for its failure to implement procedures to prevent the accidental startup of a waste-handling machine that contributed to the death of an employee.

Following an investigation that began in July 2002, Campo Sheet Metal Works Inc, a manufacturer of various metal works, was fined for four alleged willful and two alleged serious violations of the OSHA Act. According to Secretary of Labor Elaine L Chao, the company had been previously cited, and the accident might have been prevented if appropriate safety standards had been followed.

Trailer companies are embracing the need for increased vigilance in the area of worker safety and the validity of OSHA's new strategic management plan.

“We want to be an industry leader not just in manufacturing, but in the safety component,” says Brent Yeagy, corporate director of environmental health & safety (EHS) at Wabash National. “We want our community, our associates, and our stakeholders to know that we want to be an ethical company that does the appropriate things — one of those being that we're going to commit to having a safe and healthy workplace.”

“We're working on making changes all the time,” says Stoughton general manager Brad Alfery, whose company won a 2003 Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association plant safety award, joining Great Dane and Heil. “We're always looking for ways to make the job easier and to address ergonomic issues.

“We've gotten the award in the past a few times, and we're proud of it and we sure tell our people about it. It reinforces the message you try to give them about safety. It's something you have to work on all the time.”

Stoughton's steps

At Stoughton, the most effective steps have included:

  • Concentrating on increasing the company's safety training with supervisory staffs, then training the employees.

    “With that training, there's increasing emphasis on awareness to avoid complacency,” says Kate Schieldt, director of human resources.

  • Reviews of safety performance and management performance.

  • An aggressive return-to-work program.

    “We have a very diligent workers' comp program,” she says. “We're self-insured and self-administered, so we can create tighter controls for ourselves. We provide weekly information on safety performance to our supervisors. Our safety, workers' comp, and occupational programs work very closely. So when there's an injury, we have systems in place so that the doctor the employee is seeing understands what programs we have for restricted duty, so that we can get the person back as soon as possible.

    “We have an occupational health department with full-time RNs. We have provider relationships established so these providers have an understanding of our facilities.”

  • Concentrating on creating a more proactive, rather than reactive, environment.

    “But when we do have injuries, we have an injury review board looking at injuries and studying them to prevent them from happening again,” she says. “We also have a system in place through our workers' comp/occupational health and safety department to identify any concerns of an employee who may have a safety pattern.”

  • Implementing a glove program to reduce lacerations.

“We identified areas that require gloves and what types of gloves, so the employees have the proper personal protective equipment,” she says. “We've reduced lacerations significantly.

“We care very much about our employees. The last thing we want to see is an employee going home with an injury. Our goal every day is to have our employees go home safely so they can be with their families.”

Great Dane actions

Audrea Spurlock, safety representative at Great Dane Trailers' plant in Greenville, Mississippi, says plant safety is important because: managers are obligated to provide a safe workplace for their employees; a safe workplace improves the morale of the employees, which affects other aspects of their work; and workplace injuries are costly, and the only way to minimize the cost is to promote safety to each employee.

She says the company has formed a safety network with all of Crown Company's safety representatives.

“We feel by forming this network, we've increased the safety awareness for all employees, she says. “We also have established safety committees in many of our locations made up of hourly employees and members of management to stay on top of safety issues and we have safety training in each location on all safety policies. By promoting the importance of safety to all employees, we have lowered our overall workers' compensation costs and reduced the number of work related injuries.

“The importance of workplace safety is now ranked equally with quality and production within our company, resulting in a lower number of OSHA recordable injuries and lost workday cases.”

Wabash initiatives

At Wabash, the workplace environment has been a high priority for the team of executives — CEO Bill Greubel, COO Dick Giromini, and VP of Manufacturing/Continuous Improvement Jerry Linzey — that took over last year and have resurrected a company whose very survival was threatened by layoffs, $300 million in losses over a three-year period, and a plunging stock price.

Back in May, Wabash reported its first profitable quarter since the fourth quarter of 2000. Its first-quarter profit was $1.43 million, or 5 cents a share, versus a loss of $14.58 million, or 65 cents a share, in the first quarter of 2002. The stock price hit $19.75 in September — a far cry from its low of $3.55 in October 2002.

“Mr Greubel demanded that safety at Wabash be at a level to support our gains going forward,” Yeagy said. “He did that in a value statement to the company. He laid out that our highest value was going to be safety, that we owed that to our associates and ourselves. That started the road.”

Yeagy was hired in February, with the mandate to focus on three issues: the overall health and safety culture; implementation of safety engineering principles; and improvement in health and safety awareness, and increasing the level of expectation.

Yeagy says that between the beginning of the year and the end of September, Wabash had: reduced its OSHA recordable incident rate by 44%, which puts it below the industry average; reduced its days-away-from-work rate (number of cases per 100 employees) by 50%, with a rate of 0.47 for August; reduced its days-away-from-work workday rate (the number of days lost per 100 workers) by 67%.

He says Giromini talks about operational excellence as being a three-legged stool: safety, quality, and productivity. Without one of those three legs, the stool can't support itself.

“We wholeheartedly buy into that as an organization,” Yeagy says. “Just from a business standpoint, Wabash cares about safety because injuries and illness involve a significant cost. Not just a monetary cost, but a cost to our associates — their physical well-being. That's paramount to us.

“The discipline required to work safely fosters good management of our overall business. It creates a medium where discipline is accepted and rewarded. It has been said as our fundamental value going forward that we will maintain the work environment and our employees' health and safety as our first concern.”

Major changes

The changes at Wabash include:

  • Making simple statements of acceptable behavior that supports the overall value statement.

    “Here's where we're at — our baseline — and here's where we need to be to support that value,” Yeagy says. “Just simple communication.”

  • Increasing the level of associate involvement in the safety process through tangible actions that support safety on the floor every day.

  • Improving the shop floor decision-making by supervisors and hourly associates. The company did that by implementing supervisory development training. For hourly associates, it's an offshoot of behavior-based safety that the company calls “Making the Right Choices.”

  • Implementing an EHS accountability process that incorporates specific and targeted goals and objectives with time frames and measurable deliverables.

  • Implementing System Safety Engineering. This is a system of hazard analysis methods, including safety design standards for equipment, processes and work methods, and integrating safety throughout the process life cycle.

“From the conceptual stage of development, we build safety in at that stage and carry it through the conceptual phase, design phase, development phase, implementation phase, and retirement phase — the entire life cycle,” Yeagy says.

Specific initiatives in the plant include:

  • Making a concerted effort to eliminate the use of ladders in trailer construction or manufacturing. This has included using work platforms and powered lift stations.

    “The attempt is to get the operator to the point of work,” Yeagy says. “Let's not create safety issues and a reduction in productivity by having non-value-added activities where people are climbing up and down ladders or jumping in and out of trailers. (What we've done is) not just a safety improvement. That's a quality and production improvement.”

  • Ergonomics. Material handling has been improved — both through workplace organization and engineering efforts to simplify it. Inventory has been reduced to more manageable levels.

  • Re-establishing a personal protective equipment program that targets eye and hand injuries.

“It's worked dramatically,” Yeagy says. “We've seen significant improvement in reducing eye injuries. We still have hand injuries, but the results have been more positive.”

5S approach

He said a large part of the improvement can be tied to the 5S approach that has been used effectively in the Toyota Production System.

  • Sort: Eliminate unnecessary items from the workplace.

  • Set In Order: Develop efficient storage methods.

  • Shine: Carefully clean the work area.

  • Standardize: Determine best practices in the work area and repeat them.

  • Sustain: Do not return to previous habits.

Yeagy says there was no external prompting to make the changes. It's just something Wabash wanted to do.

“Top management set the direction,” he says. “But it's been the hourly associates, the supervisors, the engineers — that first line — who have been making the improvements, who are improving the way they run this business on a day-to-day basis, decision-by-decision basis. That's what's going to create further improvement going forward. When the new leadership came in, they had to say, ‘OK, guys, here's what we're going to do,’ and then teach everyone, ‘Here's how you do it.’ The teaching is done. Now the whole company is able to focus on the target, and they're doing it on their own, so that momentum is building.

“It's an exciting time. It's a rewarding time. And it's something to be proud of. People have an upbeat attitude. People look forward to seeing what's going to change when they come to work Monday. What's the new improvement they get to work with? The smiles are everywhere. In some plants, you get the complaints. At Wabash, you don't get the complaints. You get the ideas. You get, ‘Here, I've got an idea how we can make this better.’”

He says the “safety journey” is never over. It can't be if the company is to reach its goal of “zero incidents.”

“Is it attainable?” he asks. “That's for debate. But we're going to structure our system so that is the goal we're working towards. We look for continued and significant improvement over the next few years.”

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.