Making Safety Job No. 1

By Jan 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, January 2007Safety is critical in a manufacturing environment. Failure to follow safety procedures can have serious consequences, including worker deaths and injuries, absenteeism, and reduced productivity. It can also lead to increased workers’ compensation claims and higher insurance premiums for employers. With such high stakes, it’s no surprise that many HR professionals in the manufacturing sector consider safety training a top priority.

“It’s unacceptable to hurt people in the production of a product,” says Daniel W. Evans, vice president for corporate environment, health and safety (EHS) at Armstrong World Industries, in Lancaster, Pa., a manufacturer of floors, ceilings and cabinets. The company has reduced its federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rate of recordable injuries from 5.4 cases per 100 workers in 2001 to 1.8 per 100 in 2005. That rate is substantially lower than the industry average of 6.3 per 100, and Armstrong is working to lower its injury rate even further.

“Even with that rate, because of the size of our company, it meant somebody got hurt every day, and that is unacceptable,” Evans says. “Our goal is to get to 0.0 per 100.”

It’s a lofty aim—but a worthwhile one that could save any business substantial lost time, headaches and money.

Overall, work-related manufacturing injuries and illnesses currently make up one-fifth of all safety cases reported in private industry, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s more, U.S. employers pay almost $1 billion per week to injured workers and their medical care providers, according to the 2005 Workplace Safety Industry Index from Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

Safety Training Pays in Multiple Ways

While reducing injuries can reduce employers’ workers’ compensation costs, employers gain much more by creating an overall safer workplace.

Evan Van Hook, vice president of EHS and remediation at Honeywell International, a diversified technology and manufacturing company based in Morristown, N.J., says the number of people who end up being involved in helping an injured employee or conducting an investigation of an incident can tax the resources of any business. “There are hours and hours of monitoring that happens with that [injured] person—paperwork, filing, possible claims by the family, by the government, or investigations by the government. That all is effectively dead time.”

Other byproducts of stressing safety on the job are that it can improve employees’ sense of well-being and heighten job satisfaction, says Gary Kopps, manager of occupational safety at John Deere, a Moline, Ill., company that manufactures agricultural and forestry equipment. That, in turn, can lead to higher productivity, better product quality and improved customer service.

Taking It to the Top

To create a culture of safety, experts advise, start at the top. “HR people are often looking for safety training programs for employees, and I think sometimes they don’t recognize the opportunities that exist when it comes to the safety training for the people in management positions,” says Theodore W. Braun, product director of manufacturing technology at Liberty Mutual’s Research Institute for Safety.

Everyone recognizes the importance of management support and direction to create a culture of safety, Braun says, but many managers have no safety training. He says fewer than 50 percent of graduating engineers have had any courses in safety training, yet many become managers of manufacturing operations.

Senior management training should include items such as ergonomics—to help managers understand how employees can be injured through overexertion—and how to choose types of flooring most appropriate for preventing slips and falls, says Braun. “So often,” Braun adds, “the people who are making these decisions are really operating blind.”

John Deere, whose CEO Bob Lane was featured in the February 2006 issue of the National Safety Council’s Safety & Health magazine as a leader who “gets it” on safety issues, offers a comprehensive continuing education program for senior management to make sure they understand what goes on in the company’s manufacturing areas. The emphasis on safety was reinforced during the company’s worldwide leadership meeting in October when Lane informed his leadership team that “when I come out to visit you, I always want to hear about safety first.”

Management at all levels has a responsibility to provide a consistent message about safety all the time. For example, if a cross-functional team’s members talk about how important safety is but then neglect to put on their safety glasses when they walk around the factory floor, that sends the wrong message to employees, says Milt Goettee, vice president and general manager, national market loss prevention, at Liberty Mutual.

Training Managers Who Train Employees

Line managers may not be handling chemicals or working on machinery, but they are responsible for meeting safety requirements and for making sure employees are following proper procedures. At Honeywell, every work area supervisor is responsible not only for achieving safety goals but also, Van Hook says, for being proactive about safety. “Every time they start their shift, they have to do a safety check of that cell [work area]. And that activity, repeated throughout the organization, is what really starts to manage the risk.”

Another reason to focus on line managers: In many companies, supervisors or foremen conduct most of the training for line employees, so it’s imperative to make certain they are completely up-to-date on safety regulations and procedures.

Curtis Chambers, vice president at OSHA-Pros Inc., based in Arlington, Texas, which provides online and on-site OSHA training, says manufacturers tend to send their supervisors, foremen and safety committee members to training. “It’s a lot easier in a manufacturing environment for these people to take the 10- or 30-hour training and then [have them] go back and train their employees, because they can do it in shorter segments, and not have to pull their workers off-line for long stretches of time,” Chambers says.

Getting Line Employees Involved

The first step in training line employees is getting them involved in the process, says Van Hook. “You can have all the processes in place you want,” he says, “but if they don’t live in the organization—if they aren’t related to how people do their work on a day-to-day basis and aren’t part of the culture of the institution—then they’re just paper.”

At Honeywell, which has more than 1,200 facilities worldwide, employees who really know the safety risks in those facilities are those who work in them every day, Van Hook says. “You have to build into your system a very cross-functional, grassroots approach,” he advises. This means having your employees involved in identifying risk assessment and training needs.

To help reduce work-related injuries, John Deere created a team that worked with physical therapists at a local clinic to develop a stretching program for employees. The program’s creators “targeted the various motions that our employees are performing—lifting over their heads and bending—and developed stretches that employees do before every shift to warm up those target areas,” says Bobby Jones, safety manager for John Deere Power Products, a division of John Deere. The company also has an employee-led task force for safety training that manages training for the entire plant.

John Deere’s safety record indicates its efforts are getting results. The company’s current rate of injuries among employees is the lowest in the company’s 169-year history, and its 26 facilities are working at more than 1 million worker-hours without a lost-time injury.

Means of Delivery

Companies often use multiple approaches to train employees about safety. “Where it makes sense, we use online training,” says Douglas F. Garner, EHS lead for BAE Systems Inc., “and we do that primarily to save money.” An international manufacturer of defense and aerospace systems, with U.S. headquarters in Rockville, Md., the company has found it’s less expensive to have employees take safety courses on their computer, but that type of training isn’t practical in every manufacturing environment and works best when the material is limited to basic safety information.

“If it is simple identification of requirements or communication of a regulation, we will often use online,” says Curtis Gray, senior vice president of HR for BAE. “But where the rubber meets the road, when it involves actual application of employee skills, as opposed to the intake of knowledge, then the training is hands-on, so employees can actually demonstrate the skill to the instructor.”

Employees at Armstrong receive annual computer-based training on a number of safety compliance issues, but the company also holds classroom and hands-on training on topics such as working in confined spaces. “You can’t succeed using only one kind of training,” says Brian Speizer, plant manager at Armstrong’s Stillwater, Okla., plant. “People learn in different ways, so you need to balance your approach.”

Reinforcing Safety Lessons

At Sweets Candy, a Salt Lake City candy maker, safety training takes place on the factory floor. It’s hands-on and visual. “We feel that this approach conveys not only how to do things, but also the expectation and the emotion of it,” says HR and Safety Director F. David Pierce. New employees receive basic training about the company’s chemical safety program and emergency evacuation procedures in orientation, and from there they go directly to the floor to meet their team and be assigned a mentor.

The mentor works with the new employee for the following week or two, providing hands-on, one-on-one training until the employee is fully trained and has been observed by one of the company’s document control managers or someone from HR.

But safety training doesn’t stop there. Teams hold weekly meetings that last 20 to 45 minutes, and supervisors provide training on a number of safety issues throughout the year. Each team also holds a quick “huddle” before every shift, and members are told about any specific changes or additional information they need to know before beginning work.

At John Deere, hands-on training is delivered by employees using materials provided by the training task force. It covers all of OSHA’s required topics, as well as 20 additional safety topics, such as ergonomics. Team leaders present the training on a rotating basis. Jones says the approach adds to employees’ involvement in the company’s safety program.

Even the best training is bound to leave employees with questions, however. There are a number of ways to make certain employees can ask questions and get answers about safety issues quickly. BAE has EHS personnel at every site—“visible, present and always on the job”—who can answer employees’ safety questions, Garner says.

Armstrong also encourages employees to bring up questions or “job safety observations” at their regular crew meetings. Similarly, Sweets Candy and John Deere use regular team meetings devoted to safety training as venues for discussing safety topics and answering questions.

Measuring the Impact of Safety Training

Be careful not to judge the effectiveness of your training simply by recording whether someone has taken the classes, says Van Hook. Judging a program’s effectiveness requires determining whether employees understand what they’ve learned.

When employees are involved in designing and implementing the training, feedback becomes a natural aspect of the program because they give direct input as they work with management to design courses with the content they need. But some companies prefer to use other measurements to evaluate safety training. In BAE’s 2006 employee survey, 88 percent of its employees reported they were aware of the company’s EHS policy and 86 percent said they understood their responsibilities under it.

While stressing the number of days or hours that a plant has gone without an accident can build a sense of community, experts say it is better to look at the long-term effects of safety practices. “Look at the risk and conditions that exist that might cause an accident down the road,” says Goettee.

Sweets Candy takes this approach by giving employees a weekly safety contact card. As employees go about their jobs, they identify hazards, correct them and note them on their cards. The cards are turned in at the next workplace meeting. Each month, the company has a safety celebration at which the cards are put into a drawing and employees can win prizes that include one day off with pay or a $10 gift card. Pierce and his staff review all the safety contact cards to assess possible safety issues and identify any workplace hazards.

Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Tennessee and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine.

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