August 2017

Safety Starts at the Top

Developing a safety-first work culture requires complete buy-in from all personnel, led by the individual in the corner office.

By Dan Markham, Senior Editor

The service center business, like many others, is intensely competitive, and distributors battle with one another on price, quality and service, among other points of differentiation. It may be friendly and respectful in a lot of locales, but it’s pitched competition nonetheless.

Yet there’s one aspect of the metals distribution sector that defies that competitive spirit, where a tide on the rise truly lifts all the industry’s vessels. “The one area where all MSCI members can benefit, and it’s a non-competitive area, is safety,” says Bill Chisholm, president of Mississauga, Ontario-based Samuel, Son & Co., Ltd., who also chairs the trade association’s safety group. “What better cause is there than the safety of all our employees?”

A safer industry benefits all its participants, from attracting quality employees to paying lower insurance rates, and sharing best practices and learning from others’ mistakes aids that effort. But the desire for a safe environment starts from a more principled perspective.

“First and foremost, it’s a moral imperative,” says M. Robert Weidner, chairman of the Metals Service Center Institute, Rolling Meadows, Ill. The MSCI has been front and center in leading the safety push in the safety industry, conducting an annual safety conference for the past six years (see sidebar).
Chisholm agrees. A company has an obligation to ensure that each employee returns home to his or her family at the end of the day. “I tell people it transcends even the core values of the company. It’s our ultimate responsibility. We don’t do anything if it’s going to put any of our employees in harm’s way,” he says.

Chisholm and others also believe that responsibility starts at the top. “The first thing we want to look for when we’re evaluating whether a company is really safe is, do they have a management commitment to safety,” says Steve Yates, president of Optimum Safety Management, Naperville, Ill. “We understand that safety flows top down. We’re looking to check the temperature of management and their leadership team. Are they thinking about it? Is it in their vernacular with regular messaging with their folks?”

All too often, Yates’ team finds that it isn’t. “It’s either lip service, or it’s just non-existent. The reality is most CEOs are not focused on safety from a people perspective, or for their investors from a financial perspective.”

For the lucky companies, overhauling that mindset from one of indifference to concern is brought on by a change in management or a chance opportunity to hear about the value safety brings to a company. For others, it often takes something happening closer to home.

“The thing that brings people around from a safety perspective is either some sort of catastrophic incident, a large injury, large incident, explosion, fire, or an OSHA inspection that leads to a large fine. That’s when they find they’re not bullet-proof,” Yates says. “And when you talk to that CEO who has had to make a phone call to a family, or go stand in a hospital, or worse, go to a wake for an employee, it’s left an indelible mark on their lives.”

While safety is a moral imperative, it’s also a financial one. Managing that side of the equation is the role of Missouri Employers Manual, a worker’s compensation insurance company based in Columbia, Mo. As with Optimum Safety Management, MEM’s evaluation starts with the corner office. “The first thing I have to see is management commitment. Do they have their paperwork in order and do they act like they care about their employees,” says Mark Woodward, senior loss prevention manager.

Safety may begin at the C Suite level, but to truly develop a sustainable culture requires buy-in throughout the organization. “Everybody has to be in charge of safety. It requires focus from the top down and the bottom up,” says Chris Marti, who serves as the staff liaison to the MSCI’s Safety Committee.

For Yates, it’s in the middle where he often sees the biggest problems. “If anything is going to irk me the most, it’s a supervisor who really doesn’t care if his people are in harm’s way. I see that a lot.”

John Dony, director of environmental health and safety for the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council, says even managers with otherwise good safety records can find themselves compromised when it’s perceived to be a choice between following safety protocol and meeting production numbers. “There are different pressures on everyone from managers to supervisors to employees themselves to perform in different ways, and to make snap decisions in a way that aren’t covered by even the most thoughtful set of rules. It really becomes about the snap decisions and judgment and the permeating culture that either enables safety or it doesn’t.”

For the floor employees, it’s crucial to get them up to speed as soon as they begin work. Woodward says 1 in 3 injuries happen to new hires in their first year of employment. Proper training is crucial, but it’s not necessarily the first step. “We highly recommend post-offer employment testing. After an employee makes a conditional offer, we see if they’re physically capable of doing the job,” he says. “We tell companies, you’re not hiring your next worker’s comp claim.”

For good reason. The average cost of a new hire injury is $54,000, he says. For all employee injury claims, the average cost is $40,000.

Moreover, worker’s compensation is structured differently than some other types of insurance in that it’s uncapped. A single catastrophic injury can result in a multimillion dollar claim. “We’ve had one employee who was severely injured, becoming a quadriplegic. That’s lifetime care,” Woodward says.

Consequently, a safe environment simply makes good business sense. “There’s research out there that for every $1 you spend, you return between $2 and $5,” says Yates, noting that the costs of injury are both direct, such as any claims against the company by the injured party, and indirect through OSHA fines, lost productivity, attorneys’ fees and more.

Additionally, Chisholm says, building good process discipline around safety results in greater productivity.

Though people are the foundation of a safe work culture, facilities are also crucial. Good, clean work environments reduce the incidents of trips/slips/falls, a major source of injury. And proper guarding or other protective measures on equipment is imperative in the service center business. Equipment issues are particularly acute with older lines, some that have been sold and resold more than once. Previous owners may have removed guarding on a processing line, and the new owners have no idea there once was a protective measure in place, Yates says.

Newer equipment tends to incorporate most of the latest safety developments as standard features. And that isn’t the only way advancements in technology can be used to improve a plant’s safety record. Larger companies are employing data analytics to do a better job of understanding the how and why of previous injuries, and to implement policies that will prevent future issues.

“The way safety professionals talk about it, just knowing accident/incident rates is like looking in the rearview mirror. You want to be looking out the windshield at what causes things to happen,” says Weidner.

The MSCI hopes to be at the forefront of bringing that kind of viewpoint to the entire industry, not just the largest players. “We have that rearview mirror data as recorded and aggregated by service centers and mills, and we’ll eventually be able to slice and dice that data. And it becomes a powerful tool when you overlay predictive analytics on top of it,” he says.

Ultimately, the target is a workplace environment where zero incidents, zero accidents is an achievable goal, Marti says. “It’s never sufficient to have more than that.”

For the NSC, zero accidents can be reached by recognizing there are truly no such thing as accidents. “Everything people think about as accidents in the home or workplace or community are not really accidents, but preventable incidents,” says Dony, who also serves as director of the Campbell Institute. “Any incident that took place, there was something in the chain that gave us the ability to prevent it.”

 MSCI Hosts Safety Conference in September

At the end of September, the Metals Service Center Institute will hold its sixth annual Safety Conference, an event the association has reason to believe could be its biggest yet.

From Sept. 28-29, MSCI will conduct a two-day conference at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown. For the second straight year, the event is being co-located with the National Safety Council’s Congress & Expo, though this time in a slightly more convenient locale. Last year’s event took place in Anaheim, Calif., which is a little far removed from the hub of the North American distribution industry.

The MSCI event has consistently improved, says Chris Marti, the MSCI staff member who has headed up the association’s Safety committee. In 2014, the organization began employing the expertise of the health and safety professionals within the industry to formulate the agenda for the conference. “It’s made us stronger and more grounded in the realities of the metals industry, and helped us to get more of a peer-to-peer flavor,” Marti says.

In 2016, their partnership with the NSC allowed them to tap into the vast resources at the disposal of the NSC, the country’s pre-eminent safety organization.

On top of that, the MSCI has been able to expand its own role as an aggregator of data to inform the conference, and beyond. “We were doing surveys on shipments and other things, and we realized we should be doing a better job aggregating safety data for service centers, and also aggregate data for mills, and bringing the two together,” says M. Robert Weidner, chairman and CEO of MSCI.

This year’s agenda includes presentations from leading safety professionals such as Optimum Safety Management, FDRSafety and DekraInsight, plus breakout sessions on machine guarding, material handling and substance abuse, among others.

The conference is just part of MSCI’s commitment to a safer workplace. The association has also created two programs to recognize safety training and achievement. The Personal Safety Professional Competency Model is pursued by individuals who want to become safety professionals or lead safety programs at their location. It provides them the tools they need to meet NSC’s Advanced Safety Certificate, the recognized standard for safety professionals. The second model is for companies, providing an understanding of the processes necessary for an effective safety program, and the training to get there. MSCI is now working on an effort to create a similar model for executives.

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