Keys to a Safer Shop: Honesty, Amnesty

Chicago Tube & Iron’s approach to near-miss reporting has been a hit with employees.

By Dan Markham, Senior Editor
 
While working his way up in the metals distribution business, Don McNeeley used to believe that only mills and other large industrial companies really had to worry about serious workplace injuries. But talking to executives from other service centers that have experienced the death of a worker on the plant floor awakened him to the unpleasant reality.

“As I spoke to my peers in the industry about what it’s like to go through a fatality, the stories were devastating. The work environment is never the same,” says McNeeley, now president of Chicago Tube & Iron, Romeoville, Ill.

Reviewing the statistics at his company earlier in the decade revealed a spike in accident reports, and McNeeley became worried. Was CTI living on borrowed time? “I wasn’t happy with our safety record, and I didn’t want a fatality on my watch,” he says. “If someone comes here to work, we have an obligation to get them home to their family in a safe condition. We take that very seriously.”

McNeeley and fellow executives Lee Thompson, corporate quality manager, and Susan Hamilton, vice president of administration, set about trying to improve the company’s safety standards. They soon discovered that creating a truly safe work environment involves much more than simply taking safety more seriously.

“We tried anything and everything, and I didn’t think the needle was moving fast enough. We were very frustrated. We needed to go out and harvest some best practices, other than ours,” McNeeley says.

In mid-2014, CTI hired John Szostak as the company’s first industrial safety engineer. Szostak, who has a master’s degree in safety management, had no experience in metals distribution, but plenty of history in other industries. “It was probably an advantage that I didn’t grow up in the industry. I could look at it with fresh eyes,” he says.

One of the first—and most important—changes the company made after Szostak’s hiring involved its process for treating near-misses. CTI defines a near-miss as “an incident where no property is damaged and no recordable injury is sustained, but where given a slight shift in time or position property damage and/or injury could have occurred.”
 
The executives engaged in a spirited debate on the subject before coming to the consensus that all near-misses must be reported, with no negative consequences for the reporting party. “The only way you’re going to have near-misses reported is if near-miss reporters have amnesty,” concludes McNeeley.

Personnel at CTI have taken to the concept. This year, in the first full year of implementation, workers have come forward with 65 reports of near-miss events, up from just 19 last year.

There has been a change in the corporate culture, McNeeley explains. Employees and managers have become much more aware of the potentially perilous situations at CTI’s facilities. They’ve become comfortable reporting them up the chain rather than simply addressing the problem and forgetting it, or worse, ignoring it.

“[The near-miss policy] encourages constant vigilance. It’s like having a toddler in the house. No matter how safe you think the house is, the toddler will find something you’ve overlooked. The vigilance of everyone watching has contributed greatly to our improvement,” says Hamilton.
As hoped, the increase in near-miss reporting has translated into fewer accidents. Last year, 22 were recorded at all branches. With more than half of 2015 already in the books, CTI has recorded only six accidents. Until that number hits zero, McNeeley says, the company won’t be satisfied.

Data collection and analysis plays a significant role in Szostak’s efforts. While most incidents are small, and the consequences minor, they can help identify and eliminate larger dangers, he says. He catalogued CTI’s record of injuries and near-misses to see if they pointed to any patterns. He discovered that many injuries were the result of improper lifting of heavy materials, which called for the addition of automated lifting devices and other ergonomic changes. Other common occurrences were cuts or punctures to workers’ hands from loose banding or other metal scraps, which led to the company supplying better gloves. “You solve the biggest problems first, then you can dissect the smaller ones and see how to handle them,” Szostak says.

He also noticed that more injuries occurred in the months of June and July. “It’s not clear if this is due to the warmer weather or possibly longer workdays that are typical during the summer months,” he says.
It’s not all number-crunching. Szostak spends time on the shop floor communicating with employees. He doesn’t want to be seen as the “safety cop,” the member of management looking to crack down on lapses. “If I see you without your glasses, I’ll remind you, not report you,” he says.

Working with employees to alert them to the dangers of an industrial environment is more important than ever, McNeeley says. The service center industry has entered a period of heavy personnel turnover with the previous generation of employees giving way to much younger individuals. Given the skill sets and experience of the next wave of workers, companies must be extraordinarily vigilant, he says.

“In the old days, we hired people with mechanical aptitude. They had worked on a farm or in a gas station. For many employees coming in today, this is their first exposure to a mechanical environment. In their world, steel never falls. There’s a little naiveté entering the industry,” McNeeley says.

New employees soon learn that safety is a top priority at CTI. It starts in the executive suite and moves down through the organization. Safety is no longer just another agenda item during the company’s management meetings, but a separate event with mandatory participation. All department heads and plant managers gather in a regular conference call to discuss near-misses and other developments. Budget tightening may affect other departments from time to time, but never safety issues. “Like our competitors, we have suffered through leaner times because of steel prices. Safety is the one area where we have not imposed any constraints,” Hamilton says.

Safety considerations go into all equipment purchases. Most new equipment comes standard with the latest safety features, such as automatic shutoffs and protective curtains and railings. Retrofitting older equipment requires more care, McNeeley says.

Each new piece of equipment undergoes a Job Safety Analysis, which outlines the proper operating procedures and the potential hazards of all moving parts. The JSA remains available on the floor for regular reminders well after operators are fully trained.

There remains one hitch. “I’ve been out there on plant tours with the new equipment and I’ll open a door and shut the machine down. Bells go off. I’m the idiot,” McNeeley jokes. “At the end of the month, I’ll ask why productivity is down, and they say, ‘Quit going on plant tours.

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Monday, November 20, 2017