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Safety in The Workplace

Out of Harm's Way

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The approach to keeping the service center safe continues to evolve, improve.

Safety in the world of steel has been evolving since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Today, however, safety is at the top of everyone’s daily agenda, and all companies want their employees to feel safe in the workplace.

“Safety comes first. It’s not just a trite little thing. Take away the moral obligation of keeping people safe in general – you also owe our team members the feeling that they feel safe. You do it because you must, but you also go to the next step to make sure that anyone who comes in is safer than they should be,” says Brian D. Robbins, CEO of MidWest Materials Inc., Perry, Ohio. 

It wasn’t always this way. 

“The tolerance for risk is much, much, much lower across our company for sure and I’m sure everybody in our space in metals. When I first started, we didn’t have safety glasses as a requirement and gloves were options.  That was not that long ago,” says Bradley Kern, vice president of operations for steel, Worthington Industries.

“I think employees are more aware of it. Why did unions form in the first place? You had these sweatshops whether it be the steel mills or sewing mills. Obviously, OSHA is an entity that is there today. Employees are not only aware of safety, but they also know their jobs are not at risk if they refuse to do something that is unsafe. Probably back in those early days, if you didn’t do it, you were fired,” Robbins notes. 

“The steel industry, like probably most other industries, has evolved. We’re looking at proactive measures. Before it was lost-time injuries, now we’re measuring recordable injuries, we’re measuring near misses, we’re measuring injuries that did not even happen to get proactive and get out in front of it,” says Kern of the Columbus, Ohio-based service center giant. 

Because a safe workplace is in everyone’s best interests, it’s also everyone’s responsibility.  “The challenge is making sure that everyone along the entirety of a supply chain lives and breathes the importance of safety first and we really try to encourage an environment of asking questions when things seem wrong.  They don’t always do it. But I want them not to be afraid to do so,” Robbins says.

Kern agrees. “Safety should be viewed as everyone’s responsibility. There’s top-down accountability but it’s really bottoms up. We get involvement from everybody day to day. The shop floor is very actively involved, he says.  

“We have a safety committee that meets weekly,” Robbins continued. “We have a safety walk every week through our facilities to identify any concerns. We are a union facility so we have both union representatives and non-union representatives that are on those committees and meet regularly to talk about any identified concerns or potential ideas/concerns.”

Fortunately, it isn’t just the individuals within the service centers who care. The equipment manufacturers have made safe operation a key element of any new line or machine. 

“The OEMs that are building the equipment are requiring companies to maintain the safety features of this advanced, high-precision processing equipment in order for them to operate. If you try to disable anything, it voids the warranties on these machines. The point isn’t the punishment. 

The point is the fact that the industry, as a whole, has decided jointly from consumers to the OEMS that are making the machinery and the cranes to prioritize the safety features above and beyond the performance features,” Robbins says. 

The first challenge to an accident-free workplace is also one of the main obstacles facing the industry overall – filling positions with qualified individuals. New hires must not just be brought up to speed on how to operate a slitter or crane, but how to do so that protects the health of the employee and all of his or her coworkers. 

“Our biggest challenge right now is turnover – new hires and onboarding people into the workforce, especially post 2020. As everybody reduced their workforce and then hired back with the sharp uptick, there were a lot of challenges with onboarding new employees and to keep them safe,” Kern says. 

Robbins agrees. “The first challenge is employee turnover. A lot of companies currently have that Barbell Effect – a bunch of senior people, a bunch of new people and making sure that we transfer the knowledge of both the science and the art. Employee to employee transfer is super important and challenging. As the seniority retires, in general, we have a younger staff. People just think differently. We have a different mindset of employees – how they work and how they want to work. So, the challenge is to really assert how important safety is, how important not taking short cuts are.” 

The effort begins with training. “You have to train them and show them where the hazards are because a lot of these folks coming in just don’t see the hazards – they are numb to it.
 Whether that is a generational thing or not they just don’t recognize risk. We do a lot of things upfront to train them on risk but from there it’s continuous improvement,” Kern says. 

It’s both big and little things. Hazard ID – noting and fixing potential problems before they become actual ones – plays a significant role in accident prevention. Getting new hires up to speed on that front is just one of the pesky tasks service center operators face. 

“The new hires, the onboarding, training, mentoring – those are challenges, any high turnover.  We’re in a tough business. You come in to work in a steel facility and it’s not air conditioned. It’s hot. It’s hard work. It’s shift work a lot of times so there are all types of challenges. You have to talk to the employees about good nutrition, good sleep habits and just making sure they are on point and their clarity and thought is tough,” Kern says. 

At MidWest Materials, all new employees go through a pretty rigorous safety training, both online and through in-person mentorship before they can really utilize any equipment or even be released into the facility because of all the potential risks. 

“It’s all levels ongoing,” Kern added. “You have your OSHA requirements. You have the standard training. Well beyond that, we are spending a lot of time on behavioral based training. 
What influences people and their behaviors? What leads to unsafe behaviors? We are really trying to get into creating an environment and a culture that promotes doing the right thing all the time.”

However, safety training needs to be effective and followed. “I think it is very effective in pockets and in some facilities not so much. It goes back to who is doing it.  We have a good playbook, but once again how it’s administered and how it’s managed is variable,” informed Kern. “In some of the new acquisitions, we have gaps so it is identifying where those gaps are, making sure that we’re putting qualified trainers in those positions and making sure that we’re not cutting corners or taking shortcuts.”

Fortunately, equipment manufacturers of coil processing or material handling equipment are doing their part, creating fail-safe machinery and extra safeguards to protect their customers’ employees. 

“Since my grandfather started the business in 1952 until now, 70 years, the equipment has gotten safer in general. Safety is a topic of conversation at most industry meetings and it is a topic of conversation within our management meeting every week,” Robbins confirms.

The ultimate safe environment involves zero interaction between human arms and fingers and the multi-ton machinery being operated, the executives confess. 

“I would love to be able to automate more than we do as our interactions with our employees with our product is a challenge,” Kern says. “Unfortunately, we are in a very capital-intensive business. Modernizing our equipment is a challenge, but if I could snap my fingers and just automate and modernize all our equipment to where we had hands-free ability from the actual processing of the steel, to the packaging, to the shipment of it, that would be ideal.”

“Some companies are transferring to robotics and AI for productivity and efficiency, so people are not put in dangerous situations as employees are a safety risk. I would like to employ more robotics so I wouldn’t need to put people in these dangerous places,” says Robbins.

At this point, that’s simply not practical. 

“We don’t have too many opportunities for automation so we still have a lot of steel employees or action points. And that’s exposure to ‘sharps’ – you have banding, you have the edges of slit coils, you have exposure to those and those challenges. You counter that with trying to automate or you have to use good PPE.  They have come a long way with modernizing PPE using Kevlar and other types of materials. That interaction point is a risk area,” Kern adds.

Technology is helping, without question. And not just in improvements in PPE or guardrails or automatic shutoffs, but in other ways. Technology has also grown to incorporate safety, with software to track corrective actions. For instance, cameras are not just pointed at machinery, but at truck doors as well. This allows operators to be constantly aware of what’s going on, Robbins says. 

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of service center safety is how it continues to expand and encompass more than just protecting employees from hand injuries or strained backs. The industry is looking at all aspects of employee health. 

For instance, at MidWest, the company puts a premium on cleanliness and visibility. Emphasizing hygiene helps against the spread of viruses. A brand new lighting system is another step to prevent accidents. 

Companies also take the simple, but useful steps of labeling virtually everything. No information is too much. “All of our cranes have big, painted labels that say, ‘10-ton capacity or 15-ton capacity’ or whatever the weight capacity may be. We do this not only because it’s required but also you really want to make it obvious,” Robbins says.

Then there are those threats that aren’t necessarily visible. Mental health, once scoffed at in most industrial environments, is now being evaluated and considered. 

MidWest addresses this through a rather dramatic change in its work schedule. The company shifted to a four-day work week in the warehouse, a move designed to keep the employees refreshed. 

“The extra day off has really been a regenerative thing for my staff. That three-day weekend during times of COVID and post-COVID has really improved the attitude and my attendance. It was sort of the recognition of morale and exhaustion,” Robbins says. “From a safety concern, it improves awareness and energy levels. We pay close attention, our managers do, if someone comes to work fatigued or if someone comes to work sick. We tell them to go home. We want production but we don’t want the illness to spread. More importantly, we don’t want coworkers to feel at risk.”

All of these efforts must be measured to ensure effectiveness. That’s another area where technology can help. 

“We get metrics every day. I know every injury at every facility immediately or within hours if there is one. They have to report it.  We have best practice sharing. There is also an accountability piece, we have, in our quarterly reviews, with our senior leadership, which is myself and our CEO and our COO,” Kern says. 

Operators are always looking to reduce costs and improve efficiencies. But those can never be taken at the expense of safety. In fact, a safe operation will improve the bottom line.  “It’s just imperative that the stakeholders, the owners and the managers don’t ever sacrifice the safety of their team members or the supply chain,” Robbins says.

Worthington Industries relies heavily on behavioral training to deliver a safe working environment. (Photo courtesy Worthington Industries)

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