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Ask Your Conscience: Is Your Workplace as Safe as It Can Be?

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Companies that experience a fatal accident are forever changed. The loss of a co-worker is a tragic day that no employee ever forgets. The psychological and legal ramifications for management are painful, as well. Such an incident casts a dark cloud over the entire organization.

To their credit, industrial employers are doing a much better job of keeping their workers safe. Work-related illnesses, injuries and deaths have been on the decline for decades. In the 1970s, before OSHA was created, nearly 14,000 workers were killed on the job in the U.S. every year. In 2013, 4,585 work-related deaths were reported. Nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses continue to decline each year.

Workplace safety is not just a big-company, mill-type issue. It should be a concern for service centers of all sizes. The most common causes of injuries involve contact with equipment or materials, transportation-related incidents, and trips and falls, say the statisticians—all common hazards in the typical service center environment. Every day, service center workers move oily metal products from trucks to processing equipment using forklifts and overhead cranes, then operate powerful
machines that slit, shear or cut them as fast as possible, before returning them to another truck for delivery across town or across the country. It’s hard to count all the different points in the process at which workers are potentially vulnerable to some type of mishap.

Indeed, of those 4,585 industrial deaths in 2013, 17 occurred in primary metal manufacturing and six among metal service centers and other metal merchant wholesalers, according to government stats.

Management at Chicago Tube & Iron, the subject of this month’s feature on workplace safety (see page 38), is working hard to avoid becoming a statistic. “I spoke to my peers in the industry about what it’s like to go through a fatality, and the stories were devastating. The work environment is never the same. I don’t want a fatality on my watch,” says Don McNeeley, CTI’s president. “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.”

CTI has taken several steps to improve its safety performance. It has hired a full-time safety engineer, enhanced its safety communication and training, and established an amnesty system that encourages workers to report near-misses so the company can learn from each incident.

So far this year, CTI employees have come forward with 65 reports of near-miss events. As hoped, the increase in near-miss reporting has translated into fewer actual accidents—just six at all CTI branches, compared with a total of 22 in 2014, all nonfatal. Until that number hits zero, McNeeley says, the company won’t be satisfied.

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