Select Page

Cutting out accidents


Successful safety plans aim to prevent workers from falling short in the fingers-and-toes count – or worse

Story by Robin Bruecker

Safety is something we’re taught from a young age. Look both ways before crossing the street. Wear a bike helmet. Dad’s or mom’s power tools aren’t toys. Fasten your seatbelt or this car isn’t going anywhere.

In the workplace the safety awareness continues, with the health of both employees and the company in mind. Common sense can help keep us safe in the workplace, but it takes more than that to reduce the risk of a serious injury or even death that impacts the worker, his or her family and coworkers, and the company itself. It takes planning, training, communication and dedication all around to protect productivity, finances and, above all, employees. A well thought-out and implemented safety plan is important for every business, be it small, medium or large.

Northeast Wisconsin communities have safety councils that increase the safety resources of smaller employers by providing networking, activities and programs. Like the Oshkosh Safety Council through the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, these community councils make health and safety a priority.

Council President Allen Bergles, who works his day job as general manager of Neenah-based Morton Safety LLC, noted the National Safety Council reported an average cost of $38,000 for a single lost-time injury.

“Now take that to the stratosphere and look at a child whose parent is now either dead, in a wheel chair, or generally is not the same person, and you quickly realize there is not a monetary system in the world that can make that right,” Bergles said.

The Oshkosh Safety Council’s meetings are open to all businesses, whether or not they are a member of the council. “We have dedicated safety professionals on the board that know safety pays for itself tenfold, so those principles are easily conveyed in every meeting and every event,” said Bergles. This encourages networking among council members, chamber members and other attendees seeking answers to health and safety questions or advice on a related situation. The council also regularly brings in knowledgeable speakers to address timely safety topics.

One free and valuable resource available to members and non-members alike are the connections of the council board members. “We are six safety professionals that are well-connected with a myriad of resources to solve or satisfy any safety concern,” said Bergles.

Well worth the cost and effort

The council gets safety questions from a fairly even split of small and large businesses. Bergles said the Council board members are a good reflection of the types of members in general: a member of a municipal safety office, a couple of coordinators from businesses with 150 to 200 employees and one from a larger company with about 20,000 workers, a safety distributor, and a safety decision maker from a chemical-production company.

When it comes to setting up a workplace safety program to prevent accidents, Bergles said the time it takes to implement it and the cost are relative to the size of the company. Most of the cost comes from writing a site-specific program tailored to the company, training, instilling the safety elements into every hazardous or potentially hazardous workplace activity, and purchasing safety products.

“The cost of NOT having a good safety culture far outweighs the cost of having one,” noted Bergles, pointing out that the benefits go beyond simply avoiding injuries and OSHA fines. “If you look at a company of any size without a firm, visible safety culture, they possess many, many more issues like low morale, production bottlenecks and general low productivity per employee.”

Not surprisingly, larger employers are more likely to have safety programs with staff dedicated to them. “If you take those injury/illness dollar figures and then spread that risk over, say, 1,000 people instead of 50, your prospect of an injury is exponentially greater, so you can appropriate more resources to supporting a fulltime safety staff,” explained Bergles. “Smaller companies can do it far less expensively internally with a current position assuming the role of safety coordinator. ”

Even for much smaller employers, starting a safety program might not be as daunting as you think.

“A good, intelligent person, using a good safety supplier and OSHA’s Web site can put a strong program together in about a week or two, maybe a little more if starting from scratch,” said Bergles. Implementing the program and providing the necessary training can take several weeks – for example, through eight to 15 one-hour segments and a couple of two- to three-hour ones.

Once the program is completed, the company culture transforms and the number of incidents drop, workers compensation insurance premiums drop, morale rises, and sooner or later there’s a return on investment.

Success stories

Menasha Packaging Company’s safety program goes “beyond legal compliance,” according to Keith Kling, the company’s environmental, health and safety manager, and involves the entire company in providing feedback.

That feedback comes through weekly audits, scheduled observation walk-arounds and safety committee reviews, but the employee-involved Safety Snags program produces a good amount on its own. In this program, workers are encouraged to watch for and report potential safety risks in their respective work areas. Once removed, the risks are tracked to ensure ongoing improvement.

“The program has been in use for several years at Folding Carton Neenah and was rolled out to all of Menasha Packaging at the beginning of this year,” said Kling. “Employee response has been highly engaged. Within the first six months of company-wide launch, employees reported more than 2,200 snags.”

Those included reports of an intense sunbeam that could blind a forklift driver when it hit the right spot on an air vent, brake lights out on a truck, a parking-lot hedge that needed trimming for a better view of pedestrians, and splinter-prone wood supports that were replaced with oak.

Lean and decentralized, Menasha Packaging – a subsidiary of Neenah-based Menasha Corp. – has one safety person in the corporate office and another at each location. In addition to safety, each handles environmental, human resources or quality. “There is a strong reliance on safety committees and other production-level employees to implement safety issues,” said Kling. “Written program and policies are built from standardized templates, but each plant reviews them to make them effective for their location.”

Menasha Packaging’s safety resources include Web-based training tools from Safety Matters Inc., a cataloging and tracking tool for chemicals from 3E Company, J.J. Keller’s online EHS system, and updates, seminars and peer guidance from safety councils in each state where Menasha operates.

The company’s efforts have paid off.

“Our primary objective, from President Mike Waite on down, is to make sure every person has a safe workday every day, and cost is seen as an outcome rather than a goal,” said Kling. “That said, there has been a reduction in worker compensation costs from 2001 to the present time in the range of 66 percent. Direct savings based on this have been several millions of dollars. Indirect costs, such as lost production, extra overtime, training to backfill jobs and light-duty provisions are probably four to five times as much as our tracked costs.”

For its efforts, Menasha Packaging’s Folding Carton Group was awarded the 2011 Chairman’s Safety Award by the Paperboard Packaging Council for its outstanding safety record and achieving more than 475,000 safe hours.

Safety in the field

The Boldt Company in Appleton has received seven awards from the Wisconsin Safety Council as well as accolades from Associated General Contractors of America, National Constructors Association and Wisconsin Health and Safety Congress for having an incident rate well below the national average for the construction industry. Boldt was also named one of America’s Safest Companies by EHS Today magazine in 2008.

Like Menasha, Boldt involves employees in workplace safety on a large scale.

“Our Continuous Safety Improvement (CSI) Program has had a positive impact on our success,” said Jeff Schilleman, corporate safety director. Employees are rewarded for their involvement in the safety process by reporting safety issues and ensuring a correction is made right away. CSI reporting increased from 927 items in 2008 to more than 11,200 in 2011.

Schilleman said that while it may seem odd to track near misses, or incidents that almost happened but didn’t, “we learn so much. We learn what practices should be avoided and what behaviors to correct.”

A communications campaign called ‘Safety: A Way of Life’ keeps safety foremost in employees’ minds. Safety roundtables bring together the entire staff to discuss issues. Boldt has also done away with the intimidating “safety cop” persona, so employees don’t feel like they’re being policed by safety personnel but instead feel comfortable bringing up a safety issue. It’s also helped to focus on success rather than failure, opening safety meetings with positive results rather than chiding employees for incidents.

Plus, Schilleman said, “we have regular safety training and safety managers on every job site. Every day on every job site starts with a safety meeting that plans out the day’s activities and critical functions such as extremely heavy lifts.”

The number of safety staff increased from two in the 1990s to the present-day 21, with a fulltime safety professional at Boldt’s larger sites and a dedicated lead person elsewhere, and all of them overseen by a corporate safety director. Another person handles the safety training, which is done mostly in-house. Other training may be done by equipment vendors.

“There’s absolutely no price on human safety,” said Schilleman. “As far as Boldt is concerned, safety is the only option. Outside of the human element, safety has a bottom-line benefit. Our safety record reduces our insurance costs — we pass those reduced costs on to our clients.

“As for our clients, many if not all look at a company’s safety record when selecting a construction manager. In our case, our safety record was a significant factor for many recent jobs.”

Recent resources

According to Bergles, an employer’s worker’s compensation insurance carrier is one resource that tends to be overlooked for safety information and advice. Since the insurer foots an injury bill up front, with the employer paying later, they often have industrial hygienists who can look at safety needs with the client. “But the [in-house] programs still must be written and training must occur,” said Bergles.

Guidance can also come from a safety distributor. These are fairly recent resources.

“Years back there were few dedicated safety suppliers, and to insurance companies workplace safety was not even really on their radar,” said Bergles.

While employers may be wary about having OSHA reps visiting their sites, the agency does have an effective outreach program and its Web site contains training segments that can be accessed anonymously, Bergles noted. “My company uses portions of OSHA’s written PowerPoints in some of our safety training programs.”

Robin Bruecker has more than 15 years of experience in feature writing and marketing communications. Contact her at