Injured employees can’t work

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Safety programs ensure risk protection is top of mind for employees at all times

Story by J. S. Decker

“What happened in the past isn’t going to predict the future,” warned Safety Manager Doug Swan of Northeast Asphalt in Greenville, one of 14 companies from the state to receive the 2014 Corporate Safety Award from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. “Safety is something that you need to manage every day. It’s more complex than it sounds.”

And far more demanding than meeting new government standards which just tightened on Jan. 1, 2015.

“Since this has happened, we’ve seen an increase in enforcement and inspections related to employee accidents and injuries on the job sites,” Swan reported.

Federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration inspectors monitor most of the eastern half of Wisconsin from its Appleton office and now must be told of all work-related fatalities within eight hours, and amputations and eye losses must be reported within 24 hours. Previously, only fatalities and accidents suffered by three or more workers needed prompt reporting.

It’s not government watchdogs pushing hardest, though, it’s employers and workers themselves. “It’s empowering, which I think is most fulfilling,” said Swan. And it’s good business to keep production at a maximum and to boast an impressive safety record to win the next big contract.

Protecting people, protecting assets

As Jeremy Brunhoefer, safety manager at J. F. Ahern Co. of Fond du Lac put it, “Our people are the most important asset this company has.” They’re valuable, too. Getting hurt has a cost beyond pain, which Wisconsin employers minimize.

The number of claims reported to the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Division has dropped by an average of 387 claims per year over the last five years. On average – from 2007 to 2013 – 34,515 claims were reported, with 20 percent being denied. In 2011 the incurred worker’s compensation related indemnity was more than $227 million and incurred worker’s compensation-related medical expenses were $572 million, according to the state Department of Workforce Development. In 2012 Wisconsin employers suffered 114 work-related fatalities.

While claims numbers are lower, it’s not all good news for the bottom line. According to the Workers Compensation Research Institute, the average medical payment per claim with more than seven days of lost time in Wisconsin was 39 percent higher than a 16-state median for 2011 claims.

A poor lost-time incident rate or OSHA Incident Rate can easily convince a potential customer to hire another company. They often ask for an experience modification rate to determine insurance premiums.

Keeping those rates low starts with strong dedication from the very top, said J. F. Ahern Chief Safety Officer Dustin Rusch, with management and employees creating an alert culture that communicates. While building or installing fire protection systems, or commercial building infrastructure for plumbing, heating and cooling, “There are close calls. When they do happen, there’s an investigation, cause analysis, corrective action. It starts with communication that an event occurred,” said Rusch. Mistakes are avoided or learned from, he added. “It’s more about understanding why a decision was made. It’s certainly not about fault-finding or pointing a finger.”

That’s true as well at Bassett Mechanical in Kaukauna, but Mike Lutz, vice president of marketing, said firm discipline is also stressed by CEO Kim Bassett.

“She implements a very stiff, very robust program,” Lutz said. “So much so that if someone is found in violation of safety programs and procedures, they run the risk of termination.” The written warning and retraining program must work, he explained, “Because we’ve not had to terminate anybody.”

Promoting safety

Bassett’s 350 employees build and service industrial refrigeration, heating, cooling and plumbing systems and fabricate metal in a 268,000-sq. ft. facility with “numerous areas where someone could be very, very hurt, if not killed,” explained Lutz. No one was injured during more than 1.35 million hours of work during the past few years, until one accident by an off-site subcontractor reset that tally. “We’re at 850,000 hours today,” Lutz added. “Most people don’t publicize their safety records. We do, because we want our competitors to have to tell potential customers what their records are.”

All three divisions of Bassett see those metrics posted in plain view every day. There are rules to follow everywhere in every job. “We have very strict guidelines about following traffic laws. No speeding! If you’re talking on the phone, it’s got to be hands free.”

That’s in the motor vehicle pages of the 32 sections in the Bassett Safety Manual.

“There’s a respiratory protection chapter, a chapter on welding, cutting, burning…” continued Lutz. “How to deal with blood-borne pathogens, crane slings, fall protection.”

To ensure raw electrical power goes only where it’s needed, “If you’re working on a piece of equipment and you’re going to shut it down, you literally lock the machine down with locks,” Lutz explained. “A tagout is a warning sign that’s placed on a machine to show that its in use if a worker walks away. A lockout is an actual padlock.”

Safety recognitions

Bassett’s efforts toward safety were recognized by the Wisconsin Safety Council in 2013. That organization under Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce also gave Bassett the Corporate Safety Award in 2005. Additionally, for 18 of the years between 1994 and 2013, Bassett Mechanical received the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin Safety Excellence Award. The long list continues beyond the Mechanical Contractors Association of America Outstanding Safety Performance awards and the National Safety Council Perfect Record Award for Zero Lost Time from 2000 to 2005.

The 1,100 workers at J. F. Ahern can boast an injury rate better than 2.2 times the national industry average over the past ten years. Within the past 60 days they received four separate awards from professional safety councils in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, including the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee Leadership in Safety Award.

It’s nice to be recognized, agreed Safety Chief Rusch, but, “Organizations can’t rest on the plaques on their wall or their achievements. We want to be prevention-minded, thinking about tomorrow and making sure we’re not doing the things harmful to our workforce.”

  1. F. Ahern doesn’t publicly report the days or hours since its last workplace accident. Each job at each location is unique. Even conditions in the company’s Fond du Lac facility often change, and how to get a job done can’t be summarized in any one guide.

“That bookshelf has more than one book on it,” remarked Brunhoefer. “You’ve got federal and state occupational safety and health requirements you’ve got to comply with. Industry best practices are put in play.”

Trade unions often submit their own safety requirements that become incorporated into company policy, just as J. F. Ahern adopts guidelines from National Fire Protection Association, American National Standards Institute as well as Mechanical Contractors Association. Those standards are in play every day, but safety analysis saturates the past and the future.

The eight members of J. F. Ahern’s safety team and project superintendents all compile “assessments” of past injuries and near misses to recognize what the workforce does well and to find opportunities for improvement.

Looking forward, “Even a year before a project moves on the ground, safety is on our mind,” Brunhoefer pointed out. “After a project is sold, and the scope of the work is clearly defined and understood, the project leadership team coordinates a preplanning meeting that involves all potential stakeholders.”

Partnering with labor

Safety committees at Northeast Asphalt have the same goals. Field workers, project managers, area managers and senior managers always have high-speed traffic to worry about as roads are laid down. Falling rocks in its quarries add to an endless list of hazards. Discussions, Swan said, include “Everything from safe equipment operation to DOT compliance, site-specific concerns, incidents and near misses and their resolution.”

Safety falls under the auspices of human resources, but Swan noted the two realms overlap. Eating right, never smoking and keeping proper posture all prevent injuries.

“Six years ago we implemented a Stretch & Flex program,” he recalled. There’s been some success, but lifestyles can be harder to change than specific job techniques. “It’s kind of a tough sell for construction workers to line up on the side of the road and do jumping jacks.”

That doesn’t mean the pressure is off. Stretching can save someone from a rotator cuff injury or a blown-out back. “As advanced as our medical system is, many of these back injuries are permanent,” Swan lamented.

On safety committees and across its workforce, Operating Engineers Local 139 is a strong partner in Northeast Asphalt’s day-to-day mission. The operators have a state-of-the-art training facility near Coloma, and employees are encouraged to train there during winter when most are laid off.

Local 139 honored Northeast Asphalt with its Recognition Award for commitment to training and safety. Their shared effort led the Greenville-based roadbuilder to win the Wisconsin Corporate Safety Award for the first time this past year, as well as a gold-level recognition from the Fond du Lac Safety Council.

Safety in the face of adversity

Wisconsin Public Service received the 2012 Corporate Safety Award for its Pulliam Power Plant in Green Bay, among other accolades. The 1,200 employees of the electricity and natural gas provider are responsible for maintaining and promptly repairing connections to 445,000 customers.

When the power goes out, customers are understandably demanding that it be immediately restored, said WPS spokesperson Todd Steffen. Yes, perhaps a tornado blew down that power line, but can it please be fixed so we can watch the Weather Channel?

“The worst of times is usually when we’re the busiest. We’re dealing with high winds, tree limbs breaking or whatever,” Steffen said. “That really requires keeping your safety hat on at all times. A bump up against a live wire or something else happens and people will get hurt.”

Many standards are copied across industries, but every mission needs its own approach. The safety dogma at WPS includes LivingZero, which according to its official description, is not a safety program – it’s a unifying platform for change – “a change toward our desired safety culture,” said Steffen. “LivingZero is an environment where everyone believes at-risk behaviors can be prevented. It’s a workplace where employees are willing and empowered to address unsafe situations.”

Eye on workplace illness as well

Confirming that injuries will sometimes occur no matter what, the National Safety Council recognized Workers’ Memorial Day this past April 28 by calling on employers to better understand and identify the risks of occupational illnesses. That includes germs being passed and poison fumes being breathed.

Workplace-related illnesses are estimated to result in 53,000 deaths and 427,000 nonfatal illnesses each year compared to workplace-related injuries, which are estimated to result in almost 4,000 deaths and 4.8 million injuries requiring medical attention annually. Given the delayed onset of many illnesses, these numbers are estimated to be low.

“Workplace fatalities due to illness are estimated to be more than ten times that of deaths from workplace injuries,” summarized Deborah A.P. Hersman, president of the National Safety Council.

J.S. Decker is a business journalist based in Oshkosh.