Occ-health pros up safety with innovative approaches

Companies share exceptional results

Ingrain safety as a priority for employees from the moment they are hired. Have your 10,000-person workforce stop what they're doing and think about how safely they are working. Rather than fear an inspection by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), ask for it and make OSHA your partner in making your work site safer.

These are just a few of the ideas used by occupational health departments that were recognized over the past year by industry and association groups as innovative ways to help workers stay healthy and productive.

The companies share some common traits: lost-time accident or injury rates are lower than their industries' averages; recognition from industry trade associations; and employee health programs that take traditional concepts of occupational health and safety to new levels of effectiveness.

Marathon Oil: Working with OSHA as partner

The Marathon Oil refinery in Robinson, OH, is in an elite group; fewer than 20 refineries have received the OSHA voluntary protection program designation, which recognizes employers that partner with OSHA to jointly work toward safe work sites.

"We work with OSHA instead of against them; we are not afraid of them coming in," says Gail Sandiford, environmental, safety and security manager at the Robinson facility. Marathon was another company named to Occupational Hazards' safest companies for 2005.

"Leadership is key," says Sandiford. "You have to have leaders in place who have the commitment that you put safety equal to everything else. It's not below production, not below quality. It's equal."

Sandiford concedes that not all corporate occupational health departments have the luxury of working with management that places such a high priority on safety.

"That's been a key thing for us, that to our management team and our top manager safety is extremely important," she says. "Of course, you have to put your money where your mouth is, and you have to invest."

Marathon invests several million dollars a year in safety upgrades, Sandiford says, something not every company can do.

"But some steps can be as simple as ergonomics — try to look at previous injuries and first aids, and analyze them to see what we can do to reduce the risk of them happening again," she says, pointing out some low-cost steps that can be taken by an occupational health program that would yield important results for little money.

"This year we're looking at strains and sprains. These are first-aid cases, not reportable to OSHA, but as our workforce ages we're getting more strains and sprains," she says. "In January, we started a voluntary stretching program, where before work starts, employees take five or 10 minutes for stretching exercises that are led in work groups throughout the company. In 10 months, we've seen strains and sprains reduced significantly."

Marathon also engages in behavior-based safety (BBS), which involves its hourly workforce in looking at why employees make conscious decisions that can put their health and safety at risk. Some examples include not wearing proper protection, or positioning the body in such a way that makes it more susceptible to injury. BBS encourages employees to focus on the choices and behaviors that could lead to injury and replace them with preventive behaviors.

"And we don't just work with our employees," she adds. "We have a tremendous relationship with our contractor workforce, and they're brought into it.

"We have a motto, 'I have the right and responsibility to go home uninjured,' and we want our contractors to have that, too."

Delta: Lowest workplace injury rates

Delta is the first airline to be named to Occupational Hazards magazine's list of "America's Safest Companies." It has the lowest OSHA recordable injury and illness rates of any Air Transport Association member and was the first commercial airline to be accepted into OSHA's voluntary protection program.

The airline was given the 2005 National Safety Council Green Cross for Excellence award, given to National Safety Council members with lost work day rates below the Bureau of Labor Statistics' national average, and the 2004 Georgia Department of Labor's Safety Excellence award, presented to Georgia locations that operated 250 days in the previous calendar year without a lost work day due to occupational injury or illness.

Behind those accolades, Delta says, is a dedication to safety that begins when an employee is first hired. Safety is listed as a responsibility in all Delta job descriptions, and management maintains an open-door policy for any safety-related concerns.

Westinghouse Savannah River relies on BBS

Behavioral-based safety is a major component in the safety environment at the Westinghouse Savannah River Company (WSRC) in Aiken, SC, a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy that processes nuclear materials and provides services for the cleanup of the Savannah River Site following 50 years of nuclear materials production.

All employees are encouraged to participate in BBS either as trained observers or by volunteering to be observed.

"We believe all injuries can be prevented and expect that work is stopped rather than proceeding unsafely," says Kevin Smith, industrial safety manager for WSRC. "At the same time, we expect that all injuries are reported, no matter how insignificant they may seem. It is not unusual to have employees report to medical with a paper cut or small scratch."

Another tool WSRC uses to drive home the point that safety is a priority above production is the scheduled and unscheduled "stand down," when work stops and employees focus on performing work safely. Employees frequently are reminded of their responsibility to call a "time-out" when they feel uncomfortable about the safety of a work evolution. Work does not resume until all parties involved are satisfied the concern has been addressed. Time-outs are informal in nature to encourage employees to be quick to call them.

Subcontractors are not left to their own devices, either, when it comes to safety. Smith says WSRC uses a point-of-entry process that ensures all site subcontractors, visitors, and vendors are given a basic orientation of safety expectations, and also review job hazards with those groups so they will know what safety hazards they might encounter while on site. Subcontractors working in jobs that have been deemed high-risk are monitored to make sure they understand and comply with safety expectations.

"We conduct an annual safety conference each summer that is open to 500 employees from across the site," says Smith. "It is produced and led by employees, and involves 50 to 60 exhibits featuring interactive safety displays and four to five interactive, entertaining, and informative breakout sessions that address current safety issues."

Other local industries are invited to participate in the safety conference to encourage sharing ideas and best practices.

Within the last two years, WSRC has been the site of two National Safety Council perception surveys, and in both cases, results showed employee opinions relative to site safety programs were "strong to very strong" when compared to National Safety Council database participants.

"We perform high-hazard work, such as building demolition and facility deactivation in environmentally hostile settings like high radiation levels requiring additional [personal protective equipment], yet continue to successfully strive for continuous improvement relative to employee safety," says Smith. "Even in light of ongoing workforce restructuring and downsizing and other distractions, employees at the site [take] pride in their efforts to be their brothers' keepers when it comes to safety."

[For more information, contact:

  • Gail Sandiford, environmental, safety and security manager, Marathon Oil, Robinson, OH. Phone: (618) 544-2121.
  • Kevin Smith, industrial safety manager, Westinghouse Savannah River Company, Aiken SC. Phone: (803) 952-9924. E-mail: kevin.smith@srs.gov.]