ISRI Safety and Environmental Council members engaged in a top-to-bottom
self-assessment at its latest meeting, re-examining the group’s purpose and reimagining its future.
By Kent Kiser
The June ISRI Safety and Environmental Council meeting in St. Louis offered its usual slate of workshops on safety and environmental topics, but this meeting also had a second purpose: to think big-picture about ISEC’s future and how best it can serve the safety and environmental needs of ISRI member companies. Those questions were the focus of several breakout sessions for the 68 attendees across two days.
To find out what led to this soul-searching and what it revealed, Scrap held a roundtable discussion while at the meeting. The roundtable participants were five members of ISEC’s steering committee—outgoing ISEC Chair Bill Rouse of PK Metals (Coram, N.Y.), incoming ISEC Chair David Borsuk of Sadoff Iron & Metal Co. (Fond du Lac, Wis.), Lee Twitchell of Metro Group (Salt Lake City), Richard Allee of Rocky Mountain Recycling (Commerce City, Colo.), and Andy Wichman of Schupan & Sons (Kalamazoo, Mich.)—as well as two-time past ISEC Chair Jerry Sjogren of E.L. Harvey & Sons (Westborough, Mass.), who currently chairs ISRI’s Circle of Safety Excellence™ group. These ISEC leaders were optimistic about the outcome of the discussions, which uncovered several potential new opportunities as well as interest in restoring some popular features of past meetings. They also have thoughts on how ISEC can better serve as a resource for ISRI members and ISRI leaders.
ISEC’s Origin Story
ISEC traces its roots to 2005, during a period of safety crisis in the scrap recycling industry. After U.S. scrap facilities experienced 21 fatalities in 2003 and 29 in 2004, the industry’s leaders wanted solutions—and they wanted them fast. ISRI and its members responded by launching an aggressive new safety program in early 2005, which included the formation of what was then called the ISRI National Safety Council.
In October 2005, 80 safety professionals gathered in Rosemont, Ill., for the council’s first meeting. The gathering couldn’t have come at a better time. Just weeks earlier, the Bureau of Labor Statistics had named the scrap industry (combined with the waste hauling industry) fifth on its list of the most dangerous industries based on its worker fatality rate (fatalities per 100,000 full-time-equivalent workers).
Attendees at the inaugural event came from a wide variety of scrap companies, ranging from small, privately owned, single-site companies to some of the largest scrap companies, public and private, with dozens of facilities. Their safety experience ranged from less than a week to decades. Topics of discussion covered the gamut as well, from driver training to fall prevention to visitor control. “If there was common agreement on any single point, it was on the belief that our business need not be inherently dangerous,” wrote John Gilstrap, then ISRI director of safety, in a summary of the event.
By the end of the two-day meeting, the group had a firm sense of its purpose and priorities. “Our focus for the future … is to devise strategies for defusing the ticking bombs of our industry,” Gilstrap wrote. “We’re going to share solutions we’ve found and seek solutions that evade us. We’re going to get companies to talk with each other about safety—the one area where competitive juices must be stilled for the common good.”
In 2008, the ISRI National Safety Council expanded its scope to include environmental issues because those two disciplines often go hand in hand in recycling operations. That change prompted the group to rename itself the ISRI Safety and Environmental Council. To keep up with the industry’s ongoing safety and environmental challenges, ISEC grew from holding one meeting a year to a twice-a-year schedule.
Assessing the Challenges
Most of the roundtable discussion participants were there at the safety council’s start and have attended virtually all of ISEC’s meetings since. Along the way, the group has seen ISEC’s momentum rise and fall, reaching a peak meeting attendance of roughly 140 people. Some of the fluctuation most likely stemmed from market conditions, with attendance rising in good times and ebbing in more challenging times. “You can always attribute some of the downturn to market conditions,” Borsuk says, “but forward-looking companies would say they always include a budget carve-out for safety and environmental compliance.”
Owner commitment—or the lack thereof—is another issue that has hampered ISEC, Twitchell says. Some owners don’t see the value in sending their safety and environmental staff to every meeting. “For [the steering committee], our owners are very committed to ISEC, and that’s why we come back,” he says.
Others say ISEC has lost momentum during extended periods of transition in the ISRI safety staff. It took 10 months after Gilstrap retired at the end of 2014 for ISRI to find his replacement, Terry Cirone. Cirone announced her retirement in fall 2017, although she continued to work for ISRI part time through this spring, with ISRI’s new vice president of environment, health, and safety, Scott Wiggins, starting July 30. The staff leadership gaps “have an effect on the program,” Rouse says.
Over the years, ISEC also has seen a fall-off in meeting attendance from representatives of larger ISRI member companies. “I don’t know that the level of what we were doing provided a lot of benefit to them,” Twitchell says. “Maybe the group wasn’t what they expected.” Today, many larger companies still support ISEC and its mission, and a few still send attendees, but it’s more common for them to contribute by sharing their expertise as speakers, the steering committee members say. “Maybe the best we can hope for from the ‘corporates’ is that mentoring and training,” Rouse says.
Given those dynamics, ISEC leaders and ISRI staff members started to ask whether its meetings needed an extreme makeover. One proposed approach was to go from two meetings a year to one larger meeting with a more substantial exhibit hall and presentations from safety professionals outside of the scrap industry. Attendees at ISEC’s fall 2017 meeting in Jacksonville, Fla., rejected that approach for a variety of reasons. One key concern was that, whereas up to that point ISEC’s members had decided the meeting’s direction, ISRI put forth this proposal without their input. The meeting ended with the group uncertain of what its next steps would be or whether it would even meet in 2018.
ISEC’s leaders eventually decided that the best path forward was to hold a meeting in June so the steering committee could convene and the attendees could brainstorm during the breakout sessions. “We needed to understand whether it was content, purpose, or something else that was causing members not to return,” Rouse says.
Despite ISRI organizing ISEC’s June meeting with only about six weeks’ notice, the meeting attracted 68 attendees, including numerous newcomers. The breakout groups of six to 12 people each discussed specific safety and environmental issues as well as ISEC’s future. That approach yielded several benefits: The groups’ small size allowed participants to express their opinions without having to vie for attention among the whole ISEC audience, for one. “When you have the intimacy of the small group, it’s less intimidating,” Rouse says. “All of a sudden the people who might be reluctant to raise their hand were open and vocal.” Borsuk says he found it “incredibly gratifying” and a good sign for ISEC’s future that newer attendees weren’t afraid to speak up.
The breakouts also allowed attendees to meet each other in a more casual, accessible setting, which improved the opportunities for networking. In addition, ISEC steering committee members and veteran attendees had the chance to connect with newer participants and forge mentoring bonds with them. “When I first started attending ISEC meetings, I was looking for anything I could R&D—rip off and duplicate—to make my own programs better,” Wichman says. “Now I’m also looking for new people who I can have a conversation with and maybe help out. There’s a lot of gratification in helping somebody else.” Networking and mentoring are two of ISEC’s strengths, Rouse notes. “Anyone can find a safety trade show [or] convention to attend with vendors and a party atmosphere, but at ISEC there is an intimacy and trust that results in a willingness to solve each other’s concerns.”
In the end, the breakout groups generated dozens of suggestions for presentation topics at future ISEC meetings, including source control, stormwater, sealed containers, crisis communications, magnet-chain inspection, electrical panel safety, battery handling practices, rail operation safety, and e-scrap issues. Some attendees recommended holding a train-the-trainer session or a tour of a recycling facility on the event’s final half day. Others suggested establishing an online forum—possibly using the ISRI Connect app—where members can discuss their safety and environmental questions. A few younger attendees recommended offering continuing education credit for attending ISEC meetings. One breakout group expressed interest in creating sector-specific groups within ISEC—such as a shredder group—to discuss common problems and solutions. One younger attendee said it would be helpful for first-time attendees and younger participants to meet on their own after the day’s events to form their own connections. Some thought equipment and service vendors could play an expanded and beneficial role at future ISEC meetings, as long as their presentations are about safety rather than promoting their products.
Most noticeably, there was almost unanimous agreement to revive popular features from previous ISEC meetings, such as the “rapid-fire” anecdotes, in which attendees recount a short safety or environmental experience from their operations, and the longer “open the kimono” testimonials, in which an attendee discusses a fatality or other serious incident at his or her company. While the format of such features might be old, the content changes, which keeps those features evergreen, Borsuk says. Twitchell says he even sees benefits in revisiting topics from previous ISEC meetings because attendees “pick up something new from each new discussion.” He notes that he learned about new products and strategies for fighting fires—a frequent ISEC topic—at the June meeting.
Progress and new opportunities
As ISEC’s June meeting wrapped up, the steering committee members and Sjogren said they feel ISEC is on a positive path going forward. “We needed to look at things,” Sjogren says, “but I’ve never been worried that ISEC would go away. I’ve always been optimistic [about] the need for ISEC, the need to get people together [to discuss] safety and environmental issues.” As Allee adds, “I didn’t hear anything from the participants that we haven’t been doing or haven’t shown that we can do. There are some suggestions on how to improve connections that are good ideas. I think we’re poised very well.”
The meeting generated “probably enough content ideas for the next two [ISEC] meetings,” Borsuk says. “The energy that was here at this meeting and the diverse attendee group means we’re on the right track, that we give a good product with solid take-home value, and it will only get better.” Rouse concurs, noting that the group has “gathered enough information to at least come up with a quality format that offers more tools. We’ll see if that generates more participation.”
Another cause for optimism, they note, is the “real support” for ISEC among ISRI’s national officers, most of whom are from companies with active participants in the group. “The level of support from ISRI is there and looks good for a few years,” Allee says.
ISRI’s hiring of a vice president for EHS—not just safety—was also a positive development, the roundtable participants say. Earlier this year, ISRI also hired John Day as environmental, health, and safety manager, and David Wagger—ISRI’s chief scientist and director of environmental management—is now part of the EHS staff. The changes should strengthen ISRI’s ability to support members’ environmental compliance needs and forge a stronger bond among safety, environment, and health professionals within ISRI and ISEC, the ISEC leaders say.
Going forward, the steering committee wants to beef up the mentoring aspects of ISEC meetings to give new attendees meaningful connections at the event and encourage them to return. The group also is looking at ways to boost attendance from ISRI’s larger member companies. They’re confident the participants would find take-home value from the presentations and discussions. “Even if you’re a big facility, you aren’t going to experience everything in your operations,” Borsuk notes. Or, as Rouse puts it, “As smart as you think you are, you’re not as smart as the collective.”
The roundtable participants agree that the success of future ISEC meetings will rest, in part, on better planning and marketing: scheduling them further in advance, developing the agenda earlier, and promoting the events better. “We need to get the agenda out there in advance far enough where people can get the support of their company owners to come and think about what they can add to the conversation,” Rouse says. “If the agenda comes out [only] a month to six weeks before the meeting, it becomes difficult for people to make a decision on attending.” Wichman agrees. “I’m optimistic about ISEC’s future,” he says, “but I think we need to sell it better, maybe even [by] promoting a hot topic to be covered at the meeting.”
Sjogren sees room for a closer bond between the ISRI board of directors and ISEC. He envisions the board using ISEC as a “brain trust” on safety and environmental issues that arise. “We’ve got a whole bunch of people who really know safety and environmental issues, and I think it’s a shame we don’t use [them] more to the advantage of the association and to the industry,” he says. Improving that connection would also make ISEC more aware of the ISRI board’s safety and environmental priorities. “ISEC doesn’t always hear a lot about those issues,” Sjogren says. “I think there’s really a significant disconnect.”
As ISEC embarks on its new direction, its ultimate success will rest on whether it achieves one very specific goal: “If we can get more of our members to view safety and environmental compliance as a core value of their companies,” Borsuk says, “then we’ll be successful.”
Kent Kiser recently retired as publisher of Scrap and assistant vice president of industry communications for ISRI.