Safety Spotlight: What We Didn’t Know About Safety

Dec 5, 2017, 22:47 PM
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November/December 2017


Even a company with an above-average safety record has a lot to learn about operating safely and creating a safety culture. Once we opened our doors to the OSHA Consultation Program, we learned a lot, improving our safety.


By Lisa Dunn


In 2001, when Dan Becker joined his father and brother in the management of Becker Iron & Metal (Venice, Ill.), the company already had above-average safety performance. Still, he realized there was a lot he did not know about safety. He added to his knowledge over time, but with his other responsibilities, he could not make safety his full-time job. Other issues often took precedence.

When Becker Iron made plans to move to a greenfield facility in summer 2011, the owners took the opportunity to design and build the new facility with safety as a priority. They also decided to pursue certification under the Recycling Industry Operating Standard, which requires the implementation of a management system for quality, environmental protection, and health and safety. Becker Iron hired me in August 2012 as a cashier and to help implement RIOS. Little did I know then that I would become passionate about safety. The more I familiarized myself with RIOS, the more I realized what I didn’t know. Coming from the education field, however, one thing I did know was how to find information. And that’s what I did. I spent countless hours educating myself on the RIOS standard and how it could improve our operations, and I used that and other research to improve our safety best practices. As this continued, my position evolved into quality, environment, health, and safety director.

We made full use of our ISRI membership to learn more about safety. ISRI staff members conducted the ISRI Safety Blueprint program here on several occasions and gave us real, practical suggestions for improvement. We also called upon ISRI experts for any and all safety questions, we attended conferences, and we built relationships with other ISRI members. These relationships have proven invaluable in our quest for safety excellence. Shortly after Becker Iron moved to its new facility, Dan attended an ISRI Safety and Environmental Council meeting and learned about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s On-Site Consultation Program. Thinking that “you don’t know what you don’t know,” he decided to take advantage of this program.

What We Learned

The On-Site Consultation Program brings OSHA consultants to small and medium-sized facilities to identify workplace hazards, review your compliance with OSHA standards, and provide advice and guidance on your safety programs. The entire program is free and confidential so long as you commit to correcting serious hazards the consultants identify and make those corrections in a timely manner. You won’t face fines or citations for anything the consultants find so long as you meet those requirements.

Even though we knew the consultation was confidential, when the time came for the OSHA consultants’ first visit in fall 2012, we were nervous. We were inviting the “Big Bad Wolf” onto our property. Most companies have a healthy fear of—or at least an aversion to—OSHA. But we opened the door and let them in. The consultants reviewed all of our programs and procedures, training logs, OSHA-required reports, and required signage, and they conducted a full site inspection.

We learned that we had nothing to fear. The consultants that have worked with us through the years from the Illinois Department of Labor have all proven to be extremely knowledgeable, professional, and willing to help. I’ve called upon them many times to ask questions, get clarification on issues, or just ask for advice. They have responded every time with professionalism—and with answers. They have become part of our go-to safety network.

That first visit was truly eye-opening. While we believed we were in great shape, the consultants found multiple hazards for us to correct within the time frame they specified. The hazards included frayed electrical cords, a lack of machine guarding, and improper propane tank storage. The consultants also suggested revisions to some of our safety policies and the creation of new ones.

Almost as important as learning what we were doing wrong was learning what we were doing right. This information gave us enough confidence or courage to continue with this journey. The consultants made multiple visits to our facility (at our invitation) from 2012 through 2014. They even provided specialists who conducted air monitoring and noise monitoring at no cost to us.

Over time, the policies, programs, and procedures we revised or instituted as a direct result of the consultation program included our respiratory program, hearing conservation, near-miss reporting, accident investigation (including root-cause analysis), “lock-out/clock-out,” and a system of self-auditing and inspecting. Some changes were small, such as adding mirrors to forklifts, revising our hard-hat-required area, and improving heat awareness. Some were complete overhauls or new creations.

One new policy for which we had a little difficulty getting buy-in was near-miss reporting. Many looked upon this as either “confessing their sins” or “snitching on co-workers.” It wasn’t until the policy was in effect and employees could confirm that there were no negative repercussions to such reporting that it started to take hold.

One of our most fundamental policies is lock-out/clock-out. Simply put, employees whom we catch not properly locking out—or working on a piece of equipment that is not locked out—are sent home without pay for the rest of the day. This is done not so much as a punishment, but to save their lives. As Dan Becker explains to employees who break the rule, “I’m going to do you and your family a favor and send you home while you’re still safe.”

While working with the IDOL consultants, we learned about OSHA’s Safety and Health Recognition Program, or SHARP, which recognizes small employers who operate an exemplary safety and health management system. This motivated us to further raise the bar for safety and embrace SHARP recognition as our new goal. We were already good—we had well-below-average accident rates—but we knew we could be great. We continued to revise our safety operations as a result of the SHARP review process.


Building A Safety Culture

One of our biggest challenges was creating a truly collaborative safety culture. While the owners have always had an open-door policy and have been very attentive to any worker who brought anything safety-oriented to their attention, there was not a sense of community. To build community, we created a safety committee, had contests, and instituted the near-miss reporting program. Eventually we began to see employee buy-in. Now I consider employee involvement one of our biggest successes in becoming a SHARP company. Employees are thinking about safety and not just about following rules. We frequently receive suggestions regarding improving processes and other concerns.

Many of the changes we’ve made have come from employee suggestions and concerns. One worth mentioning is the placement of the table we use for preparing copper scrap. By simply adjusting the height of the table, the worker is able to not only work more efficiently, but also reduce strain on his body due to the ergonomic positioning of the equipment. The same is true of adjustments we made to desks in the office areas. At the suggestion of—and with the collaboration of—warehouse employees, we put in place a new truck unloading and loading procedure that increases safety for both the drivers and the loaders.

I want to acknowledge the owners of Becker Iron & Metal for “putting their money where their mouth is.” They fully committed to making the changes necessary and made sure there was money in the budget to do so. While the costs were not astronomical, any additional costs to doing business cut into profits, and they proved they were willing to put the safety of their employees above their profits. Although many things changed during this process, one thing that remained the same was the owners’ dedication to safety. One of the owners attends almost every safety meeting. When Dan Becker asks employees—especially new employees—“What is your No. 1 job here at Becker Iron & Metal?” the answers often vary. In his mind, there is only one correct answer: “To go home in the same condition as you showed up. Everything else is secondary

The Rewards Of Greater Safety

In 2014, our injury and illness rate fell to zero, and in December 2014 we learned we had achieved SHARP status, becoming the first scrap facility in Illinois to do so. We celebrated this achievement with a party for all the employees, business friends, community members, and the OSHA consultants and department leaders. We also quickly began to realize some direct benefits, such as a lowered experience modification factor, or mod rate, which lowered our insurance premiums. Our DART rate—the number of employee days away, restrictions, and transfers—also fell. We saw an uptick in business, as companies would rather do business with someone who has been “OSHA approved.” This approval helps alleviate customer fears of getting caught up in downstream issues or litigation as a result of business dealings. I’m also seeing an increased level of employee pride in the company—you just can’t put a dollar sign on that.

For the next two years we continued to improve our programs, focusing on training and employee involvement. We continued to use the consultation program and have had regular monitoring and visits. In December 2016, Becker Iron & Metal was once again given SHARP status based upon our continued efforts and dedication to creating the safest workplace possible.

As a result of our SHARP status, our continuous effort to improve working conditions, and our relationship with our Illinois OSHA consulting team, earlier this year IDOL asked us to host the lieutenant governor of Illinois and representatives of OSHA for their annual Labor Day proclamation. We were honored to say yes. On Aug. 30, we welcomed to our facility Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti and her assistants, plus IDOL Acting Director Joe Beyer, Acting Assistant Director Chris Wieneke, Illinois OSHA Industrial Service Consultant Jeff Tisckos and Industrial Hygiene Consultant Dave Farris, and IDOL Public Information Officer Ben Noble. We gave the visitors a tour of the facility, showing off our site and employees and also creating a more positive perception of the recycling industry as a whole.

Lt. Gov. Sanguinetti gave a short speech highlighting the importance of the labor force to not only the business for which they work but also the entire economy and structure of society. She stressed the need for continued education within one’s field in order to stay competitive and productive. She commended Becker for its commitment to ongoing training for all employees. After a short question-and-answer period, the lieutenant governor met with everyone present and engaged in conversations and picture-taking.

Today at Becker Iron & Metal, we continue to strive to enhance our safety program. We operate as if there are always lessons to be learned and hazards lurking in our facility waiting to be uncovered. We feel it’s our job to find them before they find us. 

Lisa Dunn is quality, environment, health, and safety director for Becker Iron & Metal, a fourth-generation scrap recycling firm in Venice, Ill.

Even a company with an above-average safety record has a lot to learn about operating safely and creating a safety culture. Once we opened our doors to the OSHA Consultation Program, we learned a lot, improving our safety.
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