A Cut Above the Rest

Employees at Westervelt Lumber have a stake in being safe. It partly involves steak.

Sawn fingers, severed limbs, crushed torsos, and blinded eyes are among the many and sometimes deadly injuries common to sawmill work. Today’s laser-enhanced, electronically operated blades are a far cry from the water-powered saws of yesteryear, but the industry’s hazards have remained largely the same since the nation’s first mill was built at Jamestown, Va., in 1608. Four hundred years later, OSHA still considers sawmilling one of the most dangerous occupations in the country for good reason: The work involves all manner of moving machinery, most of which is heavy and razor sharp.

Click here to see the OH&S photo essay that accompanies this story.

As recently as two years ago, the sawmill operated by The Westervelt Company in Moundville, Ala., was regularly logging its share of injuries and increasing the industry’s bloody total. A large-scale operation, the facility produces about 1.1 million board feet of southern yellow pine lumber every day (approximately 50 truckloads) while also making more than 70 truckloads of chips per day for the paper industry. The site’s operations include boilers, a timber mill, a planer mill, dry kilns, and a pole mill. Its 325 associates work in three shifts.

In business since the 1970s, the mill has never suffered a fatality, but by 2005 it was experiencing a host of what its Wood Products Vice President Joe Patton calls “severe injuries,” including “broken arms and ribs and having someone squeezed in a piece of machinery and that type of thing—all of which involved very heavy equipment that could easily kill people.” The corporate office demanded change. Slowly, at first, according to Patton, that began to happen. Before long, thanks to a concerted effort by owners, managers, and every mill employee, the accident rate began to decrease. The word “accident,” in fact, began to be consciously hewn from the mill workers’ vocabulary and replaced with the phrase “preventable injury,” which Patton, a 10-year veteran of the facility, cites as a subtle but telling example of a sea change in the site’s approach to conducting business.

“I think the mentality at the plant used to be that, well, you’re working around dangerous equipment; sometimes you’re just going to get hurt, and there’s not much you can do to avoid it,” Patton says. “That’s not the mentality now. . . . We decided we had to put the brakes on what was happening and make sure we didn’t have to tell someone’s family that their family member wasn’t coming home.” Ensuring that, he added, meant adopting a new work culture highlighted by a renewed approach to safety—one in which no injury was considered run of the mill.

Looking Sharp
In 2006, Westervelt Lumber recorded 25 injuries and had an OSHA recordable rate of 6.9. By press time in late 2007, the mill had recorded four injuries total for the year, including two back strains, an infected wound from a metal shaving that infiltrated a worker’s glove, and a splinter from a board that stuck one worker in the stomach. All four occurred in the first quarter of the year.

“Severity of the injury is not what we’re looking at,” Patton notes. “Basically, we’re looking at eliminating all injuries—all those things that can turn to serious.”

From late April 2007 to the end of the year, the mill was successfully doing just that—eliminating all injuries. By December, it had logged more than eight months—well more than a half million work hours—without a single recordable injury, setting a new company record that, as of this writing, is still in progress.

Patton attributes the remarkable turnaround in results to a companywide commitment toward making safety happen, beginning at the top with Westervelt President and CEO Michael E. Case and extending to every hourly employee. Discussing the mill’s newfound safety culture, the word Patton most often repeats is “accountability”; the name he most often repeats is Jimmy Swindle.

Hired two years ago as corporate safety manager, Swindle immediately set about analyzing the mill’s operations and closely investigating the incidents that were formerly referred to as “accidents.” What he found was that every injury, without exception, was preventable and the mill metric most in need of an upgrade was awareness. So he began finding ways to institute it.

He hung banners (“Safety is an Attitude. . . . How’s yours?”). He shored up the mill’s lockout/tagout and machine guarding programs. He began holding regular safety meetings. He began performing monthly safety audits during which he and Operations Manager Tommy Clemmons, usually also joined by a department manager or shift supervisor, walk the mill floor with camera in hand, making a visit to an unannounced part of the facility. According to Clemmons, the visits are designed to find any area where improvements can be made—but that’s not all.

“What we’re really trying to do is ‘catch’ people doing something right in this,” he says. In the event that something is not being done right, whether it’s an outright violation or a housekeeping procedure that could be done better, the auditors duly note it and give workers in that particular area a week to get it right.

Meanwhile, Swindle formed what he calls SAW (Safety And Wellness) teams. Composed of workers from both day and night shifts, these meet monthly in extra meetings. Along with supervisors, they perform safety audits of their own several times each week, following up on the observations from Swindle’s and Clemmons’ audit when necessary. The success of the SAW teams spawned the creation of both a Fall Prevention team and a Repetitive Motion team, which perform similar observations in their respective areas.

“This is not just supervisors telling everybody to be safe,” Patton says of the teams. “The reason this program is so successful is that we’re letting hourly associates get together in groups, and they’re identifying the unsafe areas and acts and calling them to attention. They are the ones who are more out there on the floor every day, seeing the things that go on, and we listen to them. It’s a process-driven endeavor that Tommy and Jimmy have really fine-tuned to get our associates driving what we do to make things safer.”

Swindle adds that implementation of the teams has proven to be an effective process for measuring safety in much the same way other mill departments measure production. “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘What gets measured gets done,’” he says. “Well, here we’re measuring safety every way possible. Since we started the SAW program, the associates have taken ownership of it. They are making safety happen here, and we’re rewarding them for it.”

Let Them Eat Steak
The rewards of which Swindle speaks come primarily in two forms at the mill, and both involve green, leafy trimmings. The first is derived from the company’s gain-sharing program that ties in metrics for safety, performance, and production. Associates are grouped in teams—one for the boiler area, another for the pole mill, and so on. When the groups meet their metrics on all fronts, they receive a cash bonus daily and weekly, according to Patton. Each team is considered separately for the program, and if anyone on the team fails to meet the metrics during a given period—whether it’s for being written up for an unsafe act or, worst-case scenario, having an injury— then that team is ineligible for gainsharing participation and gets no bonus that week.

Patton says since the program launched, its most notable development has been the dramatic rise in the timbre of teamwork throughout the mill. “It definitely encourages individuals to look out for their buddies,” he says. “It used to be, ‘I’m going to look out for myself, and everybody else can worry about themselves,’ but now, by bringing people together in teams, it’s more a matter of, ‘Hey, I’ve got to look out for you in order to get my bonus!’”

Having employees look out for each other was always the hoped-for result of the team-approach plan, Swindle says. Initially, he adds, workers were reluctant to speak up, but once it became clear what was at stake, their willingness to intervene gradually improved. Curiously, though, the intervention most often discussed around the mill has less to do with the bonuses and more to do with beef, he says. Which brings up the second major safety incentive in place at Westervelt.

“‘Hey, don’t do that! You’re going to mess up my steak dinner!’ You hear that a lot around here,” Swindle says. The reason is that any time the mill logs 60 days without a recordable injury, all associates are treated to a banquet in their honor with steaks, baked potatoes, salads, and other accoutrements, prepared and served to them on site by their supervisors and company managers. Swindle conceived the plan about a year ago, and although it took a while for the mill to hit the mark, he says associates have now thoroughly sunk their teeth into it. In mid-October, the company held its third consecutive cookout and at press time was days away from achieving its fourth.

To accommodate all shifts, the celebrations are around-the-clock affairs. After the initial cookout, Patton recalls, “We asked the supervisors if we were going to need to have this thing catered because they were staying up all night and all day long, cooking, preparing, and getting all this stuff set up. But they said, ‘No, if our guys are going to be safe and put forth the effort to earn it, then we can cook.’ And I think that says a lot.”

The appetites of lumber workers are historically famous, and Swindle admits there are less pricey programs he could have initiated, though probably few as tasty. Each cookout costs about $3,500, he says, adding that it is a price the corporate office is glad to pay. “It’s worth every penny of it because we’ve got people going home in their car instead of in an ambulance,” he says.

Patton adds that all of the programs in place at the mill are possible because of the approval and support they receive from the company’s leaders. “We give out different, extra little awards from time to time, and between those and our steaks and gain sharing, you know, it all costs money. But it’s a cost our CEO and our president of the board stand firmly behind. From the time we wanted to put these programs in, they’ve said, ‘We are committed to safety, and we want you guys to know we’re committed, so we’re going to hold you accountable and want you to hold associates accountable and have every associate hold each other accountable, because there’s not one board cut out there that’s worth anybody’s health or life.’ So, it’s that commitment from top to bottom with an emphasis on accountability and having the right incentive packages that have made the whole thing work,” Patton says.

Blade Running
Back before Westervelt knew what would work, Patton and others representing the mill sought out other organizations with effective safety plans and asked for advice. Two companies in particular welcomed them in: Federal Way, Wash.-based Weyerhaeuser Co., which has locations throughout the southeast and which Patton describes as “a friendly competitor”; and Hartsville, S.C.-based Sonoco Co., a Westervelt customer that provides packaging products. Safety leaders at both companies gladly shared their time and experience and were instrumental in getting Westervelt going in the right direction, Patton says.

“Sometimes companies don’t want to share information about how they do things, especially in their mills, thinking it might give people a competitive edge,” Patton notes. “But when we mentioned safety, Weyerhaeuser opened its doors to us and said, ‘Come on in, and we’ll show you some of the things that we do.’ And we were just very thankful for that.”

He says Sonoco leaders, meanwhile, offered this advice: “They said, ‘The one thing you have to remember is that safety is not a sprint; it’s a marathon, and it has taken us five or six years to get to this level.’” By those standards, Westervelt has just begun the race. Yet, with the success the company has already tasted within two years of overhauling its programs and installing its own brand of incentives, the mill is already looking to the future.

“Now, we want to be the ones that people come to about safety,” Swindle says. “We want people knocking the door down, finding out what we’re doing right."

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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