Dumb Luck?

Just because you haven’t had to report an accident to OSHA doesn’t mean you have adequate safety measures in place.

Too many companies make the mistake of thinking that an absence of accidents that need to be reported to the ­U.S. Department of Labor’s Oc­cupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) means they have adequate safety measures in place when, in fact, they may have merely been lucky.

“Even shippers and third-party logistics (3PL) providers with the most aggressive safety initiatives have some OSHA-recordable incidents,” says Dixie Brock, national safety manager at APL Logistics, a 3PL based in Oakland, CA, “because all of them employ humans—and humans make mistakes.

or the sake of your employees and your company, you cannot become overconfident about safety and assume you don’t need a safety program. If you do, you’re engaging in the unsafest behavior of all.”

When Brock joined APL in the early 1990s, the company’s number of OSHA-recordable incidents was well above the industry average. Today, OSHA-recordable accidents have dropped 82 percent and are about 60 percent below the industry average. Brock credits the comprehensive safety program that the company now has in place. “It’s been a 10 year journey, so you have to realize that you will not get there over night,” she says. “And you have to keep going back to the basics because turnover is so high in the industry.

“There are a lot of ways to approach the challenge of logistics safety,” says Brock, who oversees safety initiatives for about 70 APL Logistics facilities, “but one of the best—once you ensure you’re in compliance with all safety regulations—is to proactively identify the key risks associated with unsafe behaviors, processes and conditions. Once you understand the risks, you can either eliminate them or—if that’s not realistically possible—establish safer processes to manage them.”

And, for large companies with multiple facilities, it’s important that all people share accident information. “If you have an accident in California, you have to let the other [managers] know because the same incident can take place in Illinois,” says Brock.

But even small companies need to share information, and conduct their own internal audits that are then shared throughout the company. Rochester Meat Co., Rochester, MN, for example, has two employee committees that routinely audit all facilities and practices. The two committees include both managers and hourly employees from all departments. They go out and perform a monthly inspection of all work areas in the company’s meat processing plant and four adjoining warehouses and identify changes needed to ensure a safe workplace.

“We also keep statistics for all accidents and monitor incident rates to identify trends that need to be addressed, and hold managers accountable for investigating all accidents—even near-misses—and coming up with corrective action,” explains LeAnn Haack, human relations and safety manager at Rochester Meats.

In addition, the company has a very proactive safety training program in place with regularly scheduled training for employees in ergonomics, proper forklift operation, process safety management, sanitation, chemical orientation, electrical panel safety, lockout/tagout procedures (locking out energy sources to prevent accidental start-up of equipment), fire and emergency evacuation and other issues as they arise, explains Karin Grzanek, a company spokesperson. “And all new employees receive a comprehensive safety orientation as part of their on-the-job training.”

Prevention Pays Off
Rochester Meats first adopted a strong emphasis on safety about 12 years ago when it started to transition from a largely temporary workforce to more permanent employees.

The result has been a 450 percent decrease in lost work day accidents, a 180 percent decrease in the number of OSHA-recordable accidents and an 800 percent reduction in the severity of the accidents. “Someone may still get cut, but it will require a Band-Aid instead of stitches,” says Haack.

“When we started to look at workers’ compensation insurance premiums, we realized very good savings,” she continues. “If we go 30 percent below the industry average, it directly impacts our insurance premiums, which are probably also about 30 percent lower.”

Currently, incident rates among the company’s 250 employees are about half of the industry average.

This concentration on safety has earned Rochester Meats a number of local and national awards, including the Minnesota Governor’s Award of Honor for workplace safety and health, and recognition from the Minnesota Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (MNSHARP), a program run by the Minnesota State Department of Labor and Industry in conjunction with OSHA.

Murphy Warehouse Co., a third-party warehousing firm in Minneapolis that specializes in food and related items, received the same award last year. The company operates nine facilities, totaling about 1.8 million square feet, in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

The company boasts an environment “where managers and employees work together to develop safety and health programs that go beyond basic compliance with all acceptable OSHA standards and results in immediate and long-term prevention of job-related injuries and illnesses,” according to Richard Murphy, the company’s president and CEO.

The company has made “valiant efforts during the past 15 years to build a solid safety culture,” says Murphy. Those efforts have included “equipment modifications, training and developing a sensitivity toward safety and ergonomics best practices,” he says.

Danger Still Lurks
Despite the success of some companies, logistics in general is still a very dangerous business, according to OSHA and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Warehousing and transportation across all industries last year saw a total of 829 total workplace fatalities, second only to the construction industry, according to Bob Kublick, an area director for OSHA.

Forklift accidents resulted in a total of 271 fatalities last year, up 8 percent over the previous year, he says.

Typically, the forklift fatalities are the result of tip-overs and falling off the docks. “Many occur at the loading dock because trucks are not being chocked properly,” he states. “We continue to have fatalities with forklifts because of a lack of proper training of forklift operators. We continue to find violations of forklift policies because of a lack of training and recertification programs, and because of forklift drivers not wearing their seat belts.”

Between 10 percent and 25 percent of all reported workplace injuries occur at warehouse loading docks, according to the National Safety Council. To counter this, most companies are now pushing the use of wheel chocks to secure trailers in position, angling docks toward the building, installing bumpers and cushions on the outside edges of the dock door to prevent structural damage from trucks backing in, turning to electronic dock boards to bridge the gaps between the dock surface and the floor of the trailer, installing guard rails at dock edges and putting in better dock lighting systems.

Clutter on the loading docks is also a frequent cause of safety hazards. Unused or discarded cartons, pallets, banding wire or other debris can obstruct movement, impede access to fire extinguishers, disconnects, breaker panels and fire exits, and cause tripping hazards.

According to Kublick, warehouses that handle food often fare much better than those in other industries with regard to their safety records because of stringent food safety and security requirements, but there are still violations and accidents.

OSHA has expanded its facility inspection service and “we continue to find the same violations,” he says. Among them are slippery and uneven floors, inadequate facilities for charging forklift batteries, forklift seatbelts not being worn by drivers, and, “even though we don’t issue violations for them yet, we see a lot of ergonomics issues.”

“Developing an effective safety and injury prevention program will go a long way,” says Kublick, who has recently begun to encourage facilities to sponsor programs to get employees’ eyes checked. “Especially for people operating forklifts or material handling equipment, there should be normal eye screenings,” he adds.

Too Much Tolerance
Individuals and their managers have to be held accountable for their unsafe behavior each and every time it occurs, says Brock, “because if you don’t address a safety violation as soon as it happens, you’re essentially giving someone permission to repeat the behavior. Safety has to be non-negotiable.”

According to Brock, employees must understand that breaches of safety will have swift and definite consequences, including suspension or even termination if necessary. Even something like sending the offender for additional training or taking away forklift privileges can have a profound impact, she says.

“It may sound callous,” says Brock, “but the truth is, you can’t afford to put your other employees in jeopardy because of one person’s insistence on behaving unsafely. Nor can you afford to let that person jeopardize him self, customers’ products, trailers and equipment.”

Those “get tough” policies apply to drug and alcohol use more than anything else, says Brock. “If you are involved in a forklift accident, for example, and we find that drugs or alcohol were involved, you are automatically let go,” she explains.

And the statistics support this policy. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 8 percent of workers use illicit drugs and another 8 percent are considered heavy drinkers.

Employed drug abusers cost employers two to three times as much in medical and workers’ compensation claims as their drug-free counterparts, are five times more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim, 3.6 times more likely to be involved in on-the-job accidents and late for work three times as often. Substance abusers also are about a third less productive.