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April 05, 2013
Zero incidents: Is it possible?

Is the idea of zero accidents a vague dream or maybe the subject of an intriguing session at a safety conference—or is it a real and attainable goal?

According to corporate leaders from Alcoa and Skanska USA, “zero” is not only possible, it is a guiding principle that shapes their corporate safety efforts.

Learn how they are getting closer in this article, where we’ll also feature a safety engineer who helps major manufacturers get ahead of accidents by eliminating hazards in the design of processes and equipment.

Alcoa: ‘It’s a journey’

“Sending everyone home in the same condition they came to work has been a long-standing value for Alcoa, certainly as far back as the start of my 33-year career,” says Jeff Shockey.

As corporate safety director, Shockey sets the tone for a hard-driving safety program. In 2011, the company’s 60,000 employees worked an entire calendar year without a single fatality, and 99.9 percent of employees went home without experiencing an injury that required medical treatment, or restricted or lost-time.

The idea that injuries can be eliminated was first articulated at Alcoa in the late 1970s and was subsequently reinforced by Paul O’Neill. He led the company beginning in 1987 and later served as U.S. Treasury Secretary.

“It seemed pretty unreachable at the time, but it challenged our capacity and capability as leaders, EHS professionals, and Alcoans,” says Shockey. For O’Neill, excellence in employee protection meant looking beyond industry benchmarks and discarding old paradigms about acceptable levels of risk.

Zero became “true north” in the Alcoa safety culture. Shockey says current CEO Klaus Kleinfeld has taken an active role in moving the Alcoa safety culture forward.

Alcoa’s journey to zero injuries centers around four primary activities.

1. Identify hazards and assess risk. Each of Alcoa’s 16 business units is expected to proactively identify and eliminate potential hazards. The goal is to go beyond regulatory compliance and look for ways to reduce exposures in routine and nonroutine tasks.

Alcoa believes that hazards occur at the “working interface.” This is the place where the work environment (including equipment and materials) intersects with people and work methods.

2. Develop and implement operational controls with built-in layers of protection. Layers of protection are established for all operations and activities that could result in risk or impact—everything from fall protection to contractor safety.

“We try to avoid single-barrier vulnerability, such that if one thing goes wrong, the entire apple cart is upset.” For example, in the area of forklift operations, Alcoa requires numerous controls, including ensuring that fork trucks are inspected before use. Operators are trained, and blind spots are addressed. Pedestrian travel ways are protected and occupant restraints, overhead protective guards, strobe lights, and backup alarms are routine.

Employees may not approach a forklift within 3 feet without direct communications with the operator, and pedestrians in high forklift travel areas are required to wear safety vests. “These are all examples of the layers of protection we establish to prevent that life-threatening injury,” adds Shockey.

A global corporate standard addresses the most common high-consequence exposures, for example, work at heights or confined space entry. Prejob or task briefs are conducted for both routine and nonroutine tasks considered high risk. Supervisors and employees discuss the most “error-likely situations” that might be encountered and the conditions under which an employee should stop work. All Alcoa employees and contractors have stop-work authority if they believe they or a coworker are at risk.

3. Monitor and maintain safety systems. Ongoing monitoring allows Alcoa to evaluate and improve safety performance and identify areas that require corrective action.

The company tracks key performance indicators for each business unit and operating location. Shockey says field observations are used extensively on high-risk tasks and with new employees, known to be at higher risk than seasoned workers.

Members of a corporate EHS audit team conduct audits of all business units on a 3- to-5-year cycle. The sites conduct their own self-assessment every 12 to 18 months.

4. React to correct gaps and improve system stability. A well-developed corrective action process ensures that nonconformances are addressed. The aim, says Shockey, “is moving the safety system to a higher degree of reliability and sustainability” and minimizing the impact of changes in personnel or operations.

Part of the corrective process includes applying lessons learned from incidents with high-consequence potential. These are used to predict future areas of vulnerability. When it was determined in the 1990s that fatalities related to skylights had occurred, Alcoa took an aggressive stance to eliminate or guard skylights on the roofs of all buildings, including those of newly acquired businesses.

Chasing zero

These and other efforts have helped Alcoa narrow the gap in the race toward zero injuries. Shockey compares the company’s current safety performance to the year 1987, when about 60,000 people were on the payroll, similar to today.

In 1987, there were 975 lost workday injuries. At the end of 2012, that number was down to 87. The dramatic turnaround is especially significant because Alcoa now operates in many more countries, including some with minimal internal safety and health standards.

The journey continues as Alcoa whittles down that number even further, with a companion effort to reduce fatalities. The iconic manufacturer will continue to focus on reducing exposures with the highest chance of taking a life or causing traumatic injury.

Skanska USA: “Safety is everyone’s responsibility”

Zero is a big number at Skanska USA, one of the nation’s largest construction and development companies. The company has 39 U.S. offices and about 9,400 employees. Skanska USA’s building and civil divisions generated nearly $6 billion in 2013. The U.S. business is part of Stockholm-based Skanska AB.

At Skanska USA safety is everyone’s responsibility. In order to reach zero incidents, employees are encouraged to:

  • Take individual responsibility for safety on the job by proactively watching for risks and stopping any activity that looks unsafe.
  • Wear protective gear.
  • Keep the work area clean.
  • Take part in warm-ups to prevent injuries.
  • Look out for colleagues, especially when working at heights.

“I remain convinced that zero is not only an aspirational goal, but also something that is achievable,” notes Skanska USA Chief EH&S Officer Hendrik van Brenk. “Had we predicted 5 years ago the kind of safety performance we see today, we would have said it’s impossible.” The current lost-time incident rate is 0.87, compared to an industry average of about 3.6.

For Skanska USA, as for Alcoa, getting to zero is a deliberate journey built around several key elements.

The first is pretask planning. Van Brenk says prework sessions provide an opportunity to convey messages about the job and the tasks. “Today’s craft workers are educated and know the rules,” he explains. As such, the purpose of a pretask meeting is not to dictate standards, but to discuss hazards and how to abate them.

Skanska leaders look for ways to inspire workers to do their best and do it safely. “We learn how to ask questions and how to engage people in a collaborative way,” says van Brenk. The company offers a course in “great boss training.” “It’s devoted to building our leadership ability. On one level, it has nothing to do with safety, but, in fact, it has everything to do with safety,” van Brenk adds.

Other tools

Another element in Skanska’s effort to reduce injuries is “visible leadership.” Executives take safety walks that are not formal inspections, but are an opportunity to engage craft workers, ask questions, and demonstrate concern.

Adds van Brenk, “The dialogue that’s created sends a message—it resonates across the organization to leaders at all levels, including our CEO.” Executives follow a simple guideline that suggests questions to ask and things to look for. The visit is recorded, and if any serious hazards are identified, action is taken.

A systems approach to safety is another pillar of this zero-directed program. Skanska has been ISO-certified for more than a decade and about 4 years ago completed the requirements for OHSAS 18001, an international safety management system. “The systems approach provides a foundational structure to develop meaningful indicators for continuous improvement.”

Van Brenk says the mix of sound systems and engineering with strong leadership is a powerful combination.

Beyond the structural elements of a strong safety process, van Brenk emphasizes the “simple things.” Skanska’s well-known stretch-and-flex program is an example. Every morning, employees at all project sites and offices spend 10 to 15 minutes doing a set of 12 simple exercises to increase blood flow and warm up their muscles. A superintendent, craft employee, or executive leads the work groups in exercise.

The program was started in 1996 as a way to reduce the chance of soft tissue injuries by improving flexibility, strength, and range of motion. Such injuries have dropped dramatically, but there have been other benefits. “Camaraderie is created where people can dialogue around safety, but not only safety,” explains van Brenk. It’s also an opportunity to prepare mentally for tasks and share announcements and information.

Transformational incentives

The effort to eliminate injuries must be accompanied by a change in the way incentives are managed. Van Brenk agrees with the direction OSHA has taken in recent months, discouraging incentive programs that may lead to hiding injuries or illnesses.

“I think we have to eventually move away from transactional incentives, such as earning a reward for not getting injured, to transformational incentives, for example building a project on time, at cost, [and] with zero defects and injuries.”

Zero by design?

Safety giants like Alcoa and Skanska have multilayered safety systems that drive their efforts to eliminate injuries. But what about engineering risk out of equipment and processes? And what is the role of design in getting to zero?

Bruce Main is the author of Risk Assessment: Challenges and Opportunities and is president of Design Safety Engineering in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The firm helps manufacturers conduct risk assessments and use equipment and processes more safely. Clients include familiar names like General Motors, Kraft, and SC Johnson.

In answer to the question, “Can accidents be eliminated?” Main agrees with Shockey from Alcoa and Skanska USA’s van Brenk, but says the key is to ensure that employees have a firm understanding of the tasks they are doing so that risk doesn’t creep back into the process.

Employees tend to get hurt when things aren’t going right, for example, when machine guards must be removed to clear a jam. Such problems eat up valuable production time. Employees and supervisors eager to get the line back up sometimes make risky choices. “That’s often when people get hurt—in an unplanned, unscheduled activity.”

Plan ahead!

Main reminds employers that it’s not enough to have controls; they must be accessible. If a lockout/tagout location is located hundreds of feet from the equipment to be locked out, and an electrician is feeling pressure to get the machine back up, the chance of a shortcut—and a resulting injury—rises.

At a parts manufacturing operation, an oven used to cure parts had been built in an elevated area to save floor space. An elevator transported the parts to the oven. However, if the equipment got jammed or needed lubrication, there was no easy, safe access.

Instead, engineering or maintenance staff had to don fall protection and ride the elevator that was intended for parts, not people. What’s more, the oven required a full 4 hours to cool before it could be repaired. These plant design failures not only caused workers to be at risk, they also added considerably to the time needed to maintain the oven.

“I believe strongly that you can prevent accidents, but you have to understand how people are going to interact with products and systems.” As an engineer, Main says he is always looking for the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to do something that’s also the safest.

An example is a method of clearing a jam in which opening the door to the operational parts of the equipment sends the unit into safe mode. The machine can be restarted only once the jam is cleared and the door is closed.

Good safety procedures and controls must not impede production. That leads workers to ignore the safety systems, which leads to injury.

Another obstacle on the path to zero injuries is the fact that safety is frequently absent from the engineering curriculum. “I often see that engineers have never been exposed to the hazard-control hierarchy,” says Main.

“The safety lecture in design class is usually war stories about what can go wrong or how stupid people are.” While entertaining, these stories don’t teach the importance of eliminating risk at the design stage—or the skills required.

“If hazards are identified early, engineers can build systems into the design that allow the work to be done safely,” Main adds.

Assess the risk

Although safety professionals can’t do much about what’s taught in engineering school or the way plants are designed, Main says they can insist that professional risk assessment be conducted regularly on all processes. And they can help employees sharpen their own hazard-identification skills.

“It’s not rocket science,” Main emphasizes. There are many ways to help employees learn to identify risk. One is to directly ask employees about their top concerns about working on a particular piece of equipment. Use the input to address risk, starting with the highest-level exposures.

Goals to get you from there to here

Establishing meaningful goals is essential to achieving a zero accident culture. The Zurich Insurance Group advises clients that such goals must be challenging to be effective.

According to the insurer, “A goal that can be achieved with little or no concentrated effort will be perceived as that—the status quo—no need for change or improvement. On the other hand, a goal that demands effort will provide the initiative for making safety an important part of daily activities for all levels of the company.”

Zurich considers the following to be poor safety goals because they do not provide a target measure of success or establish a time frame for completion.

  • Improve the recordable injury incident rate of the organization.
  • Increase the frequency of employee safety training.

These, however, are examples of good safety goals because they establish measurable outcomes and fixed time frames:

  • Reduce the recordable injury incident rate by 15 percent over the next 2 years.
  • Provide 12 monthly interactive safety-training programs with quizzes, on which employees must score an 85 percent or better.

Make sure that goals are attainable. According to Zurich, “Asking supervisors and employees to go from 50 recordable accidents to 5 without implementing appropriate accident prevention methods and providing the necessary resources is asking for the impossible.” Unattainable goals can become a source of employee frustration or resentment.

 Employers should support attainable goals with appropriate accident prevention methods and needed resources.

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