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Business Trends: Workplace safety

Companies take a proactive training approach to keep injuries at bay

Conducting a plant audit can identify safety areas that may need improvement.
Joanne Friedrick
August 01, 2011

Visitors to Island Seafoods, a sportfish and commercial seafood processing plant in Kodiak, Alaska, can tell at a glance that safety is a priority at this facility.

Outfitted in hard hats and safety glasses, employees have bought into General Manager John Whiddon’s proactive approach to keeping everyone as safe as possible.

While fatal workplace accidents are rare in the seafood product preparation and packaging sector, National Safety Council statistics for 2009 show that workers can be victims of non-fatal events, with injuries coming from contact with an object or equipment (76.5 in 10,000 workers); overexertion (36.2 in 10,000) and caught in an object or equipment (12.9 in 10,000). Most of the injuries suffered in these types of events are classified as sprains, strains, soreness and pain, cuts, lacerations and punctures.

Although employees at Island Seafoods haven’t suffered any serious injuries, Whiddon still wanted to institute some type of workplace-safety program to keep such events to a minimum.

With a background as a military pilot, Whiddon has worked in a culture where safety was an inherent part of the everyday work plan.

With the blessings of parent company Pacific Seafood Group, Whiddon hired safety consultants and had the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Section (AKOSH) conduct an audit of the plant to identify areas that needed attention.

The audit resulted in some physical changes to meet standards, which required an investment. But for the most part, says Whiddon, upgrading safety is more of a time and effort commitment than a financial one.

Within the company, Whiddon formed a safety committee that consists of himself and about six workers representing various departments such as dock workers, production and maintenance. 

It was important, he says, to select the right people for the committee, people who are willing to speak out and give feedback. The committee now meets monthly, but initially it met more frequently to talk about areas of concern and possible solutions.

One of those solutions, he says, was the mandate that workers should wear hard hats and eye protection. Even if the risks are moderate, workers can be exposed to liquids and debris from working with the fish that safety glasses can prevent. 

Not everyone was quick to jump onboard the idea of protective gear, says Whiddon, who recalled that many of the female workers were concerned about how they would look. One woman went so far as to buy designer safety glasses, he says.
But now it’s standard for everyone, he says. Production floor workers also wear matching smocks that add to the team atmosphere, he says.

Employees at Island go through regular safety training programs now, says Whiddon, covering safe chemical storage and how to identify and watch out for hazards such as items people could trip on, like a misplaced ladder.

As a result of Island Seafoods’ program, the plant earned approved status under the federal Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program, also known as SHARP (in Alaska, the program is administered by AKOSH).

Having achieved the SHARP recognition doesn’t mean Whiddon is finished with his workplace-safety plans. “It’s an ongoing thing, an ever-evolving program,” he says. “As we grow into it, it’s become a very positive thing for the folks on the [production] floor.” And, he adds, “It just makes good business sense.”

For companies looking to improve or add a workplace-safety program, the National Safety Council (NSC) offers programs focused on four areas: management leadership and employee engagement, safety management systems, continuous risk reduction and performance measurement, according to Debbie Riedner, communications manager for the NSC in Itasca, Ill.

“Strong safety culture creates opportunities for safety excellence through shared ownership and responsibility among all employees,” says Riedner, who adds that senior executives need to lead through communications “and then demonstrate that their words have meaning through the actions they take.”

Whiddon also emphasizes the need to have a top-down and bottom-up approach to get the maximum buy-in from all parties.

One way to increase engagement, says Riedner, is to emphasize the importance of hazard and near-miss incident reporting and then correct those problems in a timely manner. 

Safety education, beyond what is mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), should focus on corporate standards that may exceed what is expected under the law, she says. “Management should identify workplace problems resulting from a lack of training, identify the characteristics of effective training and evaluate training programs. It needs to be specific to the business and nature of the tasks being completed,” she says. Also recommended is a written statement about the company’s policy on training, which defines safety programs for all levels of employees and management.

Through NSC, companies can partake in various training programs in the classroom, in-house or online, says Riedner. There is also safety management software available that helps companies manage the improvement process.

In the end, she says, it’s all about finding the means and methods for completing that “journey of safety excellence.”

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

April 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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