September 2007- Expecting the unexpected. Preparing for the worst. Dodging a bullet. Better safe than sorry. But who's kidding who? Try, easier said than done.
When it comes to safety, accident prevention is what it's all about. Be prepared. It's a sound method for staying out of harm's way. Even a Swiss-army-in-pocket Eagle Scout doesn't know what's around every corner, and while years of collecting badges offers a heightened cache of senses, it's important to stay nimble.
For companies dedicated to keeping their employees in tip-top shape, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration provides a comprehensive source of guidance and technical support. Beyond the measures mandated by OSHA, however, tube and pipe mills have had to devise their own methods to prevent workplace accidents and injuries. A certain amount of preventative medicine is always the first line of defense, but every potential accident can't be predicted. That was before the Steel Tube Institute's safety task force was set in motion.
Taking on the two-heads-are-better-than-one approach, the Steel Tube Institute has devised a way for its members to share methods that are working and to advise against those that aren't. "I hate to be so parochial, but if we can save a life or a fingertip or prevent one worker from going home with a work-related disability, then we've achieved something," says Bill Wolfe, executive director of the Steel Tube Institute.
The safety task force brings together professionals from member companies along with any interested association members to share ideas and information pertaining to general and tube-mill-specific safety issues. The initial meeting, held at Maverick Tube's corporate offices in Chesterfield, Mo., on Sept. 15, 2006, had attendees representing 62 tube and pipe mills. After analyzing safety performance data compiled by the Steel Tube Institute, the attendees started opening up. The two subsequent meetings have resulted in the same type of sounding board.
"The second half of the meeting becomes an open forum where anyone can bring up anything," Wolfe explains. "Someone will bring up a subject and ask, 'What have you guys done about this? Does anyone have any experience with x, y or z?' It turns into a productive roundtable, and it's a no-holds-barred type thing."
Wolfe's take on the willingness of members to talk about what's happening under their respective roofs is one of surprise, and he says their openness is promising. "I have yet to see any evidence that anyone hasn't fully participated," Wolfe says. "That's so unique for our organization and for trade associations as a whole. We are a rabid group of competitors, and our industry probably has this disease worse than most. So for these guys to sit down and share is a big deal."
Proprietary processes and the like are, rightfully so, items to be kept under lock and key. The general well-being of the industry's workforce is quite another topic, and apparently one that tube and pipe mills have been wanting to discuss.
"The task force started because one of our members had safety as their No. 1 objective and were looking for comparative data--some way to mark their safety performance," Wolfe recalls. "OSHA has an incident recordkeeping system that requires employers to report on what has transpired within their organization during the prior year, but the statistics generated from these reports get lumped together. Unfortunately the aggregation of the statistics has a tendency to distort the information because if you're not with tube specific organizations, some of the numbers could either look really bad or really good.
"What this company was asking was why they had to manage their company with that kind of data, which could be better refined if it were developed within the Steel Tube Institute," he says. "So we took that task on three years ago, and it slowly got traction. Finally it started to take off to the point where many of the participants were saying, 'We should get together and talk about what these numbers mean.'"
Peeling the onion
In the past decade more than 5,000 employees in the United States have died on the job each year. Although the numbers have been steadily tapering off, preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that that number actually edges closer to 6,000: 5,703 in 2006 to be exact. Keeping those numbers as low as possible is the goal of every employer.
"You've got a lot of safety organizations and a lot of places to get safety information, but you can't go and find out, for example, how people get their fingers cut on the burrs on the end of tubes," Wolfe explains. "It seems that the way someone learns about a specific situation is unfortunately to experience it first-hand. We think we have a better way to learn."
Potential accidents that top the list of concerns for the tube and pipe industry deal with hand injuries and guarding devices to protect those precious digits. Bouncing ideas off of several member companies has proven to be a beneficial opportunity never available before the task force's establishment.
"If we're not making the smaller sizes that fly by at 1,000 feet per minute, we're making stuff that's so big that if it hits you, you're going to get hurt," Wolfe says. "So there's a lot of focus on interpreting how hand injuries occur--where and when they happen--and how to eliminate the possibility of a hand injury. You have a lot of general safety practices and then you have some unique safety practices. What we've done is to peel away another layer of the onion."
Since the first meeting last September, members have convened two additional times. As well as analyzing safety data and discussing safety practices in their roundtable fashion, attendees tour the host company's facility to suggest ways to improve. "It's like having a group of experts walk your floor," says John Carroll, corporate director of safety and security at Ipsco, an SSAB company.
Since its inception, the Steel Tube Institute's Safety Task Force has gathered tube and pipe mills together to address a collective goal. The headway that's been made has not only included each member company's ability to compare its safety performance to the performance of its peers but also the ability to share what's most effective in safeguarding the industry's workforce.
"Operating managers tend to be a competitive lot," Carroll says. "They take great pride in their progress and as they look at these benchmarked figures and see that another company or plant seems to have found a way of minimizing or reducing injuries, they try to discover what they've done that's different and how to emulate or apply those successful lessons."
Looking to future meetings, the task force's agenda continues to grow. Carroll says there has been an across-the-board consensus when zeroing in on the universal concerns: material handling, guarding issues and lock-out/tag-out. But devising the best solutions for eliminating the inherent hazards associated with pipe and tube manufacturing is an ongoing pursuit. With the creation of the Institute's Safety Task Force, it's one that companies won't have to take on by themselves.
"Out of the last committee meeting, we developed some specific assignments that we want to follow up on," says Carroll. "That lets us get into very fine detail on various industry-wide issues. Different ways to polish rolls is one of the areas that one group will be investigating. Another group is looking at best practices for loading trucks and will present on that at an upcoming meeting."
Whether a mill has a shining record of zero accidents or whether there is much improvement to be made, the potential for injury is always looming. A company can never be too safe. "It's easy to assume that because nothing bad has happened in the past year, nothing else bad will happen," says Carroll. "Well, when you come back from one of the meetings with information that an incident did occur at another facility, that gets everyone's attention."
Eliminating the human suffering associated with accidents and injuries is the primary motivation for instituting aggressive safety programs. In addition to harming workers, accidents and injuries also have a harmful effect on cost ledgers. The cost of workman's compensation is increasing, dramatically.
"As worker's compensation costs have escalated, it has caused even more of a focus in this arena," Wolfe says. "It has really brought this into the forefront because while we all know that our people are a very important asset, now with worker's compensation costs being associated with that, it puts a price on it more so than ever."
So what's really around the corner now that the Steel Tube Institute's Safety Task Force is at work? It's incentives: A pursuit to keep employees safer than ever before, a drive to stay ahead of the pack in terms of safety performance and the possibility of a decrease in worker's compensation costs.
So take it from the typically competitive tube and pipe mills. Collaboration can definitely breed results. MM
By Abbe Miller, from the September 2007 issue of Modern Metals.