Five decades have passed since President Richard Nixon signed the act into law to create the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It’s hard to dispute the wisdom of the decision, as the national rate of nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses has declined significantly over the years from 10.9 cases per 100 full-time employees in 1972 to 2.8 cases in 2018.
And although Bureau of Labor Statistics data have shown a troublesome leveling off of national injury rates, Louisiana’s rates continue to decline. The rate of total recordable cases in the state fell from 2.2 per 100 workers in 2016 and 2017, to 2.1 in 2018, the most recent available data.
Greg Satterfield, a 40-year safety veteran and current senior safety engineer at LyondellBasell in Westlake, isn’t surprised. He says the Gulf Coast industrial market has become exponentially more proactive in its approach to safety than it was when he entered the workforce. “Back in the day, going a year without a lost time accident was a milestone,” Satterfield says. “Now, if you have one OSHA recordable it’s a big deal.”
The formation of OSHA was critical, to be sure, but other factors have facilitated the change, including a shift from a union to “open shop” work environment and a realization by owners that working safely can help their bottom line.
Ed Flynn, CEO of Catalyst Consulting Services LLC of New Orleans, says contractors and industrial owners used to have an “us versus them” relationship, rather than a collaborative one. That’s all changed.
“We’re now on the same team,” says Flynn, formerly vice president, health, safety and security for the Louisiana Chemical Association. He now provides analysis, intelligence and solutions to public and private sector clients. “Owners, employees and contractors now share information, work together and partner for safety … it’s a joint collaborative partnership, and that’s been enormously valuable.”
Kathy Trahan, president/CEO of Alliance Safety Council in Baton Rouge, says Louisiana is more safety focused than other states “because so many citizens work in the industrial sector or a related industry that serves those sectors.”
Governmental regulations have also played a big role. Trahan says the most significant impact, perhaps, has been the proactive execution of OSHA’s Process Safety Management requirements (initiated in 1992) by area plant leaders. “And if contractors want to work in that arena they must adhere to owner safety requirements, e.g. awareness-level training, site-specific training, hazard recognition, drug and criminal background screening,” she adds.
Safety councils have been major contributors in that regard. Trahan says Alliance Safety Council’s signature programs focus on the practitioners and frontline supervisors, as “they are the ones who inevitably set acceptable behaviors for both safety and productivity.”
Learning from hard lessons
Louisiana’s safety consciousness is rooted in history. Industrial disasters at Bhopal, India, Texas City, Deepwater Horizon and elsewhere haven’t been forgotten, but are instead remembered and used as valuable “lessons learned.”
As such, LyondellBasell and others have implemented precise methodologies for carrying experiences, near misses and other lessons from one job to the next. “All of that information is sent up the ladder, and depending on its significance is shared nationwide,” Satterfield says.
Safety-related information is also collaboratively shared with other plants through the Louisiana Chemical Association and other industry groups. Put simply, Louisiana’s industrial owners work smarter than they did the past, Satterfield says. “At one time, it was all about production, quality and safety, in that order,” he adds. “They’re now all intertwined. You can’t have good performance in any of those three areas without having success in the others.”
LyondellBasell has a robust management system, dubbed “Operational Excellence,” that’s designed to ensure continuous improvement and sustainability, and the CEO down to the craftsmen in the field are involved in the process. “We look at it on a daily basis, measure the performance and report it out to everyone so we all know how each facility is performing based upon our key performance indicators,” he adds.
The same is expected of Lyondell’s construction workforce and reinforced by a handful of safety councils in the area. “The entire workforce has to be engaged, and new employees need to know the importance of being safe.”
Flynn says Louisiana’s industrial space has created a culture of safety built around day-to-day, shift-to-shift communication. It’s a two-way street that works only if an owner combines good safety protocols with positive behavioral reinforcement. “I think it’s all about the way that safety is talked about,” Flynn adds. “Safety isn’t just a priority … safety is an expectation, an unwavering obligation … a condition of employment.”
The contractor community has become empowered in the process. Today, if a crew worker identifies a risk, they have the authority to stop work. “Years ago, contractors might have seen something but didn’t say anything because they didn’t want to jeopardize their employment,” Flynn says. “Today, everybody on the team wants a safe working condition.”
Of course, any effective safety program must have buy-in from management. A “sense of vulnerability” is also crucial, Flynn adds. “The best leaders I’ve seen over my decades understand the hazards of their processes and materials and are aware of symptoms of weakness, aka near misses or those things that might hint at a more serious event.”
A warning for the ‘new normal’
That sense of vulnerability is particularly important during the “new normal” of COVID-19. Alliance Safety Council’s Trahan says owners have doubled down on safety processes and procedures in response to the pandemic. “They have continued to direct the activities on their facilities to support a safe work environment regardless of production delays,” she adds.
And as everyone returns to work, she warns against a tendency to give safety a back seat. “We have to keep an eye out for and lend a hand to those workers who are entering our industry for the first time or switching work environments,” she adds. “Hazard recognition is even more critical. Working in new environments on new equipment lends itself to the likelihood of incidents and accidents increasing. Reorienting oneself to a new work situation takes time.
“You have to arrive with a fresh set of eyes if you are to stay aware of workplace hazards.”