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Harley-Davidson's ramped-up worker safety program pays off

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NEW ORLEANS — Harley-Davidson Inc. had a poor health and safety record for many years, but the company was able to turn that around and reduce both its injuries and workers compensation costs through a major program overhaul conducted with the support of senior leadership.

In 2009, one in 12 employees at the Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer experienced recordable injuries — injuries the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates documentation of because they require treatment beyond first aid — at a direct workers comp costs of $6 million, Beth Mrozinsky, the company's workplace safety and health director, told attendees of the 2016 Disability Management Employer Coalition conference in New Orleans on Tuesday. The company received multiple safety citations from regulators in the United States, Brazil and Australia because “we didn't have our house in order,” she said.

In 2009, Harley-Davidson underwent a significant leadership change, which led to a top-down push to improve health and safety, a new vision — “Provide safe work and work safely” — that came directly from the then-CEO, who also provided the necessary funding and resources, and “that makes a big difference,” Ms. Mrozinsky said.

Harley-Davidson started with a workplace analysis to determine what the risks were and began color-coding priority risks to be addressed, with red indicating a high, unacceptable risk, she said. The company also implemented a hazard prevention and control system, including applying pink tags to new or modified processes and equipment requiring evaluation by the company's maintenance, operations and safety teams for potential risks.

A key part of this effort was education, communication and recognition, including new-employee orientation, monthly safety meetings and after-action reviews after major incidents to discuss what went right and wrong and changes to prevent them from happening again, Ms. Mrozinsky said.

“You can do all these great things, but if you don't tell anyone, if you don't educate your employees, it doesn't mean anything,” she said.

The company also focused on care, case and claims management, with Harley-Davidson partnering with workforce solutions provider BTE, which helps companies implement injury prevention, early intervention, clinical services and return-to-work policies.

At a cost of about $2 million each, Harley-Davidson built several onsite lifestyle centers offering services, such as occupational medical care, periodic acute and episodic care, and drug and alcohol testing, said Sue Gartner, director of onsite health for BTE in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and a retired Harley-Davidson employee who helped implement the program. These centers also provide rehab services such as stretching, massage therapy and physical therapy, and new employees are required to undergo work conditioning encompassing one hour a day for 10 days.

“We've got people who were flipping burgers at McDonald's one day and they're coming in trying to make bikes the next day and they're moving all sorts of different body parts, so we want to condition them to the environment that they're in,” she said. “We also provide work conditioning for anybody who's off of work for greater than 60 days.”

In 2015, the company lowered its injury rate to 1 in 200 recordable injuries, reduced its workers comp cost to about $400,000, and did not receive a willful or serious citation from OSHA, she said.

However, that's not good enough for Harley-Davidson, which has a goal of no recordable injuries in 2018.

“We have a vision that everything is preventable — if you don't have that, you're saying things are acceptable,” she said.