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Employers strive for zero-injury workplaces

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ATLANTA — Clients and investors are demanding that businesses strive for and achieve zero workplace injuries, according to top corporate executives.

“Safety is an investment, so I don't think a company can survive today financially without a good safety program,” Randy Neuhaus, president and CEO of consulting engineering firm S&ME Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina, told attendees of the American Society of Safety Engineers' annual conference in Atlanta on Wednesday. “If we don't have a good safety record, we don't even get to propose on projects. We wouldn't work for (client) Southern Company if we didn't have a good safety record.”

Safety “is a fundamental expectation of the client,” said Kenneth Rueter, president and project manager for cleanup contractor URS | CH2M Oak Ridge L.L.C., or UCOR. “From a business perspective, it's the price of admission. Our principal client, the (U.S.) Department of Energy, they have a zero tolerance. They believe that you can have a zero-injury state, and we share in that belief.”

Ray Bagley, vice president of trades operations for Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. located in Newport News, Virginia, said safety is “paramount” to the bottom line.

“Shareholders are critical to any publicly traded company,” he said. “No investor wants to invest in a company that has a poor safety performance record.”

In 1995, the company secured a place in the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Voluntary Protection Program, which focuses on employers who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national averages for their respective industries.

By 2012, however, the company's injury rates started to increase above the industry average, demonstrating that they “had gotten complacent,” Mr. Bagley said. Workers felt like they did not have authority to make decisions, that leadership was not being as accountable as they said they were, and that safety as a priority was trumped by production schedules and targets, he said.

Mr. Bagley said the company is “still on this journey.”

“I'm not going to sit up here and tell you that we have arrived, but since 2012 we have gotten our arms around what's the prize.”

Rick Frazier, chief product supply and service officer for Coca-Cola refreshments with The Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta, said the company's safety philosophy is “zero is possible.”

“We wake up every day trying to get to that zero,” he said. “There's an investment that you have to make, and that's an investment in people.”

Kimberly Greene, executive vice president and chief operating officer for utility Southern Company in Atlanta, said 10 years ago the company's then-CEO David Ratcliffe set a target-zero policy after finding its injury rate to be unacceptable. However, Ms. Greene said she spoke to a large group of employees last year and asked them if they believed achieving a zero-injury workplace was possible. She was surprised and “pretty horrified” when many responded that it was not, for a range of reasons such as the size of the company or blaming the stupidity of employees.

“If you believe it's not possible, it's not possible,” she said. “You must believe that it's possible.”

Sometimes striving for zero injuries requires difficult decisions to be made, according to the executives.

Mr. Frazier recounted walking a plant floor and finding employees and supervisors failing to follow the proper procedures for shutting off machinery and preventing it from starting up again prior to the completion of maintenance or servicing work — more commonly known as lockout/tagout, the fifth-most frequently cited OSHA standard.

“I have a zero tolerance on lockout/tagout, and when I say zero tolerance on lockout/tagout, I mean I terminate people right on the spot when I see it,” he said. “You've got to hold everybody accountable for the process. That's a tough decision. That's a family I'm going to impact, but I'm going to make that decision. That reverberates around the organization.”