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Changed culture leads to lower rate of injury

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SAN DIEGO—Transforming the safety culture at General Mills Inc.'s research and development facilities helped sharply reduce injuries by building worker trust of supervisors, safety experts say.

The safety improvement process started about five years ago when managers struggled to curtail the facilities' high number of injuries, the speakers said during a session at the National Safety Council's 94th annual Congress & Expo held earlier this month in San Diego.

In 2000, the facilities tabulated 67 Occupational Safety and Health Administration-recordable injuries, according to Charlotte Bertling-Erland, corporate technology occupational safety and environmental manager for General Mills in Minneapolis.

"Back in 2001, (when) we took a look at our recordable rate and lost-time rate, it was very clear that if we did not change we were going to have a significant injury or even worse than a significant injury," said Mike Rogers, a Minneapolis-based pilot plant production manager for the company that owns brands such as Cheerios, Pillsbury and Green Giant.

In this year's first half, General Mills' R&D facilities—where about 1,500 employees work—have experienced only one recordable injury. Seven such injuries were reported for the last fiscal year, the speakers said.

The improvement process began with an anonymous survey of managers and employees—including technicians, managers or team leaders, and scientists—at one of General Mills' plants where new products and packaging, and the machines used to produce them, are devised and tested in production runs. That plant alone was responsible for about half the OSHA-reportable injuries in 2000.

Lack of trust

The survey, conducted by Larchmont, N.Y.-based Culture Change Consultants Inc., found that technicians felt like second-class citizens, did not trust their leaders and believed supervisors didn't care if they were injured as long as production runs succeeded, said Mr. Rogers.

Management supported team leaders to make improvements but also told them change had to occur, he said.

Following the survey's results, Culture Change Consultants suggested the test plant make changes including breaking a "cycle of mistrust."

Team leaders and technicians met offsite in 2001, where frank discussions revealed misunderstandings. Participants shared the discussion content with the other leaders and technicians.

Among other complaints, technicians said team leaders didn't spend enough time on the shop floor. Ironically, though, the technicians didn't want their supervisors spending too much time there.

A "safety walk system" emerged that continues today at the R&D facilities. Team leaders now visit the shop floor during every shift to discuss safety concerns and near-miss incidents with technicians.

For the first time, production runs were halted when safety concerns arose. That sometimes led to "unpleasant and heated moments" between team leaders and the scientists, Mr. Rogers said.

"Some of this stuff is kind of ugly, kind of unpleasant," agreed Harvey Liss, senior consultant for Culture Change.

But the team leaders and safety managers at General Mills "were wiling to say, 'Hey this is us. We have to bring about change,"' he said.

Leaders were willing to "go toe-to-toe" because they knew they had the backing of senior managers, Mr. Liss added.

Team leaders' efforts helped gain the respect of technicians, who increasingly applied their knowledge to suggest safety improvements.

Repairing relationships

While the safety walks were critical, the trust that developed when technicians saw leaders valued and acted on their suggestions was even more important to improving safety, Mr. Rogers said. "This whole story is about repairing relationships," he said.

During the first year, more than 1,000 problems were fixed, he added. While machines once were rigged with duct tape and cardboard for a specific production run, that is no longer the case, Mr. Rogers said.

Every piece of new equipment undergoes a safety inspection and must have a green tag before it can be used. Equipment that fails inspection receives a red tag and cannot be used.

"Issue-oriented SWAT teams" were also created to address sudden safety problems. For example, when seven people were shocked within a nine-day period, one SWAT team checked every piece of equipment and wiring. "You can imagine in an R&D center, there are quite of few of them," Mr. Rogers said.

Eventually, a safety culture began to evolve, the speakers said.

But that doesn't happen quickly, Ms. Bertling-Erland said. It requires patience, a willingness to try measures that might not work, and consistent enforcement of safety measures for workers and managers, she said.