Industry Watch

Katherine Syverson at Lube-Tech’s St. Paul location

Watch out for safety

Concern for safety now extends beyond the workplace

By Brian Martucci
Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Every nine seconds, an American worker seeks medical attention for a workplace injury. Each injury costs, on average, $40,000, including direct and indirect losses. So American employers lose $250,000 every minute to a problem that, by and large, can be prevented.

That’s according to Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, a nonprofit devoted to road, home and workplace safety awareness. Not surprisingly, manufacturers are particularly incident-prone.

One injury is one too many

Since the 1970s, “a tremendous amount has been done on workplace safety,” says Aasen. Recognizing that no one’s interests are served by preventable workplace injuries, companies themselves have taken the lead on some fronts — installing railings and machine guards, or implementing safety processes around dangerous activities. Public authorities, notably OSHA, inject oversight and accountability into the mix. And insurance company audits nudge employers in the right direction.

But the work won’t be done until every preventable workplace injury is, well, prevented. “The real focus now is on employee behavior and training,” says Aasen: getting everyone to buy into safety and short-circuit the hardwiring that compels them to circumvent safety processes. More and more, these efforts extend to workers’ lives outside the workplace, and even to their loved ones.

“If my mom falls and gets hurt and I need to care for her, who does my work at the Safety Council?” asks Aasen. “What happens at home impacts the workplace.”

Health and safety boot camp?

That’s why Golden Valley-based Lubrication Technologies (Lube-Tech) Inc., sends its employees to “boot camp” each summer.

Lube-Tech partners with a Minneapolis health and fitness company on the intense, 10-week-long event. Instructors challenge Lube-Tech employees to exercise better and more regularly, eat healthier, sleep better and longer, and reduce stress. Employees earn points for healthy behaviors, reinforcing good habits.

Lube-Tech also puts on an annual health and wellness fair in April. The fair features optional wellness checkups, hearing tests, massages and stress education classes, plus lectures from Minnesota Safety Council staff about bike, boat and general warm-weather recreation safety.

“If you only engage on safety issues at work, you’re not speaking to a major part of your employees’ lives,” says Katherine Syverson, Lube-Tech’s enterprise safety manager.  

Safety culture

Of course, most of Syverson’s duties concern actual workplace safety. Her prime responsibility is simple: ingraining safety into Lube-Tech’s corporate culture.

“Safety is not just an event or obligation — it’s more than simply checking a box,” she says. “It’s something that should be part of your organization’s DNA.” Every manufacturer must follow the law, but truly comprehensive workplace safety programs go beyond the “have to’s” and encompass the entire operation. Lube-Tech’s safety tagline, “accelerate to zero,” underscores Syverson’s ambition.

“We want there to be no opportunity for people to get hurt on the job,” she says.

Randy Riesberg, corporate safety director at Cretex Companies, agrees. “Safety is one of [Cretex’s] core values,” he says. “Production quality and safety go hand in hand.”

To support Lube-Tech’s safety culture, Syverson’s team produces personalized, emotional content, like a recent poster depicting activities that are difficult or impossible for injured workers: picking up a child, volunteering in the community. And Syverson focuses relentlessly on making everyday workplace protocols safer.

“When you examine the sequence of events leading up to an injury, you realize that [the injury] is often the result of a process issue — certainly not conscious employee choice,” she says. “The more we improve our processes and methods, the less likely injuries become.”

Likewise, Cretex’s Riesberg doesn’t differentiate between safety training and process training. Cretex’s subsidiaries just train employees to do their jobs the right way, based on best practices.

“When you do your job right, you do your job safely,” he says.

Proper training takes care of the initial bulge on the “injuries versus tenure curve,” says Riesberg: the first year of employment, when inexperienced new hires are more likely to make mistakes. To address the curve’s “complacency bulge,” which occurs after four or five years of employment, Riesberg relies on gentle feedback from supervisors, who have more on-the-ground credibility than the corporate safety director.

“Safety is about more than just putting out mandates,” he says. “We want our employees to be involved with the process.”