Earlier this year a remarkable team of volunteers, called the Community Ergonomics Resource Team, visited the company on a Sherlock Holmes mission.
CERT recruits people in our field to solve business problems in a voluntary, collaborative way, and the ingenuity of this approach has lessons for all of us, even British Petroleum, which lost 15 workers in an explosion at its Texas City refinery in March 2005.
Handcrafting shoes involves strenuous activity for the wrists and the upper body. The leather is very stiff, and workers have to pull it over molds and bend it to fit through sewing machines. Many hand tools are involved.
Enter CERT, courtesy of a staff member of the state's workers' compensation fund, SAIF. Back in 2003, the SAIF employee had an idea. He envisioned people in private industries offering solutions to ergonomic problems on a peer-to-peer basis. Advice would be practical, likely low cost, and more easily accepted.
The teams would only visit companies already searching for a solution. Sure enough, the concept caught on. The initial CERT outings showed that people from different industries look at problems differently, enriching the quality of the advice.
Roberta Shoemaker, the president of West Coast Shoe and granddaughter of the firm's founder, learned about CERT and asked that a team visit her. And so, in February of this year, a seven-person team stopped by. One six-hour meeting thus delivered 42 hours of free consultation, plus a written report with photos.
Shoemaker opened the meeting and introduced herself, giving a brief family history and explanation of West Coast's focus on workplace safety. She popped in again in the afternoon to listen. Shoemaker told me that the team's recommendations were sometimes counterintuitive.
CERT member Leslie Kantor of Leatherman Tools, of Portland, had an idea to alleviate wrist deviation and awkward work positions. If the worker's position in the workstation were reoriented by 90 degrees, much of the risk of injury would disappear, Kantor found.
Another CERT member suggested blowing air in the boot to assist in pulling the boot off the bootjack. CERT's Walt Rostykus of Humantech, an ergonomics consulting firm, suggested different handle sizes and foam wrapping for some of the tools such as hammers and pinches.
In sum, a score of practical suggestions were made, which the company implemented quickly, in part by purchasing some new equipment.
"Having fresh sets of eyes taking a look at issues that have been causing soft-tissue injuries over the years has been very helpful," Shoemaker admitted. This is the link to the BP disaster at Texas City.
It's not as crazy as it seems.
BP's cost-trimming mania had driven safety thinking into tightly defined mental blinders of OSHA standards. BP focused on traumatic accidents, not tricky processes such as restarting complex equipment loaded with flammable liquid. No one seemed empowered and emboldened simply to look around.
The Texas City safety culture could be called an Anti-Destination League against fresh perspectives. Most lives were lost simply by contractor trucks parked too close to equipment with explosive potential.
This is the key to West Coast's safety success and BP's disaster: fresh sets of eyes.
PETER ROUSMANIERE, a Vermont-based consultant and writer, is the workers' comp columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
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August 1, 2007
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