By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
In its most recent annual report, the Pittsburgh-based steelmaker U.S. Steel Corp. reported some global workplace
safety improvements that are worth noting.
The company's 2009 10K, filed Feb. 24 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, details a 42 percent decrease in the company's global recordable injury rate from 2005 to 2009 and a 60 percent reduction in the company's global days-away-from-work injury rate over the same time period.
It may go without saying that steelmaking has many hazards. Workers need to process molten metal, handle high-voltage electrical equipment, work dozens of feet off the ground, and manage railroad operations and heavy forklift equipment, according to Jeffery Dierdorf, general manager, safety and industrial hygiene, for the company.
The company, he also noted, has always strived for safety, coining the phrase "Safety First" in the early 1900s.
HOW THEY DID IT
In 2005, the company formed a governing body for its safety processes, which Dierdorf credited with producing the impressive results the company recently reported to the SEC. The body, known as the Corporate Safety Steering Team, is comprised of plant managers and key general managers and is chaired by an operating vice president.
Two years later, in 2007, staff safety and industrial hygiene functions were consolidated under Dierdorf's position, and lines of communication were streamlined. Dierdorf reports directly to John Goodish, executive vice president and chief operating officer.
The company also works with the United Steel Workers to conduct plant safety audits and to improve safety nationally and internationally. In addition to its operations in the United States, U.S. Steel operates facilities in Slovakia, Serbia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico.
"Our company believes that there is not an ounce of steel produced that is worth the cost of a human life," Dierdorf said in an e-mailed response to questions from Risk & Insurance®.
Dierdorf said that U.S. Steel's Chairman and CEO John Surma and COO Goodish promote the safety culture, which includes holding a weekly global operations conference call in which safety is discussed along with productivity and costs. This weekly call begins with a review of safety performance and trends, said Dierdorf. Key incidents with and without injury are reviewed, and corrective action items are often initiated as a result of those reports, he said.
One marked feature of the improvement of the company's safety results was the fact that its safety figures continued to improve even as the global economy expanded in 2006 and 2007, which put pressure on steel manufacturers to increase production.
Dierdorf credited the foundation that was laid back in 2005 with the formation of a governing body for safety processes.
"The structural changes of adopting safety as our key core value and business driver, as well as our relentless efforts to establish a consistent global safety process and structure in the 2004/2005 timeframe, provide the strong foundation and resolute focus to keep safety at the forefront during the upturn in the business cycle described," Dierdorf said.
IMPRESSIVE ON FACE VALUE?
For his part, Tom Conway, vice president, international, of the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers, gives U.S. Steel his grudging respect when it comes to its approach to injury.
"They have made progress, I cannot deny that," Conway said. "If you raise a safety issue with this company, they don't ignore it. They don't just sweep it away. They will investigate it and deal with it."
Conway said that, not only will U.S. Steel discipline workers who engage in unsafe practices, they'll also discipline those who try to hide injuries.
"They are consistent in those applications, and though we think it is over the board sometimes, they are frankly pretty consistent about how they do it," Conway said.
But Conway added that some of that statistical improvement could have come from operations in Serbia and Slovakia, where the safety culture was not as advanced as that of U.S. operations until relatively recently.
Dr. Ken Rosenman, who heads the Michigan State Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in East Lansing, Mich., said the kinds of numbers reported by U.S. Steel are impressive "on face value."
Then he stated that he has his doubts about the way work injuries in the United States are reported overall.
Rosenman and his colleagues recently conducted a study of amputation injuries in Michigan that found that employers there underreported amputations by 77 percent, compared with data collected from hospital emergency rooms and other outside sources.
What Rosenman referred to a "multisource" approach to reporting injuries, which is already used in the United States in reporting workplace fatalities, that he said needs to be adopted.
But is such an approach even practical because of the much larger number of workplace injuries that occur annually?
"I do think it is reasonable because our national accounts are just a statistical extrapolation, and what is missing from that statistical extrapolation is the quality control to look at multiple data sources," Dr. Rosenman said.
In other words, conducting workplace-injury research on a limited, regional basis using multiple sources might provide us with better numbers overall nationally, Dr. Rosenman believes.
"The quality control that is in the current system is to go back to the company and check the records in the company and see if the company put everything down on the sheet of paper on the OSHA log. But it is not a true quality control because when people have looked outside of the company, they find all of these additional injuries. I think it is feasible to come up with a better statistical system," he said.
April 12, 2010
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