Sustainable Safety in the Ceramic Industry
Can a renewed emphasis on employee health and safety have a positive impact on a company's bottom line?
When most people think about sustainability in manufacturing, they think “green”—as in using less energy per unit of output, using materials that are more environmentally friendly, generating less waste, etc. These are all worthy components of sustainable manufacturing, aimed at reducing the consumption of limited resources so that our businesses can continue to grow today and prosper tomorrow.
Another limited resource is less top-of-mind but just as important: skilled workers who are ready, willing and able to move your business forward on a daily basis. Are you guarding their workplace safety with the same level of effort, attention to detail, and long-term investment that you dedicate to, for example, capital equipment budgeting?
Several trends in recent years have led to a decline in the number of workers who have the skills required to function safely and efficiently in the ceramic and glass industries. The widespread implementation of technologies for hydraulic fracturing has resulted in vast new supplies of fossil fuels, especially natural gas, in North America. This, in turn, has resulted in “on-shoring,” the return of energy-intensive industries to take advantage of those low-cost fuels.
Industries coming home, as well as those coming here for the first time, need skilled people to run their factories. But that increased demand for skilled labor has come at a time when the number of bachelor’s-level degree programs in ceramic science and engineering is on the decline. Likewise, the lone associate degree program in ceramic technology closed several years ago and has yet to reopen. This dearth of new talent entering the field comes at a time when most of those with formal education and workplace experience in the ceramic and glass industries are, to use a football analogy, in the third or fourth quarter of their careers.
How does this relate to the sustainability of your business, let alone safety? Since few candidates are entering the workforce with skills relevant to our industry, your company has likely invested time, money, and effort to train new employees in the technical skills and knowledge unique to our field. Now that you have succeeded in finding people who fit your organizational culture and have been trained in the technical skills they need to succeed at work, do you want to take the risk of losing them, either temporarily or permanently, to a preventable workplace accident?
To highlight the level of potential risk posed, consider that workers who are new to industry will have probably not received formal training in workplace safety. Even those who have worked in industry previously may not have been trained in proper safety practices, safety thinking and available safety technologies. On-the-job training conducted by peers is often training in how things have been done, not necessarily how they should be done. Just because an incident has not yet occurred using past practices does not mean that those practices are safe.
Likewise, if you do succeed in hiring someone holding a university degree that focused on ceramics and glass, it should not be assumed that they have received formal safety training as part of their curriculum. There are currently no ABET requirements for safety training as part of an undergraduate engineering education. While some familiarity of the risks that exist with laboratory-level equipment may have been gained at the university, these risks are multiplied several-fold when scaled to an industrial level. In addition, some categories of industrial hazards typically won’t be found in a university environment. What training may have been gained relevant to laboratory safety practices probably does not compare with the level of rigor required to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.
Due to shortages of people with the needed skills, you may have re-hired some who were fluent with your industry in the past. Did you provide any safety re-entry training for them? While away, their safety awareness may have diminished. In addition, they may be unfamiliar with the hazards associated with newer equipment and processes that have been introduced in the interim.
Valuing Health and Safety
Forward-thinking companies are responding to these trends by recognizing that the experience, skills, and talents of their employees are scarce resources to be conserved and nurtured. The National Safety Council (NSC) recognizes organizations that holistically integrate environmental, health and safety (EHS) management into business operations with its annual Robert W. Campbell Award. Named for the NSC’s first president, the goal of the Campbell Award is to catalyze companies’ understanding of the intrinsic value of EHS management to business excellence and sustainability.
Campbell Award winners, the NSC and thought-leaders from high performing companies came together in 2004 to launch the Campbell Institute. Believing that EHS is fundamental to operational and financial performance, the institute seeks to help organizations of all sizes and sectors achieve and sustain EHS excellence. The institute provides a platform for member organizations to disseminate actionable EHS solutions and best practices through partnerships, events, and research. Member companies include Dow, USG and Owens Corning. Campbell Institute members attempt to balance the three Ps of a triple bottom line: people, profits and planet.
Safety and the Bottom Line
Can a renewed emphasis on employee health and safety really have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line? The answer is yes. Over a five-year period, Campbell charter member companies prevented over 126,000 injuries and illnesses, resulting in $1.11 billion saved through training, wellness programs, and reductions in worker compensation claims (Campbell Institute, 2013). That means $1.11 billion was available to be re-invested in health and safety efforts, research and development, plant and equipment, etc. In addition, companies investing in sustainable practices outperformed the general stock market by 25% from 2005 to 2012.1 It is interesting to note that this period included the Great Recession.
Not surprisingly, having a reputation for a safe work environment and valuing workers’ health made those companies more attractive as potential employers. Rather than engaging in a vicious cycle of losing skilled employees due to avoidable injuries, these companies embarked on a virtuous cycle where they retained their workers and became preferred employers. Clearly, the latter group is in a more sustainable position than the former.
1. Hill, D.C. and Seabrook, K.A, “Safety and Sustainability: Understanding the Business Value,” Professional Safety, June 2013, pp. 81-92.
Any views or opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of Ceramic Industry, its staff, Editorial Advisory Board or BNP Media.