Focus on safety

Safety takes precedence in the ethanol industry, for producers as well as providers. This article appears in the December issue of EPM.
By Holly Jessen | November 18, 2015

At the end of October, United Wisconsin Grain Producers LLC had gone 2,530 days without a lost-time accident. That’s almost seven years of keeping employees safe, with no employee missing a day of work due to an on-the job accident.

“Everyone from our board of directors on to our CEO and management and our ground-level employees, everyone is 100 percent committed to safety here,” says Marc Berger, UWGP safety manager. That buy-in from employees at every level is vital to success. “You can’t run a safety program where you expect your employees to do things one way and then management does them the exact opposite,” he added. “We certainly cannot expect our employees to care about work performance if we do not first care about and invest in their personal safety and well-being." 

UWGP and Green Plains Inc. are two examples of top-of-the-list ethanol production companies with excellent safety records, according to data from ERI Solutions Inc.

Safety, along with risk management and operational excellence, are core principles on which Green Plains was founded, and remain important to this day, says Todd Becker, president and CEO of Green Plains. “We believe that our employees deserve to work in a safe environment. Our dedicated safety team works hard to ensure that each of our employees are equipped with the tools they need to make their work conditions the safest possible.”

That’s the case for all of Green Plains’ business sectors. “Safety is a part of our DNA,” says Jeff Briggs, chief operating officer. “The same commitment to safety at our ethanol plants extends across the Green Plains value chain including our cattle company and the terminal and transportation businesses.”

Specifically, in 2014, Green Plain’s Riga, Michigan, facility was identified as the safest ethanol plant to work at, out of the plants that are part of ERI’s safety program. “This was an honor,” Briggs says, “especially as ERI’s safety group reports an employee injury loss ratio of approximately 30 percent lower than the balance of the overall ethanol production industry.”

Out of the 110 ethanol plants ERI works with annually, 86 are part of the company’s safety program, including UWGP and Green Plains, says Nathan Vander Griend, president of ERI. Those facilities work to implement best management practices recommended by ERI, in order to reduce issues that lead to employee injury and meet OSHA’s minimum standards-plus programs.

Seventy of the plants from that group are insured shareholders in Ethanol Risk Management SPC Ltd., the captive reinsurance program company managed by ERI. On average, one-fourth of those 70 plants have zero recordable injuries yearly. For the ethanol plants ERI has data on, only 4.6 percent of employees had a recordable injury or illness and 2.3 percent of employees had a recordable injury or illness that resulted in missed work, restriction from normal duties or being moved to another task. “There are plants that have gone years—some since initial startup—without having a lost-time incident, proving that it can be done,” Vander Griend says.

Continuous change and improvement is one mark of a great safety program. Another vital element is interaction from employees, including management, who lead by example, Vander Griend, says. It’s important to have a high level of participation by all employees overall. He also pointed to interactive, plant or industry-specific training, which engages employees and allows them to give feedback. Finally, he put a premium on open communication while proactively addressing hazards, near misses and any employee concerns.

More About UWGP
Just 27 when he took the safety director job at UWGP in 2006, Berger was fresh out of college with a degree in occupational health and safety. He didn’t know much about the ethanol industry, except some negative misconceptions, but he was excited to move back to his hometown of Friesland, Wisconsin. The person doing the job before he was hired was in a combined environmental, health and safety position, which is common in the ethanol industry. But UWGP decided the workload was heavy enough to split into two, with separate safety and environmental positions, he says.

A good safety program goes above and beyond the minimum OSHA requirements, Berger says. It’s proactive, not reactive, he says. And it’s something that has to be worked on continuously, not just do what’s required once a year and then forget about it.

Just looking around an ethanol plant also gives a good indication of whether a facility has a good safety program, he says. If the facility practices good housekeeping, there’s a pretty good chance its safety programs are also well-maintained. A safe and clean workplace adds to employee pride, he says, adding that it motivates employees to take ownership in their work.

One way Berger keeps the safety program at UWGP current is by networking with other safety professionals. He’s a member of a variety of safety groups, including the National Safety Council as well as state and industry specific groups. Unlike other professions, in the safety field, there are no secrets and everybody wants to share best practices with others. “You are holding yourself back from achieving so much if you are not networking with others,” he says. “The regulations are always changing, and if you don’t keep up with them and network with others, your program will fall behind and eventually fail.”

A great safety program involves all employees, not just the one person with safety in their job title. “If employees take ownership and feel they have a voice in the safety program, they will be more willing to buy into the safety culture,” he says, adding that UWGP employees have been known to step in and stop unsafe situations from happening, when outside contractors visit the plant. “A great safety culture does not just happen, it requires dedication and commitment from top to bottom.”

UWGP has a safety committee made up of employees from every department who help out by completing safety audits and job hazard assessments. “The employee is going to know the job inside and out, way more than I would,” he says. “They can also identify each hazard and steps needed to eliminate or protect the employee from these hazards.” Safety committee members are his eyes and ears in the plant. “Sometimes employees will discuss things amongst themselves, but don’t like to discuss it with management,” he says.

And, any employee can submit information about possible job hazards in a suggestion box, which is checked frequently. Information about identified hazards, when it will be fixed and by whom is posted in the control room, so employees know their concerns are taken seriously and what the time frame is, Berger says.

Safety isn’t only a concern for ethanol production companies. Companies working within the industry, like Novozymes, also make it a priority. Corporation wide, the company has had reduced safety incident numbers in the past 12 years. Last year was the best yet, with only 1.7 safety incidents per million working hours.

Specifically, Novozyme’s Blair, Nebraska, campus, where the company produces enzymes exclusively for the biofuels industry, has a very strong safety culture. Like UWGP, that facility has gone three years without one lost-time accident, says Kyle Nixon, general manager in Blair. The facility also has a total reportable injury rate below 1 percent, meaning any injury requiring aid but that doesn’t require a missed day at work. ‘We’ve got a good streak going here,” he says.

The company’s overall strategy includes three main aspects. The first is a new emphasis on proactive action rather than reactive action, Nixon says. In the past, a lot of energy was spent breaking down what had gone wrong when injuries happened and attention was on near misses. Now, rather than near misses, management asks employees to share safety suggestions to eliminate hazards. The goal, for 2015, was for 150 safety suggestions. At last count, employees from all departments had submitted more than 360, Nixon says.

The next aspect of Novozyme’s safety strategy is its five lifesaving rules. The list includes protecting against falls from heights, working with valid permits when required, validating that equipment is isolated before work begins on it and having specified lifesaving equipment present, obtaining authorization before entering a confined space and not walking under suspended loads. All 118 plant employees wear a badge that displays the list. “We could have somebody die if we don’t follow those rules,” he says. “So we take those very seriously.”

Finally, Novozymes implemented a zero accident program (ZAP). As part of this, managers and line workers are paired up for ZAP walks, working through a checklist of items, searching for possible safety hazards. If something doesn’t look quite right, they take a photo and document it. At first, it was the obvious hazards that were identified. Now, with those items corrected, it’s becoming more difficult to find issues, which Nixon considers a very good thing. 

Another important part of Nozozymes’ focus on safety is the company’s “Let’s talk safety” initiative. At every single board meeting, whether it’s a daily, weekly or monthly meeting, the very first topic of discussion is safety. Nozozymes has used the initiative to standardize safety discussions across all its locations, with all employees having discussions on the same weekly and monthly safety topic. For example, while discussing fire safety, a company was brought in to show all employees how to use fire extinguishers properly. When the topic of forklift safety rolled around, Novozymes made sure all employees were up-to-date on forklift safety training.
Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine