Creating a Culture of Safety at an Ethanol Plant

A combined 250 years of experience helps fit the pieces together to formulate effective, targeted safety programs.
By Nathan Vander Griend | February 15, 2011

To have a truly effective safety program it takes all of pieces of the puzzle positioned correctly. One missing piece may be the difference between an effective or ineffective overall safety program. Senior management has two critical roles. First, the managers can make safety a key business goal by providing support and the necessary resources to be successful. Secondly, they can show leadership. Employees throughout the organization will take their cue from the top.

Where does senior management, the people responsible for keeping employees safe, start? Promoting safety, walking the walk, being responsive to safety concerns and sharing clear goals and expectations for safety performance is paramount.

Safety before production must be a mindset in ethanol operations. Empowering employees to slow down and do a job safely is far more important than getting the plant back online one hour sooner. In fact, statistics to date show that the average workers compensation claim in an ethanol plant is approximately $7,150. This represents the insurable cost or direct cost of injury.

The uninsured costs or indirect costs associated with workers compensation claims are often overlooked. According to the National Safety Council, indirect costs average four times that of direct cost. Indirect costs include items such as administrative time dealing with the injury, the replacement of hours lost by the injured employee with overtime or by hiring a new employee, the loss of reputation and employee confidence, an increased insurance rate, legal costs, unwanted media attention, and more. Based on the average claim, the indirect cost of an injury would be $28,600. An ethanol plant that has a net profit margin of six cents per gallon will need to make 476,666 gallons to offset the cost. A 100 MMgy plant will need to run for almost 42 hours and a 50 MMgy plant almost 84 hours to offset the indirect cost associated with one average workers compensation claim in the ethanol industry.

Make Information King

It is extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, for a plant to operate without information. Whether it is information pertaining to production efficiencies, or industry safety and claim data, personnel need information to learn and improve. Very few ethanol producers designed and engineered their own ethanol plant. Most started with a base model and tweaked it, making additions or tailoring it in some way. If that had not been the case, there likely would have been much more trial and error. Whether it is building a new plant or creating a safe workplace, it is much more efficient to learn from others than to learn by trial and error on your own.

Over the past seven years ERI Solutions Inc. has been working with ethanol producers on safety and loss control. To date, more than 70 ethanol production facilities participate in the ERI Safety Group which accounts for over 250 years of combined plant operating experience. The lessons learned have proven invaluable in preventing accidents and injuries. The safety group has helped ethanol producers learn about ethanol safety and loss control through shared industry experience, and not through their own incidents.

ERI has performed more than 700 on-site comprehensive plant safety audits at ethanol facilities over the past seven years. Approximately 30 percent of the audit process is focused on property loss control and approximately 70 percent on employee safety and health. These visits resulted in more than 17,000 total findings and recommendations, of which 1,000 were considered major recommendations on situations potentially posing imminent danger to life and health.

As part of managing an effective safety program, ethanol producers must be aware what the historical data says. Taking data from four readily available sources—plant audits, near miss/incident reports, Occupational Safety and Health Administration statistics and workers compensation claims—we are able to analyze and report to the industry common hazards and how to best address them.
To be successful in mitigating claims and staying safe, it’s vitally important to identify the high risk areas in ethanol operations. The incident reports from more than 1,100 near misses or claims experienced by the ERI Safety Group over seven years have been analyzed in Figure 1.

In addition to identifying where employees are getting hurt, it is also important to note what job function was being performed and the physical cause of injury. The historical data shows that grain handling activity and maintenance activity combined make up more than 70 percent of the claims cost incurred. The data also shows that the two most frequent physical causes of injury were slips and falls and manual materials handling. Materials handling alone makes up almost 30 percent of claim costs at a staggering $20,833 average insurable cost per claim. 

Once supported and armed with information it is time to target preventative measures. Give first priority to those measures addressing hazards occurring with high frequency or severity before moving on to those presenting high cost with low frequency occurrences. Low cost and low frequency incidents can be given a lower priority, although they should not be neglected.

There are various methodologies for success and, in most cases, no one silver bullet solution to solving safety issues. The first step is to start.

Proven prevention and risk reduction strategies can be implemented by plants to help avoid the headaches and indirect costs associated with workplace incidents and workers compensation claims. With maintenance activity and grain handling activity making up more than 70 percent of our historical claims, steps toward injury prevention would include developing job hazard analyses for routine jobs performed in those roles. Have employees performing those job functions review the hazard analysis on a regular basis. It is also wise to institute a formal observation program where supervisors and management take the time to watch a specific job from beginning to end, noting any safety concerns they see.

Steps to improving workplace safety or maintaining a good track record are easily identifiable with the right data. That information needs to be fully integrated and supported, however, to produce measurable improvement and sustainability.

Create a Culture of Safety

Creating a culture of safety requires a shift in thinking. No plant has moved from concept through development stage to full operation without reaching milestones along the way. Everything from securing funding to dirt work to first grind were big accomplishments used to judge progress. Those industry veterans who have worked in ethanol operations for more than a decade will tell you once the plant was operational, they found the need to refocus attention as things got out of line or as new industry challenges arose. An ethanol producer may need to hone in and focus on a certain aspect of operations while others take a back seat. Plant managers need to build in periodic attention to safety awareness before a tragedy occurs. If nothing else, to avoid the negative press of an accident while protecting the plant’s most valuable assets, its employees. Think back to March 2005 with the explosion killing 15 in Texas City, Texas, or even the more recent oil spill and the negative publicity and impact those incidents had for BP. Our industry is in fragile standing in the media as anti-ethanol supporters look for reasons to take jabs. A serious accident could put the entire industry in a bad light.

So what is the take-home message for ethanol plant managers? Understand your safety risks, develop a plan, have fanatical management support, implement, adapt and involve all employees to promote accountability. The hierarchy of a successful culture of safety is based on a management philosophy that makes safety a priority. If you are successful you will reap the benefits of working with employees who believe that their safety and self-interest is their responsibility.

Author: Nathan Vander Griend
Risk Consultant, ERI Solutions
(316) 927-4294