Georgia Pacific near reaching milestone in safety
By Whitney Skeeters
The Georgia Pacific plywood mill in Madison has been quietly racking up a multitude of prestigious safety awards over the years. Numerous plaques adorn the walls signifying national recognition of a constant commitment to safety among its nearly 400 employees.
Most recently, the plywood mill won Georgia Pacific's President Award, which is awarded to a mill that goes one million man-hours without a lost-time accident, as well as the coveted CEO Award, awarded to a mill that goes two million man-hours without an accident.
Rob Douglas, safety supervisor at the mill, said the current count is probably closer to 3.5 million man-hours.
"We're working toward four million, which is unheard of," said Douglas. "Before we made it to three million hours, that was unheard of."
Employee safety in mills across America is a big concern as accidents can happen a number of ways. Working with heavy machinery such as forklifts and various saws can be lethal if done improperly.
The awards came at no surprise: there is a long process involved in assigning the safety award. The company looks at the total safety record, the mill's track record, and everything the supervisors and employees do to make their place of work safe.
Douglas attributes it to the employees and plant manager, Barry Giesel.
"If you don't have everyone on board you can't do it. They all have to accept the challenge," said Douglas. "There's no question about it, employers and employees have really embraced the concept of working together to keep the workplace safe."
Giesel said that 25 years ago, this plant and many others across the country were having issues with careless accidents. In fact, they were expected and considered simply the "nature of the beast" in this industry. When he took over as plant manager, he began a cultural change in the mill. He worked with employees to implement a variety of regulations by learning from other companies, employee suggestions, and what Douglas calls "near misses." Instead of simply breathing a sigh of relief after coming close to an injury, an employee is strongly encouraged to report the problem and think of ways to prevent an accident from actually occurring in the future. One of the keys to developing this culture of safety is by checking up on each other. Even the greenest employees aren't shy about reminding department heads about safety precautions.
"There's no animosity about it," said Douglas. "Instead of a 'it's none of your business,' you get a thank you."
Giesel ensures operators in the plant know they are empowered to stop when they feel uncomfortable about a safety issue without fear of being chastised.
The mill in Madison also pioneered several safety policies that are now being used in other Georgia Pacific mills. For example, jewelry has become taboo. One employee suggested the rule after hearing about an accident that took place in another mill. Giesel said that not all of the rules are brought on by accidents; many are proactive. Throughout the mill, there are stop signs and traffic signals for the forklifts to move about the building. The local mill was the first to make pedestrians follow the traffic signs as well, a regulation that spread to neighboring mills.
"We're not perfect. We're always questioning, constantly critiquing," Giesel said. "You never reach the pinnacle when it comes to safety, you have to always believe you can do better."
The mill also has won the esteemed American Plywood Association Award for the past three years, which covers all companies in the United States in the largest division as far as hours worked and size of mill.
Giesel, Douglas, and their team remain humble in the face of the accolades.
"We don't do it for the money or the recognition," Douglas said. "It's part of your job description here. It's not your right to correct unsafe behavior, it's your responsibility. What motivates people is being able to go home to their loved ones."
Printed in the February 26, 2009 edition.