Worthington Industries: The pursuit and power of zero

Plant won't rest in quest to work perfectly safe

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation

Jody Willeman began to feel a tremendous amount of pressure on his left foot. Then came the sound of his foot bones breaking, one by one.

"The foot popped and cracked at least five times," he says. "I knew something bad happened."

Safety coordinator Ryan Lamb (right) and galvanizing line worker Jason Willeman. Jason is the twin brother of Jody Willeman, who was injured in a plant accident in 2004.

On this fall day in 2004, Willeman, a galvanizing line operator at Worthington Industries' steel-processing plant in Delta, Ohio, sought to perform quick maintenance on a high-pressure air nozzle and avoid a costly line stoppage. He had done the replace-and-fix task "five to 10 times before" by himself. But on this occasion, a procedural error combined with the dilation of the nozzle forced his foot between a piece of square steel tubing and the machine's framework. The foot was being compressed in this makeshift vice.

"I could have very easily lost my foot had a nearby maintenance technician not thrown the switch and gotten that piece of equipment off my foot," he says. "Otherwise, there was no stopping it."

Willeman spent the next two months in a stabilizing boot to allow his broken metatarsal bones to heal.

"I paid the price," he says. "I'll never forget how helpless I felt."

The Worthington plant in Delta is one of the safest in the United States metals sector, and in American industry as a whole. It finished its recent corporate fiscal year on May 31, 2007 with zero OSHA recordable injuries or illnesses and zero DART cases (injuries or illnesses requiring days away, restrictions and/or transfers) - a span of 306,559.25 work hours. The plant has maintained a spotless safety record since May 7, 2006. For comparison, the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows the plant's competitors in rolled steel shape manufacturing (those with a North American Industry Classification System code of 331221) had an OSHA recordable injury/illness rate of 10.2 cases for every 100 equivalent full-time employees and a lost-worktime rate of 4.5 cases per 100.


The Delta site processes more than 1.55 million tons of steel per year.
Photos by Kim Koluch/Considering Lilies Photography

But plant leaders want the 185-person workforce to never forget about past incidences - the foot injury to Willeman, and hand injuries several years back to maintenance technician Terry Hardin and operator Hugo Barajas. Those three are among the workers who volunteered to be featured in videotaped testimonials that are regularly played at plant meetings.

"If you ever take a day off or a minute off from thinking about safe practices, that's when the next injury will occur," says galvanizing superintendent Cleve Deskins. "You can't rest. Not here."

Hazards are ever-present in this high-volume, fast-paced plant. Mountains of steel coils and endless rolls of metal retention bands can be razor sharp. The shears and rotary knives that slit and slice materials pose equal or greater laceration and slash risks. Big, complex machines - with gears and conveyors whirring - push, pull and drag steel through various processing stages. Pots and 10-foot-deep pits hold molten zinc that exceeds 870 degrees Fahrenheit. Chemicals, gases and acids are essential to production recipes. Overhead cranes continually transport multi-ton payloads. And, fully burdened forklifts motor up and down aisles.

"We're not working in a doughnut factory," says operations manager Jeff Leeper. "This is heavy industry."

All of this makes Worthington's safety record so remarkable, and it's unwillingness to let its guard down so necessary.

The past shapes the present.

"Years ago, the thought process used to be that when you worked on a piece of equipment, especially a slitter, that you were going to get cut. It was part of the job," says Deskins. "We don't think that way anymore."


David Leff (left) is Worthington's corporate manager of environmental health and safety. Jeff Leeper is the Delta site's operations manager.

Leeper recalls a plant celebration, complete with grilled steaks, when the slitter department set a production record in the late 1990s.

"Four people were cut over there for the month and we're flipping steaks," he said. "Looking back, it doesn't make sense. It's like, what are we celebrating for?"

As with the injury videos, though, such events are an important part of the site's 10-year history and served as the impetus for the work and tools that have turned Delta into the model for plant safety at Worthington Industries.


Matt Frey examines a pit of 870-degree molten zinc.

Plant safety at Worthington stems from the company's Golden Rule, a philosophy created by company founder John H. McConnell in 1956. It states that "we treat our customers, employees, investors and suppliers as we would like to be treated." Tied to that is the belief that "people are our most important asset."

The push to achieve safety perfection (zero work-related injuries, illnesses and near misses) on a daily basis came 45 years later, in 2001.

"We came to the realization that besides wanting to be good corporate citizens, we had to ensure we had a good, safe work environment," says George P. Stoe, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Production and profits are crucial, but they don't come before safety.

"We ask people to make sure that they aren't taking any shortcuts, trying to do things that they think are going to help the company but are in an unsafe manner," says Stoe. "We find that when there are incidents, many times they are directly related to somebody trying to do a job 'better and more efficiently'."

It's risky business.

"We've had employees who were willing to accept risk if it meant getting the job done quicker," says Deskins.

"There was a propensity for employees to commit a 'heroic act' to prevent a shutdown," says Leeper.

"There was a tendency to skip the risk assessment piece and just get 'er done," adds safety coordinator Ryan Lamb.

In 2000, Stoe says the company had 1,000 worker's compensation claims that cost it nearly $6 million.

David Leff, Worthington's corporate manager of environmental health and safety, states that in 2001, prior to the "revitalization" of the safety program, worker's comp costs averaged nearly $900 per employee.

Something had to be done.

"We could be safe just by staying home and never coming to work," says Leeper. "But we are here as a functioning manufacturing business to earn money for our shareholders. We must produce a product so we can be paid for it and earn money. But, we want to do it in a way that is safe; we don't want anyone hurt in the process. Somehow, we must accomplish both of those things. They are very much interrelated. Safety, production, quality and cost all drive our business."

The symbiotic relationship between safety and production was formalized with the creation in 2001 of a centrally governed, locally managed initiative known today at Safe Works.

"Production projects, safety projects - they are all tied together," says processing superintendent Zac Guisinger.

The centralized component allows for standardization and the pursuit of corporate-wide best practices. The localized component allows plants the freedom to address their most pressing issues and needs.


The facility, which opened in 1997, spans 426,000 square feet.

The initiative has developed and expanded since its inception, leading to huge improvements at Delta and other Worthington sites.

  • On a company-wide basis, these include:

  • a 55-percent reduction in OSHA recordables since 2002;

  • a 73-percent reduction in per-case worker's comp costs since 2001 (from $900 per employee to the current figure of $330 per employee; that's big savings when you consider Worthington employs 8,000 people);

  • 21 percent of Worthington's 63 manufacturing sites charting zero OSHA recordables and zero lost-worktime cases in fiscal year 2007, and another 16 percent charting a recordable but having zero DART cases.


The Worthington plant in Delta, Ohio, has 185 employees.

Delta has dropped from a OSHA recordable rate of 4.99 per 100 full-time employees in 2001 to 3.35 in 2004 to 0.00 in fiscal year 2007. Its DART case rate went from 2.24 in 2004 to 0.00 in FY2007.


Galvanizing line team leader Jody Willeman (right), posing with processing superintendent Zac Guisinger, says the site aims to learn from every safety situation.

Success has come from the all-hands-on-deck nature of Safe Works. While the program is voluntary, every employee is accountable and asked to be involved.

For plant and departmental leaders, that means "walking the talk" - playing an active role, showing visible support, providing daily communication and challenging people to do their best. For hourly workers, that means stepping up, participating, and using tools and processes that make positive change occur on the plant floor.

"Most people believe that safety is a top-down initiative, but we don't feel that way," says Stoe. "Everyone benefits from the safety improvement process and everybody should have a voice in how it works."

When you get maintenance technicians, operators and others involved and in that leadership role, Deskins says, the result is a different type of worker.

"Our people aren't just punching in, punching out and going home," he says. "We have people who are excited, motivated and feel challenged. They know they have opportunities to do different things."

That may explain why the plant has 1 percent absenteeism and 2 percent turnover.

"Our people want to be involved," says Deskins. "They want to be a part of it."

Safe Works is about watching out for your safety, and the safety of those around you. "You are your brother's keeper," says Lamb.

"When it comes to safety vs. getting a piece of equipment back on line, there is no balance," says maintenance technician Tim Bandy. "If you can't do it safely, you don't do it. It's that simple."

And, it is based on positive messages and positive reinforcement.

"It's OK to make a mistake," says Willeman, who today is a team leader on the galvanizing line. "You made a mistake. We need to get better. What can we learn from it? We aren't out to penalize. We want to continuously improve and eliminate the opportunity of the mistake reoccurring."


Steel coils and metal retention bands can be razor sharp.

Safe Works encompasses a variety of components, tools and projects. What follows is an explanation of some of the most important elements at the Delta plant, and for Worthington as a whole.

BRITE: An acronym for Business and Risk Improvement Techniques for Everyone, this is the company's behavior-based reinforcement program. It uses the power of positive reinforcement to modify workers' existing actions so employees make safe decisions while performing work-related activities.

Employees volunteer to observe their peers for work-team-selected safe behaviors (known as Pinpoints) and anonymously turn in cards to managers that mark correct and incorrect actions. The data is charted on metric boards in the work area. When team workers correctly follow procedures for a given Pinpoint for 30 consecutive days, it is assumed that the behavior is engrained and has become a safe work habit. The Pinpoint is then retired and team members get a congratulatory gift (gas station gift card, fast-food gift certificate, etc.).

Workers stationed in the galvanizing line control room recently addressed the following three Pinpoints:

  1. Always wear proper personal protective equipment on the coater stand.

  2. Always use the hand rail when walking up or down the stairs.

  3. Dispose of all slip hazards.

"They pick out their own Pinpoints," says Lamb. "They look at their areas and decide what is important to work on."

Safety council: Managers and representatives from each plant department volunteer to serve two-year terms on the safety council, also known as the Safe Production Team. Members act as safety ambassadors for their peers. The group formulates and disseminates policies, procedures and practices that promote a safe working environment. It is also a vehicle for two-way communication and allows employees to become involved in the process.

"When we bring up a project during the meeting, it stays on the list until the project gets completed," says Willeman. "It doesn't just come up at one meeting and then is forgotten. There is accountability. If it's designated as a project, what do we need to do to get it finished?"

Problem identification and root cause problem-solving: Teams are assembled on a regular basis to formally examine each operation and process. Issues or potential issues related to safety, ergonomics and efficiency are noted. Team members utilize root cause analysis, failure modes and effects analysis, fishbone diagrams, five-why analysis, Pareto diagrams, etc., to get to the heart of the matter.

"For a safety or ergonomic issue, we try to eliminate the hazard by engineering it out," says Rick Mitchell, a safety manager for Worthington's Steel Group. "We get down to the root causes that lead to potential injuries or situations. We cannot and will not Band-Aid problems."

In one production area at the Delta plant, a process called for an operator to place a wooden skid onto a rotating table. As many as 150 skids had to be placed during a shift. The problem was that the skids were up to 54 inches wide and weighed as much as 90 pounds apiece.

"We had a guy down here who was 120 pounds throwing those skids," says Lamb. "That job is OK when you're 20 years old, but that strain adds up over time."


Team members regularly examine each operation and process for safety issues.

A related problem was that this process couldn't keep up with the demand of the upstream and downstream processes.

To solve the problem, engineering purchased a gently used robot from a sister company. Maintenance workers performed all of the automation programming, installation and guarding. For less than $10,000, the operation was made safer, faster and more efficient.

"We evaluate what we can do to help in a given production area," says maintenance manager Bob Hardin. "Operations provides their input and we develop a solution together. The maintenance planner is also involved. A game plan is created. A work order is then issued to get it fixed."

While teams are the most visible method, individuals also have raised their hand to resolve issues. For instance, galvanizing line worker Jason Willeman (Jody's twin brother) noticed that the area's confined space procedure did not match how the work was truly performed. He performed mock trials and proceeded to rewrite the procedure. After his work underwent full review and approval, he was offered the task of rewriting the confined space procedures for all of the plant's locations that required reclassification. He accepted the challenge.

"I know it wasn't easy for him to pull all of that together. There were many, many revisions," says Leeper. "He did it better than any of us could have because he is intimately involved with the process."

Today, Jason Willeman also provides training to workers on confined space procedures and safety.

"When I worked on the plant floor, I never had to enter confined spaces," says Lamb. "So when I was doing confined space training, it was basically telling them something that someone told me. Jason actually does this. We have him train. We encourage guys on the floor to train guys on the floor."

PPE assessments: Examinations and assessments occur regularly to gauge the performance and viability of personal protective equipment.

In one instance, production and safety leaders noticed that workers who wore a particular style of arm guard were experiencing injuries (mainly cuts and scratches) around the wearer's thumb area. The plant sent 30 workers to the Ohio Safety Congress trade show, where, among other products, they identified a style of anti-cut arm guards that provided greater thumb protection.

"The product was good, but it could have been better," says Leeper. "So, based on our feedback, the supplier changed the design and functionality of the guard. They re-engineered and changed the product to meet our wants and needs."

Suppliers also come to the plant's aid by providing samples of gloves, safety glasses and other consumables to test out and compare.

"The workers have a voice on what PPE they prefer," says Mitchell. "When it comes to comfort and wearability, no one knows better than they do."

Team projects: Cross-functional teams of seven individuals are brought together to make change happen.

"At first, this group of people doesn't know each other that well," says Willeman. "The intent is to build relationships, but what we have seen is an amazing amount of meaningful work getting done."

The team meets in a classroom for two days and identifies a plant project to work on. The project can relate to anything. The team chooses the target and the plan. Many of the projects end up tied to safety. Pole bases were painted recently to make them more visible to forklift drivers. Signage was erected to warn of safety hazards in one area. Eyewash stations along the pickling line were painted orange to make them more visible to potential users. A simulation station was created to teach new employees how to safely band coils of steel.

"We get a manager involved with the project for budgetary reasons," says Deskins. "The team tries to find value for the money. We want something that will look nice and last for a good price. We have some skilled people around here who do concrete work, wood work, painting. Their skills have proved invaluable."

First Response Team: The 28 members of the plant's First Response Team meet once a month to receive training and review procedures on topics such as first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and automated external defibrillators (AEDs). They stand ready in the event of an emergency. The team leader is Dean Witt, an operator on the galvanizing line.

"Dean runs the show," says Lamb. "He took two months of training on his off time to get American Red Cross certified as an instructor. That took initiative on his part. He does all of the training for us now."

Witt also assembled a team to review and revamp the plant's trauma bags. Each of these bulky bags, strategically stationed around the plant, used to contain 75 pounds of supplies and equipment.

"If I was to run with one of those bags, I'd feel like someone would have to use the AED on me," says Witt. "The bag was originally set up by a paramedic. Considering that the paramedics can be at our plant within five minutes, the contents went beyond the scope of the team's mission and focus. We went through and decided what was necessary and what was not."

Eliminated were oxygen tanks, an assortment of oxygen masks and a multitude of splints. Making the cut were items such as bandages, gauze, a resuscitation mask and ointments for burns. Today, those necessities are housed in a shoulder-strap bag that weighs eight pounds.

Safety training: The Delta plant used to do all of its annual safety training in one bulk session. "Putting people in a room and talking at them all day, it was overdone," says Lamb. "It's hard to pay attention when it's that long."

Today, training is regularly offered in 15- to 30-minute sessions. Workers keep punch cards in their wallet or desk that tell them what classes need to be taken. Sessions include: electrical level I, lockout/tagout, emergency action plans, stormwater awareness (chemical disposal and environmental regulations), hazard communication, RCRA hazardous waste, incidents and near misses, hot work permits, management systems and confined spaces. The card is punched when the person takes a class. When the worker gets all 10 required punches, he or she is entered in a drawing for $50 gift cards.

Visual sheets: The punch card is one example of using visual tools to raise safety performance. Other visuals that the Delta plant uses are: photo-laden sheets that show workers what PPE must be worn (and cannot be worn) for a given production area; video boards in the lunch rooms that provide safety messages and training slides; and a stoplight that alerts workers when a new safety report is posted on the metric and information boards. Those boards also include pictures of members of the Safe Production Team and First Response Team.

Videos: If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a videotaped safety testimonial is worth much more. As referenced early in the story, the plant offers workers the chance to tell their first-hand account of workplace injuries and near misses in Safety Moments videos. Some of the three- to five-minute clips describe events that occurred on site. But given the dearth of incidents in recent years, the case study frequently recounts an injury or event that took place at a previous employer.

Educating outsiders: Worthington workers are focused on safety, but what about the visitors, distributors, contractors and truckers that arrive at the plant on a daily basis? The only injuries sustained at Delta over the past year-plus occurred to outsiders who shunned safe work practices.

"Everybody out here is assigned to keep an eye out for them," says Ray Marteney, a team leader on the galvanizing line. "Many times, we get guys who go, 'We know what we're doing.' They hurry around and do their work and you can see the dangers to which they are exposing themselves."

While it's hard to keep track of the truck drivers who visit the plant for brief periods, frequent or long-term visitors must go through a short training course before they are allowed in the plant.

Awards: The company and plant offer numerous honors for safety performance. Worthington's Chairman's Award is given annually to plants that complete the fiscal year with zero recordables and zero DART cases. Delta was one of 13 winners this year (see the sidebar on Page 16). The President's Award is given to plants that complete the fiscal year with zero DART cases or to those that achieve significant safety improvements. The Safe Works Team Award is given quarterly to departments at each plant that are accident-free and achieve additional criteria set by the plant's safety council. The Safe Worker Award is given quarterly to individuals at each plant who have been accident-free, have an outstanding safety and attendance record, participate in BRITE, and achieve criteria set by the local safety council.

The 185 employees of Worthington's plant in Delta, Ohio, have banded together to improve safety and make a bit of history.

Stoe calls the plant "a diamond" for the company.

Delta's sister plants hold it in high esteem. "I've worked at quite a few Worthington plants, and you are always compared to Delta," says Guisinger.

All of this means two things:

1) The bar has been raised.

"We are looking to take this from excellent to perfect," says Leff. "We have changed the culture. We are starting to move toward leading metrics such as near misses. We're looking at the potential for incidents. BRITE is more of a leading metric, as well. We are focusing on changing people's behaviors. We are focusing on the prevention piece, not purely on what happened."

Zero can be a daunting number.

"When we first started talking about zero injuries and zero accidents, to me, it was a huge undertaking," says Guisinger. "I'd rather go out and build a plant because you can build it and connect the dots and you have something when it's done. When we talked about zero injuries, I thought it was going to be real tough because it encompasses every aspect of your business. The expectations must be communicated. To achieve a complete zero (no recordables, lost-worktime cases, near misses) for a plant of our size, with all of the equipment and operations we have here, that would be an incredible thing. I think with the programs in place, and the people making the right decisions and choices, there's no limit to what we can do."

2) There is no rest on the quest to work safely.

"Continuous improvement in safety never ends," Mitchell says. "There isn't a finish line. Even with this facility having this great accomplishment of zero injuries in one year, there are still things we need to work on and improve upon. Just walking around the plant today, I saw five or six things that I will talk to Ryan Lamb about. These are little things, but there is always room for improvement."

Leeper is just as cautionary.

"Reaching that one-year goal scared the heck out of us," he says. "The fear was that we would have this big sigh of relief. 'We made it.' Yeah, we got that, but don't stop doing what you're doing. It's not all over. Keep your head in the game."

The pressure to achieve zero is always there. However, it certainly is better than the pressure of a mechanical vice on an operator's foot.


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