Interaction at business websites usually ranges from tepid to nonexistent, but that wasn’t the case when a site catering to industrial health and safety managers weighed in on comments attributed to cable TV personality Mike Rowe, star of the series “Dirty Jobs.”

Rowe touched off a furor when he defended his own non-use of personal protective equipment (PPE) when tackling jobs that posed a risk of injury. In comments reported on, the TV personality said, “When a business tells you that they are more concerned with your safety than anything else, beware, they are not being honest.” He also explained the absence of PPE as a reflection of practices at the firms he visits. “I take my cues from them,” he wrote.

Safety professionals roundly criticized Rowe. Still, most would concede that tension can exist between the business of manufacturing and the commitment to workplace safety. “If you show a safety control to manufacturers, they know exactly what it does: It shuts down their machines,” reflects George Schuster, a senior industry consultant with Rockwell Automation Inc. in Detroit who describes himself as an automation generalist with an affinity for safety. “Why would any production-oriented person spend money to shut down their process?” Effective safety programs require organizational commitment and a continuous improvement mindset.

“Safety first” can’t simply be lip service to be effective. Rhetoric needs to be supported with no-nonsense programs that reflect best practices.

The National Safety Council (NSC) considers near-miss reporting of events that could have resulted in injuries a leading-edge approach, particularly when “the investigation is taken as seriously as the incidents when there were injuries,” notes Jim Johnson, senior director-workplace initiatives at Itasca, IL-based NSC. A near-miss should trigger the same root-cause analysis as an injury event. The concept was embraced five years ago by Barilla America when it built its pasta plant near Rochester, NY (see “Barilla says Ciao, New York,” Food Engineering, April 2008). The construction project coincided with a corporate social responsibility initiative that included a goal of cutting the number of worker absences attributable to accidents in half by 2014.

New hires at Barilla began arriving up to six months before production started. Managers used the grace period to build a safety culture. Ten safety-oriented goals were set, including protocols for near-miss reporting and investigation.

Barilla paid bonuses based on emergency-response training and attainment of other safety culture goals. Those types of incentives are appropriate, but safety experts are inching away from cash and prizes for injury-rate reductions, as reflected in a poll on the Safety News Alert site. Almost two-thirds of safety professionals believe safety incentives discourage workers from reporting minor injuries, depriving the organization of an opportunity to correct situations before serious injuries occur.

Behavior modification is the focus of a growing number of safety programs, a recognition of the limitations of PPE, machine guarding and other safeguards. Fencing and technology won’t protect workers if they circumvent safeguards or place themselves in harm’s way. Equipment failures, inadequate guarding and disregard for lock out/tag out (LOTO) procedures account for a small fraction of workplace injuries, points out Mike Miller, senior director-employee health & safety at Dean Foods Co. “About 92 percent of accidents involve decisions that either leadership or employees make,” he says. The nation’s largest dairy continues to fills gaps in its physical safety infrastructure, but in recent years, the focus has shifted to changing the way workers perform tasks.

Gloves, eyewear, respirators, ear protection and other PPE gear can limit mobility or be uncomfortable, and suppliers wrestle to design products that deliver both comfort and protection. Andres Maldonado, marketing manager at Chicago’s Magid Glove & Safety Manufacturing Co., says “manufactured fibers” are being combined with traditional carbon and fiberglass fibers to produce gloves that deliver the best of both worlds. Aramid fibers such as DuPont’s Kevlar and UHMWPE fibers like AlliedSignal’s Spectra are resulting in protective gear that also is comfortable and does not inhibit dexterity.

First measure, then manage

Safety management systems are another best practice advocated by NSC. They are the worker safety equivalents of the food safety systems being advanced by the Global Food Safety Initiative. Examples include ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001, its European counterpart. Four Barilla plants are independently certified as meeting the OHSAS standard, according to the company’s most recent CSR report.

Hormel Foods Corp. embraces the practice of performance measurement. Since 2006, the company has tracked total number of recordable incidents per 100 FTE employees, days away, restricted or transfer (DART) and other Department of Labor metrics for its workforce and compared internal rates to the national injury rates for animal slaughtering and processing operations. In the first year, both Hormel and the industry segment had 9.1 recordable incidents. As of 2010, Hormel’s rate had fallen to 5, about 23 percent less than the segment’s average.

Hormel counts more than 2,100 employees on the safety committees at its 85 plants, DCs and other locations. It began expanding its safety infrastructure in 1987 with an ergonomic program. Seven years later, a Safety Excellence program was introduced, with production facilities competing to meet ever-higher safety criteria. Last year, 22 plants received safety excellence trophies, including the newest facility in Dubuque, IA (see “Fabulous Food Plant,” Food Engineering, December 2011).

Mark Zelle, Dubuque’s plant manager, was handpicked for the job by Mike Devine, vice president-operations for Hormel’s grocery products division. “When you start a new plant, you have to set the culture, and Mark’s personality and the priority he gives food safety and worker safety made him an ideal choice,” says Devine. A self-professed stickler for proper procedures, Zelle believes “there are no safety shortcuts. Don’t think you’re doing us any favors by cutting corners.” The payback isn’t just from reduced worker compensation claims; it’s reflected in reduced rework, less destroyed product and other manifestations of inefficiency, Devine maintains.

Disaster du jour

Workplace safety requires a continuous improvement mindset, and project prioritization is shaped in part by revised standards. For example, arc flash prevention became a priority a few years ago after the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) revised NFPA 70 and NFPA 70E, which, along with ASTM International’s F2178, dictate testing procedures and protective clothing to prevent injuries related to electrical work. IEEE C 32.20.7 also specified a tougher standard for arc resistance in electrical enclosures.

A major disaster also rivets attention, as was the case with 2008’s dust explosion at Imperial Sugar’s Port Wentworth, GA mill (see sidebar on page 46). A reflection of the interest that event sparked came at 2011’s Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference, where a standing room-only crowd of engineers and other food professionals crammed into a concurrent session at which Kevin Jeffries described the procedural changes and safeguards implemented at Imperial. Jeffries, who was hired as corporate safety systems manager in the explosion’s aftermath, noted the wide number of dry foods that pose an explosion risk. He now works for Kellogg Co.

Explosion awareness is evident at recently built food plants, where much greater attention is being paid to the issue. This year’s Food Plant of the Year, Northeast Foods’ hamburger bun bakery in Clayton, NC, isolates flour sifters in an area with no common walls to the production floor. Explosion-relief panels were included in the area’s walls and ceiling. Good housekeeping is a critical safeguard, and personnel’s attention is riveted on that: In a previous job, Plant Manager Rich Tommy experienced a small explosion. No injuries resulted, but the experience was frightening and not to be repeated, Tommy relates.

Flour particles are excellent fuel for a dust explosion, and bakeries usually turn to NFPA 61 when designing a facility to avoid those events. But NFPA 61 was drafted for grain milling, and that sector furiously resists upgrades to the standard, according to consulting engineer John Cholin, principal of J.M. Cholin Consultants Inc., Oakland, NJ. A member of a NFPA standards subcommittee, Cholin advises food clients to consider NFPA 654 or 664 instead. Recently, he convinced a baby food manufacturer to use NFPA 654 as the basis for deflagration protection at a new facility. “The business interruption consequences of an explosion would be so profound,” Cholin reasons, “that choosing a less stringent standard would be asinine.”

Most of his assignments are generated from manufacturers in anticipation of or after a visit by OSHA inspectors. All companies want to avoid fines and referral to OSHA’s severe violator enforcement program. Follow-up inspections are inevitable after an event, and there is no shortage of dust explosions at food plants. A recent example is the Glister-Mary Lee Corp. explosion at a Steeleville, IL pasta facility. Two maintenance workers suffered severe burns October 6 in a dust-collector explosion while they were welding an adjacent trough containing a screw conveyor. Fines totaling $231,000 were proposed in April.

Lights, sound, action

While many manufacturers are focusing on modifying worker behavior, technical advances also are enhancing workplace safety. The combination of audio and visual warnings exemplifies the evolution of guarding systems.

Audio alarms were the norm until 10 years ago, when light curtains started replacing them at workstations and along the perimeter of heavy equipment, says Paul Mizuki, marketing manager at Torrance, CA-based PatLite Co. He cites a package from his firm that incorporates MP3 technology to allow companies to load multiple messages in more than one language, depending on the composition of their workforces.

Recorded messages replace sirens and horns at Northeast Food’s new facility (see “Plant of the Year,” Food Engineering, April 2012). Everything from evacuation instructions to maintenance calls are incorporated in a library of almost 100 alarms. Before the messages were recorded, managers had to identify a voice with the right tone and pitch for the building’s acoustics. A female employee with a voice trending toward soprano was selected to record the messages.

Automated safety controls present a more frustrating application challenge, with technology further along than the enabling standards and regulations. Lloyd Sinnott, a business development manager with New Berlin, WI-based ABB Jakob Safety, recalls working in the late 1990s with monitored power systems, an automotive industry alternative to LOTO. Switching a machine control to a safe mode from an operating state removes the temptation to circumvent LOTO, “but that technology and methodology are not taking off because OSHA still hasn’t addressed it,” Sinnott says.

In November, Scott Kluegel, manager-corporate electrical engineering at Malt-O-Meal, addressed the need for simplified safety controls at Rockwell’s Automation Days. Changes to NFPA 79 in 2005 authorized the use of a dual-PLC system, but the solution involved “a rather elaborate system” of e-stops and wiring that made it cost prohibitive. While designing the company’s newest cereal plant in Asheboro, NC (see “Breakfast, Courtesy of Malt-O-Meal,” Food Engineering, December 2010), Kluegel worked with Werner Electric and Wunderlich Malec to install Rockwell’s GuardLogix technology for integrated process and safety control. “We’re encouraging our OEMs to get on board with GuardLogix” so that new equipment can be tied to the integrated safety system via Ethernet, he said.

“Safety PLCs at one time were black magic, but they are becoming much more prevalent,” notes Sinnott. “We sold 14 of them in 1999. Now, we sell 14 a day.”

A more fundamental change in machine safety is risk assessment, a prerequisite for OEMs selling to the European market. Risk assessment is becoming common for packaging machinery builders, partly because the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute developed a risk-assessment certification program several years ago. The program has spread beyond OEMs to include food and beverage packagers and other end-users. The inherent danger of a machine shifts depending on how it is used at a plant. If only the OEM is assessing risk, “one size fits all because it doesn’t fit anyone well,” Sinnott points out.

Manufacturers increasingly are including risk assessments in machinery RFPs, Rockwell’s Schuster notes, and machinery OEMs are doing it to satisfy the EU’s machinery directive and as a way to differentiate their equipment in the US. Risk assessment, he concludes, is “the foundation of safe system design.”

Put the phone down

Safeguarding workers within the friendly confines of the plant is a challenge, and the challenge is compounded when they take to the public roadways. “We know distracted driving is a leading cause of traffic accidents,” NSC’s Johnson says, and corporate bans on cell phone use while driving is an emerging best practice.

Beginning January 1, Dean Foods instituted a ban on texting and talking (including hands-free devices) while drivers are in their vehicles. The ban contributed to a 25 percent reduction in workforce injuries in the first quarter.

The Blackberry is to today’s plant engineers what the slide rule was to an earlier generation, and a blanket ban on cell phones on the production floor would ignore the realities of how some professionals must work. However, “we’ve highly limited the use of phones on the floor,” with engineers, maintenance workers and others restricted to using their phones in dedicated safe areas, Dean’s Miller explains.

A kinder, gentler approach to training has taken hold at Dean in the last two years. Instead of criticizing mistakes, observation coaches are schooled to praise proper work habits. “The whole point is to keep the discussion positive and engage the worker,” says Miller.

Observation coaches provide detailed reports for each evaluation, and that has significantly expanded the safety database. Managing the glut is a challenge, and Dean uses off-the-shelf software and in-house tools to help manage its safety compliance and performance system, he explains.

Management support and a commitment to workplace safety are the starting point for any effective initiative. The point was amplified by Craig Torrance, global senior manager-health, safety and well being at PepsiCo, in an Automation Fair presentation. Torrance cited a policy created by a former head of GE Industrial. When an amputation occurred, the plant manager received a one-way ticket to corporate headquarters, and if the executive liked his explanation, the manager received a return ticket. “We live in this caring environment now,” Torrance concludes. “We hug each other, and it’s nicey, nicey. But someone has to be accountable.” Not coincidentally, the PepsiCo operations with the most effective safety programs “are our best plants and most efficient,” he says.

Cost considerations shadow every workplace initiative, and safety programs are no exception. But survey data suggest manufacturers that are the most profitable and are leaders in OEE and other production metrics also excel in workplace safety. “Companies that have exceptional health and safety programs also are good at lean, good at food safety, good at everything,” says NSC’s Johnson. 

For more information:

Lloyd Sinnott, ABB Jakob Safety, 734-756-8296

John Cholin, JM Cholin Consultants Inc., 210-337-8621

Andres Maldonado, Magid Glove & Safety Manufacturing Co., 773-289-1385,

Jim Johnson, National Safety Council, 630-775-2221,

Paul Mizuki, PatLite Co., 310-328-3222

George Schuster, Rockwell Automation Inc., 414-382-2000


Try your luck

Fire-protection engineer John Cholin likens dust explosions to the likelihood of throwing four nickels against a wall and betting all four will land on their edge. It’s a bet production professionals who attend his seminars on combustible dust explosions are happy to take—until Cholin adds, “I get 10 billion tries.”

The four nickels in his analogy are a potentially explosive particle, suspended in air, of sufficient concentration and in the presence of a powerful ignition. “Modern production facilities handle combustible material day in and day out,” notes Cholin. “Sooner or later, all four elements come together, and you have a dust deflagration. It took 99 years for them to come together at Imperial Sugar.”

Cholin was among the safety engineers brought in by Imperial in the wake of 2008’s explosion at the company’s mill near Savannah, GA, where 14 workers were killed and 47 injured. “Every single one of them was the victim of accumulated fugitive dust,” Cholin asserts, though the medical diagnosis was flame impingement burns. In fact, accumulated dust accounts for 95 to 98 percent of injuries and deaths tied to combustible dust explosions. Good housekeeping is the simple remedy. National Fire Protection Association committees are grappling with standards revisions that define and address the issue, but the simple solution is, “keep the place clean,” he says. “If you can write your name in the dust, it’s too dirty.”

Finely ground sugar is scarcely the only foodstuff with explosive potential. Powdered milk, dry soup and flour are potential explosion fuels, and experts are rethinking the 420-micron particle size that has served as the danger threshold and moving toward a 500-micron standard. More importantly, manufacturers must do a better job of assessing their plants’ risks. “People get lulled into a sense of complacency and say, ‘Our dust is different,’” says Cholin. “No, it isn’t.”