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  Dow's Journey Toward Excellence
Achieving VPP Star status wasn't the end of the journey for
Dow's Louisiana Operations Site. It was just the beginning.

by John Dizor
DOW Chemical Company Employees
The Dow Chemical Company's Louisiana Operations Site empowered its employees to improve safety and health conditions, resulting in the site's lowest injury and illness rate ever.
Qualifying as a Star facility in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs in 1990 was a crowning achievement for the Dow Chemical Company's Louisiana Operations Site. The Plaquemine, La., site, which produces polyethylene, chlorine, vinyl chloride, and roughly 50 other products, has had a long history of excellent safety performance since it first opened its doors more than 50 years ago.

Ten miles south of Baton Rouge, the Plaquemine site steadily grew to become one of the largest petrochemical facilities in Louisiana, with 23 production facilities dotting an 1,800-acre complex. As the site grew, its management teamed up with the employees to work toward VPP recognition. Two years later, they reached their goal.

But becoming a VPP Star facility was just the beginning of the site's long quest to improve its safety record. The staff aimed to become a 100-percent injury-free site -- and to do it applying the major elements of VPP: management leadership and meaningful employee involvement in safety and health at the site; analysis of worksite hazards; hazard prevention and control; and management and employee safety and health training.

While the Plaquemine site continued its own journey toward excellence in workplace safety and health, the entire Dow Chemical Company was doing likewise. In 1994, Dow Chemical announced an impressive goal for its more than 250 facilities worldwide. By 2005, all were to reduce their workplace injury rates by 90 percent.

At the time, the Plaquemine site had an injury rate of 2.37 for its 3,000 employees -- slightly more than half of them Dow employees and the rest, contractors. In 1995, the rate dropped to 1.58 and by 1999 it had dropped to 0.53. By September 2000, the site had not experienced a Dow employee injury all year, and the site injury/illness rate was 0.12. The site had exceeded Dow's 2005 goal for safety performance five years ahead of schedule.

DOW Chemical Company Employee
"Safety and Environmental Performance First -- Pounds Second" became more than just a slogan at the Dow Chemical Company's Louisiana Operations Site.
But the journey wasn't without bumps in the road. In 1996, the site had a commendable 1.0 injury and illness rate, yet the rate jumped to almost 2.0 in 1997. Alarmed, Site Leader Ken Hasenbeck quickly refocused the company's safety efforts. "We came up with the slogan, 'Safety and Environmental Performance First -- Pounds Second,' and made sure that everyone throughout our site knew that safety was our number one priority, even over production," he said. "Our leadership didn't just endorse this; they required us to 'walk-the-talk' to ensure that we practiced what we preached and demonstrated that no product we manufacture is worth getting someone hurt over."

The Plaquemine site's renewed focus on workplace safety wasn't possible without its employees' support and cooperation. Although a 2.0 injury and illness rate had been considered a good thing years earlier, employees had to understand that it was now viewed as unacceptable performance. This required a site-wide culture change, made possible through a variety of behavior-based environment, health, and safety tools.

These included observation of work conditions and practices and intervention to correct hazards, pre-task analysis to prevent accidents before they happen, and written safety and loss prevention standards to provide a guide for safe operations. Other important tools were accident investigations to identify why any incidents occurred to prevent their recurrence, safety survival training to ensure that workers and management alike understood how to do their jobs safely, and expanded safety communications, including quarterly safety meetings to encourage open communication about workplace safety and health at all levels.

David Graham, Louisiana Oper-ations' leader for the American Chemistry Council's Responsible Care program, said another big factor in creating a culture change was to empower employees to improve workplace safety and health and to hold them personally accountable for any unsafe work practices. He explained that the company enabled its employees to move from a passive role, simply following the safety rules, to an independent role, taking personal responsibility for their own workplace safety. Ultimately, they assumed an interdependent role, working as partners with their managers to promote a safe work environment.

"It takes the will to work safely and the belief that you can achieve a higher level of safety performance," said Graham. "It is leadership's job to set the expectation and assure everyone that it matters. Then, if each person focuses his or her knowledge on really putting safety first and applying these tools -- any site can lower its injuries."

To promote personal accountability, the Plaquemine site adopted what managers call "a balance of consequences," basically a system of incentives and disincentives. Employees whose performance exceeded expectations received achievement awards and other incentives -- plaques, T-shirts, gift certificates to local restaurants, even gift cards to local retailers.

On the other hand, employees who didn't comply with safety standards were subject to anything from a verbal reprimand to dismissal, depending on the circumstances and the severity of the infraction. For example, the company launched an aggressive campaign to assess and correct ergonomic problems in the office place. For the first time, employees who experienced ergonomic injuries were held accountable if they knew that their work environment was ergonomically unsound but did nothing to fix it. The company also made clear to all employees the consequences for avoidable injuries that resulted from unsafe work practices or employee negligence. As a result, ergonomic injuries have declined to fewer than one per year, on average.

After 10 years in VPP, most of the company's employees had adopted a culture of workplace safety and health. The Plaquemine management extended the safety journey to the site's contractor workforce, which openly accepted the program. To be hired at the site, all contract companies must have approved safety programs in place and records of acceptable workplace injury rates. Once hired, Dow teaches all contract employees the company's safety standards and work procedures. Contractors must follow the same safety rules, regulations, and procedures as Dow employees.

At the Plaquemine site, the contractors implemented many of the same programs for reducing workplace injuries that proved successful among Dow employees, including regular safety meetings, a safety observation program, and a system for rewarding and disciplining employees on safety issues. As a result, the contract employees have come to embrace Dow's workplace safety culture. In fact, in 1996 and 1997, the contractors' safety rates were even better than that of the Dow employees.

The Dow Louisiana Operations Site continues to strive to improve its safety record. Last year, the site reported its best injury and illness rate ever -- 0.17 for Dow employees, and 0.48 for the site overall.

Looking back at the Dow Louisiana Operation's safety journey, it's clear that it took more than just using the right safety tools and programs to accomplish benchmark performance. A closer look reveals the key elements of the VPP neatly woven into the formula for success. "Louisiana Operations is a great example of a site that has effectively implemented each and every key element of VPP into its ongoing day-to-day safety and health programs," said Don Jones, Dow Chemical's corporate VPP contact. "They are living proof that being a part of OSHA's VPP can and does impact a site's safety and health performance in a positive fashion."

DOW Chemical Company Employee and science teachers
A Dow employee tells local science teachers touring the Louisiana Operations Site about the company's successful safety and health program.
Bill Klingbeil, OSHA's VPP manager for the Dallas Regional Office, agrees, calling the Plaquemine site "one of our most consistent and reliable sites in VPP. "I have nothing but great things to say about the site," said Klingbeil. "Their safety statistics are always at or near the top of all other sites, their recertification visits always show improvement way beyond expectations, and I have always been able to count on them to spread the safety and health gospel through mentoring and outreach." Several other Dow Chemical Company sites have followed in the Plaquemine site's footsteps. The company currently has five other OSHA VPP sites in Dalton, Ga.; Freeport and LaPorte, Texas; Russellville, Ark.; and Ludington, Mich. In addition, Dow Chemical's Taft, La.; and Deer Park, Texas; sites are actively pursuing VPP certification.

In doing so, these and other Dow Chemical sites are continuing their journey toward excellence in workplace safety and health by maintaining the same focus: "Safety and Environmental Performance First -- Pounds Second." All at the Plaquemine site agree that the journey is a long, continuous effort, but an important one for every company to pursue. JSHQ

Dizor is the Dow Louisiana Operations safety network leader in Plaquemine, La.