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NexTech: Safety on the Leading Edge

A small business in Pennsylvania demonstrates that a "SHARP" focus on
workplace safety and health pays off in a big way.

by Shelley Bishop
How does a manufacturing plant with an environment that includes extremely high temperatures, sharp-edged metal sheets, and overhead cranes in constant motion manage to pass 18 months without a lost-time accident? How does the same plant manage to retain 70 percent of its original employees 10 years after its opening day?

A focus on safety has a lot to do with it.
NexTech employee
NexTech's 60 employees follow strict safety guidelines as they produce rolls of thin-gauge galvanized steel.
"We feel that it is our duty to have every employee return home to his or her family sound and healthy every day," said John Obel, plant manager for NexTech, a hot dip steel galvanizing facility near Pittsburgh.

"These guys are good," is how David Rhodes, a safety consultant with the Pennsylvania Consultation Program, characterizes the staff and management of NexTech. Rhodes helps coordinate the company's participation in the OSHA Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP), which recognizes small employers who operate exemplary safety and health programs. "For a small company, they have implemented a safety and health management system of the kind you would expect to see at a larger company with a bigger support staff," said Rhodes. "And they've done this without a full-time safety manager."

NexTech is one of three manufacturing plants operated by The Techs, a privately held company formed in 1984. Each plant processes semi-finished steel into a zinc-coated product ready for use in a number of industries, from metal buildings to garage doors to ceiling grid. The plants, all within a 10-mile radius of Pittsburgh, produce different thicknesses and widths of the final product.

NexTech, the second of the three plants, has 60 employees who process the thinnest gauge of finished product, producing rolls of galvanized steel that range from .007 to .020 inches in thickness and in widths from 24 to 43 inches. In operation since 1990, NexTech has been an active participant in SHARP for several years. The Techs' first plant, MetalTech, opened in 1984 and preceded NexTech into SHARP. The newest plant, GalvTech, established in 1996, is working toward SHARP certification. The three plants have a total of 235 employees.

As manager of the NexTech facility, Obel has worked at all three plants during his 11 years with The Techs. This experience infused him with the successful philosophy of the company founders, which he explained as focusing on "employee responsibility and rewarding success."

This combination allows NexTech to maintain a virtually spotless safety record while running a round-the-clock operation that involves heating razor-thin strips of steel to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, and running them through a molten zinc bath heated to 875 degrees. All this goes on as a network of overhead cranes runs constantly through the plant, moving 25 truckloads of steel in and out of the building each day.
NexTech managers credit the company's participation in the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program with keeping injury rates down.
"We expect employees to take responsibility for their own safety," said Obel. That may sound like a laissez-faire attitude, but at NexTech, safety is an integral part of the workday for every employee.

Rhodes, an OSHA consultant, explained that NexTech makes efficient use of the team concept. All employees are actively involved in safety committees, inspections, and reviews of any issues of concern. "The distinction between NexTech and the company down the street is in their ability to integrate safety and health into their operations," said Rhodes.

An in-house safety committee is a key element of the NexTech safety program. Meeting once a month to review programs, implement new ideas, and identify potential hazards, the committee includes 12 hourly employees. They rotate on and off the committee so that every employee shares this opportunity during a two-year cycle, explained Obel.

Training is another key to the effectiveness of the NexTech safety and health program. In addition to an extensive in-house safety training program, the company contracts with FDR Safety for mandatory safety training, including an eight-hour class that Obel described as a "powerful presentation with real-life examples of people seriously injured on the job." This is followed with a 32-hour safety class for all employees that focuses on OSHA standards. "We teach them how to find OSHA standards and how to use them, and then send them to our other plants to look for hazards," said Obel.

He admitted that being designated as a SHARP company is "a lot of work," but stresses, "We do this work anyway. Our safety program is ongoing." The advantages of SHARP are many, said Obel. He said participation in SHARP is key to keeping the company's DART (Days Away and Restricted Time) well below national averages. It also gives sales staff a good selling point, not to mention the freedom from unannounced OSHA inspections that comes with successful participation in the program. And there's the satisfaction, he said, of knowing that "we're doing the right thing."

"Calling OSHA can be intimidating," admitted Obel, who finds working with the Pennsylvania OSHA consultants an excellent way to keep the NexTech safety and health program in top form. "They keep us honest and they make us better," he said of the OSHA consultants who visit his plant every other year for a thorough inspection. "Each time they find a few areas where we can improve. It may be something as simple as missing latex gloves in a first aid kit or replacing ladders."

So Obel and his coworkers at NexTech continue to strive to improve their safety and health program. Obel said that's because, simply put, NexTech views safety as "a key element of our success." JSHQ

Bishop is a writer-editor in OSHA's Office of Public Affairs, Washington, D.C.