JSHQ Summer 2002 - Small Business Update

Laser Technologies, Inc.:
Three Cheers for Onsite Consultation

An Illinois businessperson says the program "has a lot to offer any small business."
by Donna Miles

Keri Alwin admits it wasn’t what some people in her shoes would have done. In 1993, she had just been hired to set up a safety program for Laser Technologies, Inc., an Illinois company that specializes in using lasers to do precision metal cutting to build automotive prototypes and repair hydroelectric generator units. The company was small, with fewer than 15 employees, but was losing 60 to 70 workdays a year due to workplace injuries.

The word "OSHA" stirred up fear among many of Laser Tech’s business associates in the surrounding industrial park. OSHA compliance officers had inspected several of these companies, found violations, and issued penalties. Laser Tech President John Johnson didn’t want that to happen to his company.

Instead of dreading a visit from OSHA, Alwin decided to take a preemptive strike. She called on the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, which administers the OSHA Onsite Consultation Program in Illinois, and requested a free onsite consultation visit.

Through this program, operated in all 50 states, safety and health professionals visit small business worksites at the employers’ request to help spot hazards and suggest ways of fixing them. They also help employers develop or improve their safety and health management systems. The program is completely separate from OSHA’s inspection effort, with no citations issued or penalties proposed.

"This is a very proactive approach to helping small businesses identify potential hazards in their workplaces and come up with workable solutions to correct them without putting the company out of business," says Don Williams, senior industrial hygienist for the State of Illinois. When he first visited Laser Tech in 1993, Williams met with Johnson, Alwin, and other company managers to learn about the company, what it does, and how it does it. He walked around the company, watching employees at work, noting hazards or potential hazards. After conducting a full audit of the facility, he reported his findings back to the company management in a consultation report.

A major problem Williams identified involved a mechanical power shear workers used to cut steel to size before beginning the laser-cutting process. The shear lacked the guarding needed to keep workers’ hands and clothing from getting caught in the moving machine parts. It was noisy, too, requiring workers to wear hearing protection.

Laser Tech went a step beyond simply fixing the problem. Management decided to change its production process by buying its metal precut to a workable size rather than cutting it in house. This freed up more company employees to concentrate on more intricate metal-cutting procedures.

Laser Tech quadrupled its staff and moved into this larger facility while introducing innovative safety and health programs. That was just the first step of Laser Tech’s effort to improve workplace safety and health. Alwin wrote manuals for six programs: emergency action/ fire prevention, laser processing, lockout/tagout, hazard communication, employee orientation/training, and workplace analysis/inspections. "It was a lot of paperwork," she admits, "but an important step because it formed the foundation for our entire program." Today, she says, companies have the advantage of the Internet, where they can cut and paste OSHA’s templates and adapt them to their own workplaces.

In addition, Alwin began regular meetings to review the company’s safety and health programs with employees. Initially, she covered all six programs in one annual, half-day meeting. "Half of the people fell asleep," she says. "They didn’t readily accept the program."

Alwin worked to get the workers involved. She got them to join in regular walkthroughs of the facility to identify hazards. She conducted a job hazard analysis for each job in the company, soliciting workers’ suggestions on how to do the job better, safer, and more efficiently. She established a safety committee and included representatives from each department in the weekly meetings. She posted notes from the meeting prominently so all workers could see them. As the workforce grew to 70 employees, 60 percent of them Hispanic, she started posting meeting notes in Spanish as well. And instead of holding long, annual safety meetings for the entire company, she started shorter monthly meetings that focused on just one safety and health issue at a time. "Workers really started to feel involved in what we were doing," she points out. "They felt responsible."

The rewards are more than Alwin imagined. Lost workday from injuries decreased from about 70 a year to 0 for the past 7 years. Workers’ compensation costs dropped by 20 percent per year. "Now we get dividends!" Alwin says. Staff turnover has dropped dramatically, saving the company the costs of hiring and retraining new workers. "Employees feel that the company cares about them, not just about the company, so they want to stay," Alwin explains.

And during the past 9 years as Laser Tech has focused on improving workplace safety and health, the company has continued to grow. It more than quadrupled its staff and moved to a larger facility in Batavia, IL.

"Our emphasis on safety and health definitely contributed to that growth because we analyzed every step of our process to make the workflow as smooth as possible," Alwin says. "It made us more efficient."

For the past 8 years, Laser Tech has been a participant in OSHA’s prestigious Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP), which recognizes excellent safety and health management systems in small companies. This recognition gives Laser Tech an exemption from OSHA general schedule inspections.
"We’ve won a lot of state and federal awards for our program and it’s gotten us a tremendous amount of positive publicity," says Alwin. "It reaffirms that what we’re doing is good for our workers and good for the company."

Alwin admits that setting up a good safety and health management system takes commitment and a lot of hard work. She continually fine-tunes her programs, with the workers’ help, and says she continues to call the Onsite Consultation Program for advice. She also occasionally travels to the OSHA Training Institute to give compliance officers and consultants a businessperson’s view of what it takes to set up and maintain an effective safety and health management system.

"It’s funny how so many people are afraid of OSHA and afraid of the big fines," she says. "But in the Consultation Program, they’re not there to issue fines. They’re there to help you.

"It’s a wonderful, wonderful program that has a lot to offer any small business." JSHQ

For more information about the Onsite Consultation Program, visit the OSHA website at www.osha.gov.