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  Happy Birthday VPP!
Size No Obstacle: Texas SuperTree Nursery
by Lisa Babington
International Paper's SuperTree Nursery in Bullard, TX, bought tractors with climate-controlled cabs to protect workers from dust and chemical exposure International Paper's Texas SuperTree Nursery in Bullard, TX, has never had a lost-time incident in its 20-year history. The Texas Nursery was the smallest facility in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs and the first forest tree nursery when it was accepted in 1996. "We have had an excellent safety record since we opened in 1982," says Beverly Peoples, Manager of the Texas Nursery, "but our participation in VPP allowed us to be recognized for our accomplishments."

The small agricultural facility faced some unusual challenges in its quest to become VPP certified. "The VPP application process was appropriately not a one page form," Peoples says. "Although the nursery employed only five permanent employees at the time, we needed to complete the full-blown application, which took a real commitment of time and resources from our employees."

During the application review process, OSHA required industrial hygiene sampling data on each of the monitored pesticides applied to the nursery production fields. The application required five data points, and because Texas Nursery applied some chemicals only once or twice a year, gathering the required information could have been a 3-to-5-year process. Working with OSHA, the Texas Nursery used data from other International Paper nurseries to document the required number of data points. "Even though this approach was acceptable to OSHA, we have continued to sample at Texas Nursery to create a sampling history specific to our location," says John Baker, Environment Health and Safety Coordinator for the Nursery and Orchards team. "This is just another example of how we continue to go above and beyond even the basics for VPP."  a worker adjusts the automated irrigation system.

Each of the Texas nursery employees has fully embraced the safety culture of excellence. Although 100 percent employee engagement seems easy at a small location, any feelings of dissent or discomfort are felt profoundly in such an intimate group. "We didn't come to the decision to apply for VPP lightly," says Rick Barham, Manager of International Paper's Nurseries and Orchards. "We realized that the total commitment of the Nursery and Orchard leadership as well as the team in Bullard would be critical to making this happen. Once we set our sights on VPP, we gave it an all-out effort."

The nursery has also embraced a safety culture in its equipment upgrades. Baker notes, "During the harvesting season, nursery specialists spend 8 to 10 hours a day on a tractor. We made sure that the seating on the new tractors was ergonomically correct and added climate-controlled cabs to eliminate dust and chemical exposure."

A surprising outgrowth of VPP participation has been the relationship developed with OSHA. "We feel like we have access to anybody at OSHA. We talk to someone there any time we have a question and receive regular communications from our regional OSHA office," says Peoples. "VPP has allowed us to develop a great partnership with a government agency some businesses would rather keep away from their doorstep. We have found their input and guidance invaluable." When the Texas Nursery negotiates a contract for seasonal employees, the staff tells the contractor up front about the safety expectations. A nursery employee monitors the contractor employee safety training session. If a contract employee doesn't work safely, the nursery staff notifies the contractor and corrects the situation immediately. "We have zero tolerance for unsafe behavior," says Baker.

"I am very proud of the initiative that the Texas Nursery team took to go for VPP," says Barham. "We were not an obvious fit for the program, being so small. I will say, however, that the effort has definitely paid off." Since its initial acceptance, the nursery has been recognized in the OSHA Dallas Regional Office's "Stars Among Stars" program for sites that demonstrate continuous improvement by reducing their injury and illness rates to 50 to 90 percent the national industry average.
Babington is a Communications Manager for International Paper's Forest Products and Operations team.