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Safety—the Main Ingredient at NutraSweet

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Larry Beggs

Approximately 300 employees go to work every day at Lovers Lane, the address of the NutraSweet plant in Augusta, Georgia. The setting sounds sweet—and the product certainly is—but Larry Beggs, plant manager, gives new employees the facts firsthand. “This is a chemical manufacturing facility,” he says. “This plant has rotating equipment, steam, and some big-deal chemicals in large quantities. You’ve got to respect what you’re dealing with and be careful!”

An emphasis on safety from day one means that this plant has operated for over 25 years without a fatality. That’s a record that everyone at NutraSweet wants to keep. They also want to set new safety records: their Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association (VPPPA) star site status since 1998 indicates that they are doing a good job of it. However, a few years ago, in the midst of company reorganization (a buyout and “rightsizing”), Beggs and others on the safety steering team noticed that more and more minor reportables were occurring. People seemed to be getting a bit careless. This wasn’t a trend that anyone wanted to continue. The plant had been using a behavior-based safety program, and the safety team valued the program’s behavioral foundation. The problem was that the gifts with logos handed out en masse every few months weren’t really being associated with day-to-day safe behavior. Another problem was that the rigorous demand for ongoing behavioral observations and data collection was taking a toll on the already hardworking supervisors and team leaders. That’s when Beggs heard Bill Sims, president of the Bill Sims Company, speak at a VPPPA conference.        

Sims’ behavior-based safety process provides a seamless system for personal accountability, regular reinforcement for site-specific behaviors, and an automated tracking process. “You Did It Right!TM” Cards facilitate positive recognition and discussions between supervisors and operators as well as between peers and the Award of Excellence catalogue lets people choose from a variety of items in exchange for points earned for safe behavior. “I like that the system is customized to the people and the topics at our site,” says Beggs. “The topics on the SmartCards™ are consistent with OSHA requirements, but we determine the topics for our site. At that point, the process becomes personalized.”

SmartCardsTM feature brief information about a specific behavior being targeted by the plant—proper lifting, for example. Associates study the information, and then access a data center by phone or Internet to answer a few true-or-false questions. Correct answers earn points that can be accumulated, while providing a strong antecedent to behavioral change. Meanwhile, during regular safety audits, or just while walking through the plant, supervisors look for those practicing safe behaviors and deliver “You Did It RightTM Cards” along with verbal appreciation when they see an associate performing the targeted safe behaviors for the plant. It’s an imbedded system that keeps safety at the forefront. “A lot of people are doing good, safe work and we want to acknowledge that. We want them to know that it may take a few more minutes to do it right, but they’re going home safe to their family,” comments Beggs.

Keeping safety in the forefront includes making safety the first topic of every meeting, sending the message that safety is primary, even over production. In fact, everyone in the plant knows that shutting down a machine or process when they spot a safety issue, is a behavior that will be rewarded, not punished. Also, the safety initiative is one of the plant’s key performance indicators (KPIs).

According to Beggs, organizing the kickoff for the SmartCardTM process took three to four days tops, even though he met with leadership and hourly employees and fielded all of their questions about the program prior to implementation. After that the plant was off and running with this safety process that almost immediately reached 98 percent participation from everyone at the plant. Another element that everyone enjoys is the opportunity to win trips contingent on safe behavior goals. Employees have enjoyed cruises and luxury hotel stays. Some have swapped trip points for merchandise. One winner exchanged his points for cash and donated to his favorite charity, while another held his trip until his brother returned from the military.

The real reward for everyone, however, is making the workplace safer every day in an unobtrusive, but effective way. “There really are no obstacles. It only takes minutes, it’s not overly expensive, and it’s a good management system,” explains Beggs. “This makes people understand that what really drives safety is behavior. It’s invaluable reinforcing people for safe behavior, looking people straight in the eye and telling them how you appreciate the fact that they are now taking accountability for their own safety. And the reason for doing this is simple: It makes a difference.”

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