Sixteen years. Over 1.3 billion pounds of total production volume. Nearly 30,000 truckloads of finished product.
For those working at the Novus International manufacturing facility in Arkansas these numbers equal a significant milestone–1 million hours worked without a lost time injury, which is defined as “an injury sustained on the job that results in the employee unable to perform regular job duties.”
Novus Arkansas, where the international feed additive company manufactures its MINTREX bis-chelated trace minerals, MHA feed supplement and MFP feed supplement, opened in 2005 with around 10 full-time employees. As demand grew, so did the team and today nearly 60 people report to work daily. While production has grown and some faces have changed, John Farmer, executive plant manager, and his team have always made safety a priority.
“In this industry, we use a pyramid model for on-the-job injuries,” Farmer said. “The base of the pyramid are near misses: my glove broke, or I forgot to wear my protective eyewear when I entered the plant. From there, the pyramid goes up to injuries requiring first aid all the way to fatalities.”
Farmer said while the top of the pyramid is, of course, the most troubling, the best way to avoid fatalities is by focusing your efforts on the base. When the Arkansas plant was built, the expectation was established for Novus to go beyond the efforts of a traditional manufacturing facility where safety was concerned.
“Throughout Novus, we expect our people to push themselves beyond the boundaries of their role. Back in the 1980s, every manufacturing plant had a safety director. Today, it’s my job to make everyone working at Novus Arkansas their own safety director. As a company culture, we’ve empowered the employees and the contractors to take direct action on safety concerns, and it’s a culture that everyone on-site is driving.”
Creating a safety-first culture
Like many chemical manufacturing facilities in the United States, Novus is certified under the Responsible Care Management System (RCMS) through the American Chemistry Council, which requires certain standards–from products to production–are met. The Little Rock site is also a VPP Star Site as part of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) through the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Last year, Novus Arkansas was honored by OSHA with its Star Among Stars award for ongoing compliance with OSHA regulations and outstanding safety and health management systems for worker protection.
Following the different standards and guidelines is an all-hands responsibility.
“The best way to empower your team to think safety-first is to simply involve all employees, be positive, and be proactive,” said John Andrews, a plant operator who has been at Novus Arkansas for over 11 years.
He said consistent and continuous training, whether it’s in-house training or VPP through OSHA, helps convey the message that safety is a top priority. While these training sessions may come at a price (man-hours spent training, the cost for training itself, lost production time), Andrews said it’s well worth it.
“The cost is a lot cheaper to be proactive rather than to be reactive. If you’re reactive in safety, then it’s too late. Together, everyone can make any workplace a safer workplace.”
Chris Whisenhunt, a plant operator, said empowering every individual to be a safety director bringing forward concerns or halting operations if something doesn’t seem right–helps establish and maintain that all-hands mentality. All plant employees are trained on a process called “SCAN,” which stands for “Survey. Consider. Act. Notify.”
“Survey the situation, consider the outcome, act on the situation, notify the supervisor,” he said. “If the concern is with equipment, it may be shut down and locked out for maintenance. If the issue is with a fellow colleague or a contractor, we generally talk to them about a safer way to work.”
Jerriad Turnage, an operator who monitors the equipment and processes that create Novus’s MHA feed supplement and MFP feed supplement, said performing walk-throughs is a tactic used to identify and communicate risks before they cause accidents. These safety walks are sometimes performed by employees who don’t work in a particular section or with a particular piece of equipment.
“Having employees that do not normally work in a particular area do a safety inspection can help identify safety concerns that an experienced operator may overlook,” Turnage said.
The physical environment itself also sends the message that working there is serious business. Safety chains, warning signs and other kinds of physical barriers and signage remind employees and visitors of the potential dangers.
Ben Walker, a product operator working to make MINTREX bis-chelated trace minerals, said ongoing procedures and processes keep the plant running smoothly and its employees safe.
“Novus Arkansas promotes safety in multiple ways, such as daily meetings in the control room, lockout/tagout procedures while working on equipment, and written procedures that are cataloged for our reference when needed,” he said.
Walker said communication is key. The plant operators work 12-hour rotating shifts, with each shift change the status of the daily routines and any changes in operations are communicated to those about to begin their work.
Walker said working in a facility that puts safety first is good for both his physical and mental health.
“Being able to come to work knowing that your safety is a priority makes you feel more valuable to the company rather than just being another blue-collar worker,” he said.
Along with the notably lower-than-industry-average DART rate (Days Away, Restricted, or Transferred), Farmer said comments from outsiders also let him know his crew isn’t just doing things right but also doing them differently than other facilities.
“You really see the difference when contractors who visit a lot of different plants work in our plant,” he said. “I’ve had so many tell us ‘I wouldn’t have any problem coming back to work here because I feel safe working here’.”
Ultimately, a safety culture is only truly accepted and implemented if the corporate culture supports it. Farmer said if the manager, director, vice present or chief operating officer doesn’t put safety first, especially during critical periods for the business or the customer, it can damage both morale and compliance at the plant level. This has never been the case at Novus.
“There’s never been pressure to benefit the business at the expense of safety and our history proves that,” Farmer said. “When something happens and forces the plant to close, we stay closed until we understand what went wrong--not just until we can restart the plant. At Novus, from the top down, our employees feel that safety is first. There’s no job out here worth doing if we can’t do it safely.”
David Dowell, Novus vice president and chief operating officer, said one million hours work without a lost time injury is no small success for a team the size of Novus Arkansas.
“Sixteen year.! That’s how long it took to get to a million hours. A huge manufacturing facility with hundreds of employees can reach that many hours within a few months. The fact that Novus Arkansas has been promoting and practicing safety-first since the doors opened is truly a testament to the team working there,” he said. “They should be immensely proud of themselves; I know the leadership at Novus is.”