W&WP April 2004


One on One

'Better Safe Than Sorry' Pays Off for PA Cabinetmaker

'Safety first' has become more than just a motto for Premier Custom-Built, it has become ingrained in the company's culture - and Premier has the award to prove it.

By J.D. Piland


Some people love taking chances. Some are risk-takers and live for the thrill of life on the edge. Then again, some people play it safe.

For Marlin Horst, president of Premier Custom-Built Inc. in New Holland, PA, and his employees, playing it safe has become a way of life.

In 2002, Premier Custom-Built beat out just less than 100 applicants and received the Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Safety Excellence. When the company received the award, under then-Gov. Mark Schweiker, it was reported that Premier had only three lost-time injuries. That translated into a 10-year 0.8 lost work day index; the industry average was 8.0 at the time.

Horst says only one workman's compensation case, in the late '90s, has occurred since the shop opened 13 years ago. He says this injury was due to an employee's rotator cuff, in his shoulder. The initial injury occurred outside the shop, to which the employee agreed, but was aggravated in the shop, resulting in the workman's comp case.

Since receiving the award, Premier has grown from 58 to 70 employees and has had no lost-time injuries.

The Governor's Award is presented annually by the state's Department of Labor and Industry to any employer in Pennsylvania that is nominated. The award has become so highly competitive that the number of entries in 2003 was the most ever, with more than 100 applicants, according to the department. Finalists are critiqued on their workplace injury and illness rate versus industry standards, their innovation and their development of safety practices.

While Premier received the award in 2002, Horst says the company and its employees still remain completely dedicated to keeping the workplace safe by holding weekly safety meetings to address concerns of any kind. This type of concern for the well-being of everyone involved has resulted in a low turnover rate and high levels of productivity.

Despite still having an exemplary safety record, Horst says he does not think the company will compete for another safety award because you should be safe everyday anyway, not just to win an award.

Your company received the Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Safety Excellence. Was that something Premier Custom-Built set out to win or did it just "happen?"

This is an annual program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Industry. We knew about it for a number of years and in 2002 just decided to compete. It just so happened that what we were already doing fit the contest.

I've read that your company employs a safety consultant. How long has the company had a safety consultant and what benefits does he bring to the company?

Premier has benefited greatly by the use of Bernie Langer, who is a professional safety consultant. Bernie has been with Premier for over 10 years. He is part of our family and is respected by our workforce as an authority of safety. Bernie has an open door to our plant and will call on an unannounced basis and make a routine inspection/visit. This process serves well to keep standard safety practices in force. I prefer to stay away from safety committees because those can become bureaucratic. Bernie doesn't come under any political pressure by being a committee member. Bernie conducts annual training and comes into the shop about twice a month.

What prompted you to hire a safety consultant?

At the time I hired Bernie, we were only a 10-man shop and did not have the human resources to handle the safety issues.

What are some of the biggest safety concerns you have to deal with now, and then?

Saws and machining safety. Because we deal with a lot of sawing and machining, we focus on that. But safety glasses were one of the biggest and toughest to deal with. There are a lot of reasons for workers to easily rationalize not wearing glasses, but you never know when something will fly up. In that case, I tried to make it more of a culture, not a legalistic system, and work to where people would do it automatically, not because they had to.

A lot of safety concerns can be addressed by using common sense. What did the safety consultant bring to your attention that you did not consider to be a concern?

Safety and common sense are synonymous. Bernie facilitated this thought and allowed our people to embrace safety as a way of life and not rules that are to be broken.

What are some key aspects to making a shop safer for all working there?

Safety is a weekly discussion in our group company meetings. We review every visit by Bernie, review any safety oversights and analyze any accidents as a process to learn from them.

What are some training techniques every employer/employee should know and use?

Never let safety go away, it must be a part of everyday practice and thought.

Some may argue that learning comes through repetition. How often, if at all, do you have safety drills? What kind of drills do you conduct, and how effective are they?

We do not have safety drills. I personally think drills are counterproductive. I choose to keep safety alive by talking about it every chance I get.

Why do you think drills are counterproductive?

Drills support the concept that it is a procedure. Drills are done at a certain time, but it should be second nature [rather than planned out]. When you're done with the drill, what you just did becomes out of sight, out of mind. We have a 50,000-square-foot facility and have the buddy system if there is a fire, but we don't go over that often. I treat my people like adults, not like kindergartners that need to practice what they already know. I prefer to talk about it, not practice things that everyone knows.

When do you hold your operations/safety meetings? What do they consist of?

We have a full-company meeting every Monday morning at 9:30. This meeting serves to cover all issues, agenda and general information in the company. This meeting is probably the single most important contributor to the communication success in our company. We strive to not let important, poor or indifferent information slide. There is no better time than now to deal with important stuff.

How has winning the safety award translated into better business and employee morale?

This award gave our people pride for being recognized for their efforts. We have the award in our company lunchroom/meeting room, and it serves to remind us weekly of our accomplishments, but also, when we fail, it reminds us of venerability.

Does it help save on insurance costs?

A lot. I think Premier may have one of the lowest workman's comp rates in the state. I don't have the exact figures in front of me, but we've saved thousands. I think you could save, [and again] I don't have it in front of me, 25 percent or more when you run a safe company.

Safety is everyone's concern, not just the consultant's and the executive's. What has been the employees' role in making the plant safe? What are the employees' reaction to that role and their willingness to perform it?

I think our safety program is an employee program. I agree that leadership is necessary to the success of any program, but good leadership inspires [those that follow]. If leaders are committed, followers will be committed. I give the people of Premier the full credit for supporting the necessity of formalizing a common sense process without allowing it to become bureaucratic and burdensome. Safety is not something you can legislate, it is a lifestyle. You need to allow safety to be a way of life. If we could all do that, we would not have a safety issue. It starts with management, but the success is the people who either decide to accept or reject a simple but life-changing concept.

Other than looking out for one's health, what kind of incentives are there in place for the employees to remain so dedicated to safety? Are there any celebrations or parties, bonuses, intra-company awards, etc.?

At Premier safety is a way of life. We celebrate on a regular basis, but celebrations are to award overall excellence and do not tend to be in celebration of performance that should be a way of life. A couple times a year, we will cater a meal to the shop for accomplishment of goals. It is more of an award for doing the expected level of performance, not for doing what we should be doing anyway.


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