Safety First Gets the Green Light

By Tom Dossenbach

No matter what sector of the woodworking industry you are in, safety awareness — or the lack of it — affects your company profoundly.

Even with the emphasis on safety in the woodworking industry, many manufacturers still do not put safety as a number one priority. This is hard to understand since effective safety programs result in improved employee recruitment and retention as well as greater profits. In fact, a sound safety program is a cornerstone of any successful company.

Many owners, managers, supervisors and workers at companies come to a day of reckoning with this issue of safety. Sometimes, a stiff set of fines from OSHA is what it takes for management to wake up. Worse, it can even take a horrific accident to change the mindset of many.

My Awakening

I remember — many years before OSHA — getting word one morning about a bad accident at our dimension plant located 200 miles from the main plants. A cut-off saw operator had severed his right arm about half way between his elbow and wrist. I was a young industrial engineer at that time and one of my responsibilities was to be "in charge of safety" for the company. This meant I was the one who went around with the insurance representative each quarter when he made his surprise visit and did whatever it took to keep him happy.

I immediately called the plant manager and requested that the accident scene not be disturbed nor the saw re-started until I could arrive later that day. After four hours of driving with a knot in my stomach, I arrived at the plant located in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina.

As is often the case, I found that several factors contributed to this accident. First, the operator was using a left hand saw and was standing off to the right of the saw at the infeed conveyor. Instead of keeping his right hand well to the right of the saw blade, he used it to move the board to the next stop after a previous cut – putting that arm directly in the cut-line. Somehow, his timing was thrown off or he accidentally tripped the saw cycle foot pedal — a second contributing factor. A third factor was that there were no guards on the saw, such as those common today, to minimize the chance for this type of accident. Finally, even though this operator had been working for the company for over six months, this was his first day on the saw. Thus, a lack of proper training by the company was possibly the greatest contributing factor to this accident.

With these facts, I realized the company’s negligence caused this terrible accident, and I cannot begin to express the sick feeling I had as I drove to the hospital to visit, my wounded colleague, Paul. What was I going to say? What would he and his family be thinking?

I will never forget the emotions of guilt and shame I had as I stood at the foot of Paul’s hospital bed surrounded by his family. There he was, with what was left of his right arm — in a sling — elevated high above his head where he could not help but see it. Everything in the room became blurry as I stared through the tears in my eyes and tried to express my personal and the company’s sorrow over their loss. All the while I expected someone to scream, “How could you have let this happen?”

That moment forever changed my attitude about safety, and accident prevention became my number one concern from that day forward.

The next day, we designed and built guards that would help prevent this from ever happening again and installed them on the two cut-off saws in that plant. In addition, we wrote procedures and held a training session for all those who operated these saws. That week, we did the same at the company’s four other woodworking plants. Moreover, we launched a strategic effort to make sure nothing like that ever happened again — anywhere in the company.

Formal Safety Programs Work

If your company does not have a formal written safety program in place, you need to prepare and install one now. I am not a safety expert, but if you have just done the minimum to get by and don’t know how to do more, contact your insurance carrier and ask them to come in and help you prepare a program tailored to your operation. They will be more than happy to help you set up a program that will include accident prevention as a key element.

It amazes me how many company managers feel the loss control person from their insurance company is somehow the "enemy" whose purpose is to make life miserable and consume valuable time. The truth is that he or she is an extra staff person available to your organization — whose salary is being paid by your premiums to help you reduce the cost of your insurance. Added to this is the fact that this person is an expert in safety evaluation. Whose services would be better to utilize to help your bottom line?

I have been in countless companies that were unhappy with their productivity and employee turnover. A quick walk through the plant, a look at the OSHA log and a review of the Workers Comp Insurance Costs will usually expose opportunities for immediate cost savings to the company. Not only will an effective and ongoing safety program reduce insurance costs, it will reduce employee absenteeism due to accidents and create an atmosphere that helps retain employees. Any safety program in your woodworking company will more than pay for itself.

The reason being, there are so many hidden costs of accidents that are often completely overlooked. For example, if your experienced CNC router operator or your panel saw operator gets hurt and is out several days, how much higher will production costs be due to less productivity and quality problems caused by a less experienced operator?



    Statement of Corporate Safety Policy

Employees of Ajax Millwork Co. are our most valuable assets and as such, their safety is of vital concern to the company. We recognize and accept our responsibility for the safety of our employees, and further recognize that accident prevention is an important and integral part of every aspect of our business!


Safety will be given primary importance in planning and operating all company activities in order to protect employees, visitors, and customers and to protect the company against reduced productivity and unnecessary financial burden.


(adopted from Fireman’s Fund)

Like any program that has permanence in a company, safety has to be part of the Core Spirit of that company. This Spirit is created from the top down and embodies how the top six to 10 executives of your company think and act. If they do not put safety first, no one else will over the long haul.

Thus, the commitment of management needs to be documented in a Statement of Corporate Policy and published for all to see such as the abbreviated one in the side bar.

Safety Awareness Can Be Fun

A challenge of any program is sustaining it through continuing employee involvement. There are many ways to involve employees and empowering your safety director to be creative is the best way to get started.

One of the most creative visual motivators I have seen can be found at American of Martinsville in Virginia. They have full-sized traffic lights strategically located throughout the plant. When the green light is on, it means there has been no accident. When the yellow – or caution light – is on, an OSHA recordable accident has occurred during the past three days. Finally, when the traffic light shows red, a lost time accident has occurred during the last week.

Many companies post the number of days since the last lost time accident at each time clock so employees can readily see the numbers each day. One safety director has a member of the safety committee go through the plant each day and randomly ask several workers how many days it has been since the last lost time accident. If they get it correct, they are given a silver dollar.

Still another has a pizza lunch for any department that goes without a recordable accident or submits the best safety idea within the previous month. The idea is to keep safety on the minds of everyone.

I encourage you to honestly assess your company and your personal commitment to safety today. Do not wait until something tragic gets your attention — as it did mine many years ago in a hospital room in the mountains of North Carolina. If you take the attitude that any accident is caused by company neglect, you will have a safe factory.

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