Good health and safety brings enviable rewards

How an Ontario manufacturer won an award and saved $250,000 annually through its dedication to workplace safety

“Quite exceptional.” That’s how Tony Grech, a field consultant for the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA), describes the lost-time injury rates at Steelcase Canada’s facility in Markham, Ont.

Steelcase, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based manufacturer of office furniture with 460 employees in Markham and 13,000 around the world, had lost-time injury rates that were 79 per cent to 87 per cent lower than its associated rate group from 2001 to 2005.

For decades, Steelcase Canada has made a point of taking a proactive approach to health and safety in the workplace. And in the past 10 years, that dedication has grown, with greater integration into day-to-day operations, more focused reporting and stronger support from senior management. As a result, health and safety has become a fundamental part of the company’s culture.

That commitment was recently recognized with a Level III Health & Safety Achievement Award from IAPA, a national not-for-profit health and safety association based in Mississauga, Ont. To qualify, Steelcase used state-of-the art equipment and design criteria to help reduce injuries such as musculoskeletal disorders. It’s also diligent with its pre-setup inspection programs of machinery to ensure they are in good working order and proper safeguards are in place.

“There is a lot of stuff within the control structure of programs to minimize the risks associated with that industry,” said Grech. “Certainly the foresight of their management team is foremost.”

The high scores are also the result of a reinvigorated commitment to health and safety at the company that started several years ago, said Mike Fenuta, manager of health, safety and environment and technical services at Steelcase’s Markham facility.

“The key was ownership from our leadership,” said Fenuta. “They started really integrating that and made it an accountability across the board, not only from senior executives but right down to the shop-floor employee, where safety was discussed on a daily basis.”

Steelcase set up a joint health and safety committee, as required under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, but decided to go beyond that in establishing safety teams that met weekly for each area of responsibility. These then developed into safety and quality teams that “have now become part of the business,” said Fenuta.

“We’ve always believed people are our most important asset and we have to invest in them, just like we would in hard assets like equipment. We’ve been establishing standards that not only meet the requirements but are one step beyond. Most of the time we are ahead of the curve.”

Consequently, morale has improved because of the safer environment and employees feel more appreciated. New employees are also given an extensive orientation so they “get on board a lot quicker with quality issues and adherence to safety issues,” said Steve Taylor, environmental and plant engineer at Steelcase.

And “if you take care of people, they produce good quality products, which in return are delivered to customers on time, and that takes care of your financials,” said Fenuta.

There are definite savings, both tangible and intangible, from improved health and safety said Taylor. For one, Steelcase has received significant rebates every year through the New Experimental Experience Rating (NEER) program run by Ontario’s Workplace Safety Insurance Board. While these rebates have trended downward as the industrial group improved, Taylor said Steelcase has averaged more than $250,000 in annual savings.

The better health and safety conditions have also reduced the absentee rate, so additional “floater” labour hired to cover routine absence is no longer needed, meaning two fewer employees and no need for extra staff.

But many companies fail to go the extra mile for health and safety because they look at it from a dollars-and-cents point of view; instead, they are prepared to absorb the risk.

“Everybody would like to do it but there’s quite a hump to get the program up and running,” said Taylor.

While there is definitely a cost factor, Grech said a company that wants to be competitive and profitable must deal with three key areas: quality, productivity and safety.

“It’s a major cultural shift and it takes years to develop this,” he said. “It’s not done overnight.”

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!