Cultivating a Culture of Safety

Companies should take steps to improve safety, compliance and loss control because it's the right thing to do, rather than simply to avoid citations.
By Susanne Retka Schill | November 20, 2014

Nathan Vander Griend joined ERI Solutions Inc., in 2007, just a few months after Bruce Pearson launched the company as an offshoot of the original insurance program he started in 2003. ERI now manages Ethanol Risk Management SPC Ltd. With its roots in insurance, ERI offers several environmental, health and safety and loss control services, and at its core, ERI is about sharing lessons learned on compliance, safety and property protection. Vander Griend became president of the company two years ago and in that role has a unique perspective to share on some of the challenges the ethanol industry faces.

Can you describe how ERI has evolved over the years, and how that reflects the changes in the ethanol industry? 

Our original goal was simply to drive down the insurance rates for the ethanol industry.  From there, our goal was to make an insurance company successful for the owners, which in our case are the ethanol companies insured. In order to accomplish that goal, ERI Solutions was formed to make sure they have resources at their fingertips. That is why we perform the environmental, health and safety and loss control services we do. In 2010, we responded to a need in the industry and added process safety management services, and in 2011, we started doing nondestructive testing of assets in critical areas handling highly hazardous or flammable materials. As plants age, equipment is wearing and some kind of testing throughout the life of the equipment is important so you can tell when it’s getting close to end of life.  

We also are seeing it’s quite a long time since some operators have received some kind of formal training. In business seven to 10 years, the first operators were trained by the original equipment manufacturer or design engineer and, since then, there’s been a lot of tribal knowledge passed on from operator to operator. The concern we have is that someone operating a plant is pushing a button because he was told to push this button when this level hits X. If the operator doesn’t know why and doesn’t know what’s going on when the button is pushed, he may not know what kind of risk is involved.  As a result, we are working on making more formal education available to operators.
As a whole, the ethanol industry has come a very long way since I became involved.  The “when it breaks, we will fix it” and “that will never happen to us” mentality is mostly gone, leaving an industry that is open to understanding its risks and making the necessary changes and investment to protect against them.

The industry has seen a couple of significant events with dryer and RTO (regenerative thermal oxidizer) explosions. Can you discuss what you’ve learned about the root causes?  

To summarize, the important points are preventative maintenance, training in standard operating procedures and ensuring equipment is run within design parameters and not  altered. 
It goes beyond just property damage when these things happen. Company management at affected companies will tell us they had an issue with their employees being worried about coming to work—they didn’t know if they were going to retain everybody after an explosion. The employees had always thought that piece of equipment was this docile thing fluffing grain. They soon found, it can turn into a bomb. It’s a miracle, at this point, that we haven’t had a fatality from these gas-fired equipment explosions, and we plan on making it good engineering and common sense, rather than a miracle, for why we don’t have fatalities going forward.

In handling workers’ compensation claims, you keep track of trends in the ethanol industry in order to share that with the ethanol plants you work with. What is the most significant issue you’ve observed recently?

In the past 12 months, we’ve seen a trend in people improperly lifting things—a lot of strains and sprains. You can’t always work ergonomically correctly, but you can do things to be sure you don’t have an ergonomic injury. As an example, if you are bending over in a compromised position in order to do a job, it doesn’t mean you have to get hurt. You can stop every minute or so and make sure you stretch your back to avoid an injury.

What have you learned about creating a culture of safety? What does it take to change, if the safety attitude isn’t strong enough?
One of the things we always say is, if it’s acceptable to management to have a loss, it will be acceptable to employees. There are people who put enough focus on it and really do believe there should be a zero-loss scenario every year. Three-quarters of the plants we work with have never had a property claim. And over half of them have never had a workers’ comp claim. So the mentality that “things happen, they happen to everybody,” doesn’t hold water.  

We’ve seen the culture change in facilities where the top level manager has changed, but if you can change the culture of all those people by changing one person, you should also be able to do it by changing the attitude. Managers have to stick to their guns and they have to walk the walk. They need to set the right incentives and, in order to do that, they need to understand how each of their employees are wired, or what makes them tick, and align incentives based on that. This sounds tedious, but the extra effort will pay dividends.

As the industry’s culture of safety has evolved, what’s happened with the role of the environmental, health and safety manager?

I’ve seen a huge change when it comes to the respect and the authority that the folks in these roles are given today. Company managers have experienced or heard about the citations that have occurred or they’ve experienced or heard of claims and they realize the importance of the things that could have prevented them. It also has a lot to do with seeing the level of work that needs to go into being an environmental, health and safety person.

There has been a transition. We used to work with plants where the lab manager was the EHS manager and, when they weren’t doing that, they were the purchasing manager. It’s so much different now. We have plants that have a two- or maybe three-person environmental, health and safety team. There are so many regulations and rules and things get dropped, if they don’t have somebody in that role.

People often complain about regulations and the accompanying paperwork and expense. With your interest in avoiding claims for injuries or property loss, what is your take on that issue?

We do get that and it’s true in some aspect, but I also think it’s about how things are presented. These past three months we were focusing on how to effect those significant dryer-related explosions and fires. When we work with our companies, we have the full ability to mandate measures or we can’t work with them, we can’t insure them. The much better approach is to educate them on the risk, how things actually occurred and how these things you implement will keep them from happening.

The popular way for people to get these requirements done is to say, “If you don’t do it, you’ll get a citation.”  The likelihood that EPA or OSHA is going to walk through the door this year is a nominal percent. People need to do these things because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a tell-tale sign for us that they do have the right culture, if their response is “We need to do this because we’re concerned about the safety of our staff, and we want to be able to sleep at night. We want our staff to know that we care.”