Celebrating Safety

Running an ethanol plant safely is no easy task. The hard work has paid off for White Energy Holding Co. LLC, whose Russell Kan., ethanol plant has been recognized by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. The plant is the first in the nation to be included in the federal agency's Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program.
By Jerry W. Kram | August 27, 2007
It can be a gloomy day for some facilities when the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) officials show up at the plant gate. However, at White Energy Holding Co. LLC's 48 MMgy ethanol plant in Russell, Kan., it was a cause for celebration.

White Energy Russell LLC is the first ethanol plant in the United States to receive an award from OSHA's Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP). SHARP recognizes plants that implement a safety and health management program and reduce accident and illness rates below the national average. "From what I understand, there are only 66 plants in Kansas and a little more than a thousand in the United States that have received this recognition," says White Energy CEO Kevin Kuykendall. "We are the first ethanol plant to receive this award. We're very proud of that and it comes at the right time for us. We've got two 100 MMgy plants being built in the Panhandle of Texas. We've always said safety for our employees is really our number one priority and this award shows that's really true."

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Department of Labor officials presented the award to the company in late July.

The program developed at the Russell facility will be the basis for the safety programs at the company's new plants when they come on line Kuykendall says. White Energy will apply for SHARP certification for those plants as soon as possible. "This award is given to the safest and cleanest facilities that have a safety plan and have demonstrated a no-lost-time accident within a certain time frame," he says. "You need a full safety program that is reviewed from top to bottom by OSHA. We've been in the process about three years. We are proud to represent the industry and be the first one that has actually received this certification."

Kuykendall, a former baseball player, used a familiar sports metaphor to describe the experience. "It's like winning the big game," he says. "You have worked so hard and so long, many, many seasons to build your team and it finally clicks. You're in the World Series and you're bringing home the big prize. For our organization, that's what it was like. It was three years worth of effort and being the first ethanol plant to get this certification was so gratifying to our people. I'm so proud of them."

Although the certification and the recognition that came with it were significant, what was even more important was building a safe workplace for the employees. "First and foremost it's about the safety of our employees," he says. "It's the peace of mind that we have as a company that we have safety programs and that we do follow them. The recognition is nice but I think having these programs and knowing our employees are safe is really paramount, award or not."

SHARP Thinking
To achieve SHARP certification, a plant must first undergo a complete inspection and hazard analysis with a consultant to identify potentially dangerous conditions. It's an intense process where everything from safety guards on equipment to written procedures for spills and accidents to employee emergency drills are examined, Kuykendall says. "Hundreds if not thousands of man hours go into developing these plans," he says. "It sounds trivial, but if you have ever been to an ethanol facility, everything comes down to the safety plan." That includes checking safety guards on equipment, running through safety and chemical handling procedures and examining every single piece of equipment.

More important than developing the plan is implementing it. A facility must demonstrate to OSHA that the procedures in its plan are actually being followed on the plant floor. In addition, the facility's safety record is scrutinized, and injury and illness rates for employees must be below the national average. "We have a safety procedure for everything," Kuykendall says. "It's not only the development of those procedures that OSHA has to buy into but it's actually the execution. You get critiqued very often to make sure you are executing that safety plan."

Although achieving the SHARP designation represented a significant investment of time and resources, White Energy is committed to worker safety. "Safety doesn't come cheap, but we have a motto that we want the employee to go home in the same shape he came to work," Kuykendall says. "We really take that seriously. We have employee safety committees that make recommendations to management and we approve the capital expenditures and procedures and then the employees police themselves."

The commitment to safety at White Energy goes all the way from the plant floor to the front office. "I've run a lot of companies and all the other company's senior management meetings started with the financials or business development," Kuykendall says. "Ours really start with safety. We get a safety report every week to start our management meeting. So I really think it's a culture. We are in a manufacturing business and peoples' lives are in our hands."

Kuykendall emphasized repeatedly that while a commitment from management was important to the process, it was the work of all the plant's employees that made the certification possible. "I wish I could tell you that senior management had a heck of lot to do [with the process] other than understand and approve a lot of the budgets," Kuykendall says. "But the employees at the site are the ones who deserve all the credit. They came up with all the safety programs and procedures. They worked with the procedures, documented them and worked with OSHA and the outside consultants. I'm proud of our people. I think they've done a great job."

The Russell facility will have to be recertified for SHARP in a year. Kuykendall is confident that the company will retain this designation for many years to come. "In a year, OSHA will come in and review our documentation," he says. "It's a check to see if we are still following the guidelines, do we still have the discipline, are we still in compliance with the list of, say, the following 50 things? We have the certificate and we feel we will probably never lose it and will do everything in our power not to lose it."

As ethanol develops into a major industry, it will need to be even more proactive toward worker and environmental safety, Kuykendall says. "The ethanol industry used to be looked at as a homegrown cottage industry," he says. "But as it's grown, these plants are starting to be looked at more as refineries. We are getting larger, instead of 20 [million] to 30 million gallon farmer co-op plants we have 100 million gallon plants. So we really have to take this to the next level from a safety and program standpoint."

A top-notch safety program takes a lot of resources, but the payoff is significant in higher productivity. "Are there some economic benefits? Sure," Kuykendall says. "Insurance may be one savings, but I think the biggest benefit is the no down time and no loss of work time that really offsets the costs of a safety program."

A thorough safety program also has intangible benefits. Keeping track of all the procedures, processes, trainings and incidents that take place at the plant builds a discipline and ownership of the process that spills over into the other activities at the facility. "The documentation is just huge," Kuykendall says. "Everything from the procedures themselves to self-monitoring, having your committee set up, doing walk-throughs to find safety violation issues, correcting them in a timely fashion and documenting how you corrected them—yes, the documentation is extraordinary. But it's actually very good discipline for an organization."

SHARP certification can also burnish a company's reputation in the community. White Energy has always been active in Russell, but the public recognition of its safety operations was welcome. "We were viewed as a great community contributor but now we are a great community contributor that believes safety and health is a priority for us," Kuykendall says. "I think that's a good thing."

While achieving SHARP recognition was a long, hard process, Kuykendall says it was good for the company and it could be good for the industry. "Everybody should strive to get this certification," he says. "Outside of the recognition I think all ethanol facilities should have a safety program that is documented, implemented and followed."

Companies coming into the industry would do well to build safety into their plants from the start, Kuykendall says. Getting OSHA's input from the very beginning can save a company a lot of headaches later. "In our industry, the design-builders have a good starter kit," he says. "They know what OSHA looks for and what works. So I think as a new owner coming into this business, I would look heavily to your design/builder and then I would look at what OSHA and the Department of Labor are looking for and marry the two."

Another benefit Kuykendall sees is that the company's relationship with regulators is a partnership rather than being adversarial. It took a great deal of cooperation from both White Energy and OSHA to implement the company's safety program and that commitment to working together continues. "We are very proactive towards safety," Kuykendall says. "I think there are those in different industries who may not be. So for them it may be 'Oh my God, OSHA is here again.' We're more on the other side, 'OSHA's here, let's go show them what we've done.' It's more of a partnership in our environment."

Jerry W. Kram is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. He can be reached at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.