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How Kimberly-Clark Transformed One Plant’s Safety Culture

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On June 16, 2012, the Belmont Mill celebrated one year as an injury-free workplace, Belmont plant safety and ergonomics team members gather together after the ceremony celebrating this safety milestone.

At the Kimberly-Clark Professional Belmont facility in Michigan, about 214 employees make safety products such as welding helmets, hard hats and work zone signage. The plant has operated for 30 years, but became a part of Kimberly-Clark Professional as part of the acquisition of Jackson Safety in 2009.

At the time of the acquisition, the Belmont facility plant had opportunities to enhance its safety culture. It was averaging one injury per month, and safety staff had identified more than 1,500 hazards within the plant, but struggled to prioritize and address them. Incident prevention is an important challenge for many manufacturing companies. In fact, it is the only industry sector to experience a recent increase in injuries and illnesses (1). In 2010, for every 100 manufacturing workers, 4.4 experienced an on-the-job injury (2).

Safety Must Permeate the Entire Plant
To encourage employees to become active partners in making plants safer, management should consider the following best practices:
1. Lead by Example: An engaged leadership team will help inspire and set an example for employees to commit to safety as part of the work culture.
2. Inspire Employees: Set a goal, even it seems like a stretch. At the Belmont plant, our goal is ambitious but clear-cut: create and maintain an injury-free workplace. Then, management should continuously provide positive reinforcement as motivation.
3. Connect Emotionally: To transform employee behavior around safety, it is important to connect on an emotional level. At the Belmont plant we ask our staff to post family photos and show videos in the work space in order to remind everyone who is counting on them to come home safely.
4. Focus on Why Rather than How: Traditionally, many plant leaders do not take the time to explain why they initiate certain safety practices. Instead of taking the top-down approach, management should involve employees in the changes that are intended to prevent injuries, and explain to them how to continuously improve safety.
5. Preventive Conditioning Approaches: Proactive approaches to ergonomics and employee conditioning are critical. At the Belmont plant, a group stretching period at the beginning of each shift helps prevent injuries. In addition, we invested in an employee conditioning program to parallel our hazard elimination and engineering control efforts.

To solve these challenges, the Kimberly-Clark Professional leadership team immediately reframed the safety issue to make it an all-employee responsibility, rather than compartmentalizing it with a few safety staff members. This approach allowed the company to develop a solid safety function at the facility, to build a sustainable safety culture and to help support its mission of creating an injury-free workplace.

Fostering a safety culture was a challenge. At the time Kimberly-Clark Professional acquired Jackson Safety, the Belmont facility averaged nine to 15 injuries per year, and management and staff had simply resolved that “accidents happen.” For the sustainability of the plant and employee safety, it was imperative to overcome these challenges. Additionally, Kimberly-Clark Professional believes that a safer workplace translates into a more satisfied workplace and supports a profitable business. In 2009, U.S. industries alone spent more than $70 billion in direct costs such as medical and wage indemnity related to injuries (3).

I became plant manager shortly after the Kimberly-Clark Professional acquisition, and my team quickly realized we had an opportunity to establish safety as a value. After all, we made safety products, so safety should permeate every part of our business.

The Belmont facility leadership team was committed to creating a safe workplace to drive performance and alleviate injury cost. We wanted to replicate efforts conducted across Kimberly-Clark, which have helped the company reduce workers’ compensation costs from more than $10 million to $1 million in over seven years.

It became clear to the leadership team that we would need to address safety quickly when, during an initial safety strategy deployment session, a floor supervisor interrupted the meeting to inform us that another injury had just occurred. We knew then that we needed to underscore that our commitment to safety was going to change, so in an aggressive move, I made the decision to shut down the plant to address the new expectations for safety. At that initial meeting with the entire staff, we communicated that injuries were no longer an accepted part of our culture and presented plant safety as a responsibility and core value of all employees, not solely the safety staff.

Engaging the Entire Workforce in Safety
Plant leadership knew it would take a concerted effort to secure the buy-in of all employees. It was simply not enough to describe safety as a priority because priorities often change. We wanted to instill a long-term passion and commitment to safety. That begins with leadership. All leaders must clearly demonstrate safety as a value before we can inspire an organization to achieve the strong safety culture that we desire.

To achieve that goal, we applied change management and behavioral principles to help propagate a safety culture. Our work included the following elements:

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