Column: Safety begins with attitudes

​According to Ilpo Harju, Managing Director of Sachtleben Pigments, staff commitment is an important aspect of safety work.

Great progress has been made in ensuring health and safety at work. Modern businesses focus on reducing industrial accidents with the utmost seriousness, and safety-first thinking has become the norm. Safety has become a domain in the chemical industry where there is simply no room for mismanagement.

Even at the beginning of the present century there were still some 20 to 30 accidents annually at our Pori plant, Finland, that resulted in some loss of working time, but we have now managed to cut these down to no more than one or two a year, and often there are none at all. So what has been happening?

The largest single change was the merger of Sacht-leben and Kemira Pigments in 2008, which also led to a clearer safety strategy. Improved guidelines and safeguards were introduced at the plant, and accident investigations became significantly more rigorous. The Pori plant has its own specialised board of investigation for accidents, charged with responsibility for looking into any accident within 24 hours of the event.

"The new attitude to safety can be seen and heard clearly."

Staff commitment is an important aspect of safety work. There are 600 employees at the Pori plant, each submitting an average of three safety-related improvement suggestions every year. When staff also see the company implementing the best suggestions, they feel that someone is listening to their concerns and respecting their views.

The last ten years or so have also seen a substantial shift in attitudes. Humanity and genuine concern have become part of the way that accidents are managed, so if someone is injured on the night shift, for example, then the shift manager accompanies the victim to hospital. Nobody is left alone and problems are addressed immediately.

The new attitude to safety can be seen and heard clearly. Although financial benefits arise directly from such factors as reduced insurance premiums, the quality of processes has also improved. The right attitude soon becomes second nature when certain ground rules have been agreed and compliance is monitored.

Obviously some challenges still remain. One common stumbling block arises when employees comply with safety requirements superficially, but fail to internalise the importance of safety. This can conceal a significant risk of problems emerging sooner or later, because the safety-first mentality has not matured.

Close calls are also reported and formally investigated at the Pori plant, with the company noting an increase here as the number of actual accidents has fallen rapidly. A great deal can also be learned from close calls.

The chemical industry is always at the forefront in matters of industrial safety, as negligence can often have catastrophic consequences. Work at the Pori plant can involve the use of concentrated acids and other hazardous substances where caution is everything, and the basic lesson is simple and direct: these processes must be respected in all circumstances.

One common factor in various accidents is often a loss of mental focus before the job is complete. Things can backfire if we fail to remain fully engaged in what we are doing. Accidents do not depend on circumstances, but on people.

Safety must also remain a clear priority for business leaders or the entire scheme will break down. Although getting the management structure committed to safety does not yet guarantee any improvement by itself, there is no hope whatsoever of securing adequate organisational reforms without such commitment. Supervisors must also be willing to take responsibility, as they play a crucial role in fostering the emergence of a new safety culture.

The outlook will be favourable when words and deeds coincide.

Ilpo Harju
Managing Director


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