Safety should be sewn into the fabric of the metal fabricator’s workday
May 1, 2012
Minnesota-based E.J. Ajax has been recognized as one of the safest metal stamping plants in North America. It has received this recognition in part by developing good safety practices, requiring PPE, and installing machine safeguards. But most important, both managers and employees have fostered a sustainable safety culture.
Erick Ajax couldn’t sleep. It had been a rough day at his company, E.J. Ajax. Business wasn’t necessarily bad at the Minneapolis-based stamper and fabricator. He wasn’t thinking about part rejects or late orders. If he was, he wouldn’t be losing so much sleep. No, this was something much more serious.
The plant had several near-miss safety incidents, two of which could have been fatal. In one incident, as an inexperienced fork truck operator was attempting to retrieve parts, several thousand pounds of metal fell from a rack. Workers weren’t hurt, but they could have been—badly.
These and other near-misses kept Ajax tossing and turning at night. The company recently had won a safety award—21 years without a lost-time incident, and only two recordable incidents in eight years. But all that didn’t matter much during those sleepless nights. In Ajax’s mind, an employer is morally obligated to provide a safe place for working professionals.
Like any business, metal fabrication and manufacturing in general has some bad apples, which can turn poisonous when bad business practices lead to serious injuries or fatalities. As Ajax said at last year’s FABTECH® show, “We have about 40,000 men and women who work in metal forming in Minnesota … We average about one amputation a month in metal forming. That’s a pathetic statistic, but it’s unfortunately part of my work being on the advisory board with OSHA [in Minnesota]. I do see those numbers quarterly, and it’s pretty challenging to look at them.”
It has been Ajax’s life work to help change those numbers, and he started at his own plant 30 years ago. “I had worked for a Fortune 500 company before joining the family business. During the first year I was at the company, we had two amputations. The first one, a woman, lost four fingers. Just a couple months later, a guy lost his entire hand. I remember having a heart-to-heart with my dad. I said this wasn’t what I signed up for. This is absolutely terrible.”
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, E.J. Ajax’s employees didn’t wear personal protective equipment. People wore shorts, tennis shoes, even sandals. They worked under the influence of drugs and alcohol. “The inmates were running the asylum,” Ajax said.
America. It got this way in part by developing good safety practices, requiring PPE, and installing machine safeguards. Random drug testing also has helped greatly. Everyone at the plant, including Erick Ajax himself, receives random, surprise drug testing at some point in the year. If a person fails the drug test, the company’s health plan pays for rehabilitation services. If an individual refuses treatment, he or she is fired.
If workers are spotted working unsafely, they are sent home immediately for a full day of paid leave. This kind of discipline often works, because the employees’ spouses support such discipline—for obvious reasons. They don’t want to see their loved ones get hurt. If the employee gets caught performing an unsafe act again, he or she is terminated, no matter how experienced or skilled the person may be. If they don’t work safely, they can’t work for E.J. Ajax.
But all this was only part of the equation. The other—and arguably most important—element was the winning of hearts and minds. “We want people working safely for the right reasons, not just because I’m the boss, I impose the safety rules, and you’d better follow them or we’re going to fire or discipline you. In situations like that, it becomes a catch-me-if-you-can situation, as opposed to really, truly, honestly wanting to work safely. All of us want to go home to our spouses, children, and grandkids—every night. That is the reason we really want to work safely.”
This thought hit home for Ajax a month before his FABTECH presentation last year. The company experienced its very first lost-time incident in more than two decades. A metal fine floated behind a press operator’s safety glasses. That speck got lodged in the operator’s eye, and, unfortunately, he didn’t report it for 10 days, at which point that speck had rusted. If he reported the incident immediately, he would have missed an hour of work at most. As it turned out, he missed an entire shift.
After this, the company’s safety leadership team suggested removing some incentives that turned out to have unintended consequences. Employees received safety bonuses every December. This helped put a monetary value on safety, but it also incentivized people not to report incidents. The team also took down the big clock showing how many days the company had gone without a safety incident.
The clock showed a point of understandable pride, to be sure. Who wouldn’t want to flaunt going more than 2 million safe working hours? But as Ajax explained, that was the wrong approach. Safety isn’t about pumping chests or reaching milestones. It’s about going home safe and healthy, every day.
At E.J. Ajax, safety permeates every element of every transaction. Salespeople talk with customers about how E.J. Ajax will execute orders, handle parts safely, and package them. All lean manufacturing efforts focus on employee safety and ergonomics first. As it turns out, if a job becomes easier and more efficient, it often becomes safer. But if a work-process change makes a job less safe, the proposal doesn’t go far.
The word accident doesn’t enter the discussion, either, for a subtle but important reason. Accident implies something uncontrollable or unpreventable. Like mistakes, accidents just happen. For Ajax, that fatalistic view shouldn’t be applied to something as important as safety. At his company, if a safety problem occurs, it’s an incident, something that can be analyzed and prevented.
“I can say that at E.J. Ajax, safety is my absolute highest ethical and moral responsibility,” he said. “We must ensure everyone gets to go home safely to their loved ones. If we can’t be safe, we’re simply not successful. If one of my colleagues gets hurt, any profits are ill-gotten gains in my mind.”
Erick Ajax makes an admirable industry spokesperson.
Also notice that Ajax doesn’t use the words employees, operators, or technicians. They’re colleagues—professionals. As Ajax sees it, properly trained professionals—be they airline pilots or metal formers—should not get hurt on the job. If they do, Ajax thinks like Harry Truman: The buck stops with him.
During the annual Christmas party, spouses and children of E.J. Ajax employees usually approach Erick. “They thank me for helping their mom and dad come home safe at the end of the day,” he said.
Profits are important; so are product quality and customer satisfaction. But that end-of-the-day hug from close friends and family helps put it all in perspective. Safety isn’t a race or competition. It just is, sewn into the fabric of the metal fabricator’s workday. Safety trumps all because family trumps all.