How Miller Technology stared down its Workwell audit

Sep 19, 2012

How Miller technology stared down its Workwell audit"We had our first Workwell audit last June. We thought we'd do well. Our health and safety culture was there, but our documentation was not. We scored 17%. It was quite an eye-opener."

— Chad Miller, Vice President of Operations, Miller Technology


Miller Technology and its more than 60 employees experienced another eye-opener several months later, when they passed their second Workwell audit with a gratifying 96.3%.

How does a busy, global industrial firm - in the middle of moving two locations into one big plant - close such a giant gap, while meeting its production targets? Miller Technology did many things right, some of which may surprise you. But ultimately they guaranteed the outcome the minute they embraced two ground truths.

First, they realized that success was less about their score and more about developing a sustainable, top-down and bottom-up health and safety program that protects its people.

Second, they recognized they couldn't do it alone. Miller Technology engaged WSPS to provide objective and practical advice and resources, and help defeat a common and insidious enemy: complacency.

What's a Workwell?

Workwell is an incentive program administered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) that requires firms to improve their occupational health and safety policies, procedures and compliance. Workwell auditors use an all-or-nothing "Document, Implement, Observe" approach; e.g., if a firm implements a procedure and it's observable but not documented, the score is zero. Firms that pass the audit avoid costly penalties. (For more on Workwell, see "Related reading," below.)

If you're peering into the abyss of a Workwell audit, or if you're simply feeling a little edgy about dark shapes on the horizon, keep reading to find out how Miller Technology stopped solving problems and started setting agendas.

Leading with conviction

Miller Technology is a family-run organization based in North Bay that has been designing and manufacturing mobile equipment for the global mining industry and Ontario's industrial sector since 1979. Products include underground land cruisers, personnel and utility carriers, graders, lifters, forklifts and other ancillary equipment.

As vice president of operations, Miller realized early that the mandate for health and safety belongs to the owners, who are responsible for preventing injuries and illness, not picking up the pieces. He attended the initial training with health and safety coordinator Chris Bruce, later refusing to move in-house training schedules for any reason. Everything he did reinforced that safety came first, production second, and customers third.

"If we used to take three months to build a machine, but safety procedures meant it would take two weeks more, that's what we did," he says. "We'd tell the customers why. We even turned away orders to protect our training time. It used to be customers first. But if we're not a healthy company, that won't help the customer."

"If you're training after hours, or for an hour here and there, staff see that it's still work first," adds Bruce. "But for the owner to say, stop production because we're putting the entire facility into one room for training - that's huge."

Implementing equals sustainability

Some companies buy a health and safety manual, park it on the shelf, and call it a day. What differentiated Miller Technology was their commitment to “implement” what they paid for. “The WSPS manual was so big and overwhelming,” admits Bruce, “but it was one heck of a starting step.”

Together, owners, managers and workers customized the manual to fit their company's work processes and culture. “We used 95% of the existing manual and, with everyone's full support, added another 20%,” says Miller. “We took ownership of that book: we modified it and debated it with people at all levels about why it was necessary.”

Clearing the decks for training

Meanwhile, the organization embarked on a six-month regimen of weekly, two-hour training sessions in the lunch room, beginning with supervisors and later including all shop workers. But supervisors and workers surprised management by asking that full training be given to everybody, allowing staff to move freely, without retraining, from one department to another.

To further demonstrate buy-in, Miller or Bruce attended every session, implementing techniques to make the training “sticky.” They added pictures (a hit with workers), encouraged discussion, reviewed key messages the day after training, and held weekly refreshers on standard operating procedures. Visible disciplinary action reinforced the learning, with written documentation replacing verbal warnings.

Communicating with evidence

Pointing to observable facts helped staff understand that safety training was primarily to protect them, not just supervisors and owners. “We showed them that they were missing things when they trained the new guys,” says Miller, “and because of that the new guys were getting hurt. One worker told us, hey, cuts and scrapes are normal. We said no - we can prevent it. We challenged them to get five incidents down to two, and two down to none.”

Wherever possible, Miller and Bruce also extend their health and safety messages to their workers' homes and families.

Caring pays

“What we invested in health and safety will come back to us,” says Miller. “It'll help us attract good people, earn staff loyalty, and boost our business reputation. Customers want to know we're a safe company and taking care of our workers. If I found out a vendor wasn't doing that, I wouldn't buy from that vendor.”

He sustains momentum in diverse ways, like using the manual as a guide, running regular inspections, working with supervisors to observe workers, reviewing a different procedure every week, and embracing staff suggestions.

But perhaps the best way to reinforce a new initiative is to celebrate the benefits.

“We're far better organized,” says Bruce. “What we're holding staff accountable for is laid out in black and white. We're not training new workers on one task at a time anymore. That's a big payback on our manual. It gave us the structure to know what inspections we need to be doing to audit ourselves. We're now focusing on prevention: if we think a procedure is a risk, we improve our system before something happens.”

What could define sustainable better than a shift in culture? “Workers tell us, I was off last week - what did I miss?,” says Miller. “The senior guys are watching out for the junior guys. We'll hear, 'Look out, you're doing something unsafe - you need to stop that.' One guy who was having too many safety issues didn't like the approach. He no longer works for us.”

“But most take it very kindly,” adds Bruce, “as in, 'hey - thanks for the tip.'”

People taking care of people. That's when you know you've built something to last.

The story according to WSPS

According to WSPS consultant Dave Santi, “a lot of companies don't know why they're being audited - especially if, like Miller Technology, they're receiving regular WSIB rebates. Miller Technology truly cares for both their workers and their reputation. They want to be in business 25 years from now. They were doing a lot of things well, just not completing the process: they weren't documenting their controls. They asked me all the right questions about why they should make WSPS their health and safety advisor. To his credit, Chad Miller sat in on every planning session. We helped them with developing a manual, providing training, conducting a workplace inspection, and preparing an employee handbook. They took the 100 safe operating procedures we developed for them and made them their own. Some companies don't change a thing; to their credit, these guys changed everything. They got it right away. They believed in involvement from the senior level, and they knew their employees also needed to be involved and engaged.”

What WSPS can do for you

Workplace Safety & Prevention Services can help firms enhance their health and safety performance in a number of ways. For example:

  • consultations on implementing or customizing a health and safety program to meet Workwell requirements. Consultants can conduct health and safety system reviews, perform practice Workwell audits, and develop customized health and safety manuals and safe work practices.

Also check out the WSIB's Small Business Audit tool and other WSIB-related audit resources.