One firm's safety turnaround

Jul 28, 2011

One firm's safety turnaroundIn 2007, Jeremy Shorthouse joined Vincor Canada as is its first national environmental health and safety manager. The business has 2,000 employees across the country.

Shorthouse rolled up his sleeves as soon as he arrived. When he started, says Shorthouse, “our [injury] statistics were probably pretty close to 400 to 500 per cent higher than our U.S. counterparts.” Since then, Vincor Canada has achieved the following:

  • 20% fewer incidents
  • 60% fewer lost-time claims
  • 80% decrease in injury severity rates.

Last year alone, the company saved $1.8 million in injury costs. “We basically streamlined from the time somebody had an injury,” Shorthouse said in a recent interview with Canadian Occupational Safety (COS) magazine, “right through to an early and safe return to work. We built that whole program and then we trained everybody in this company on every piece of it. It’s been an important piece of the puzzle.

“It’s big business, but most important to us is the people side and the fact that we know we’re not injuring as many people as we did in the past.”

Vincor Canada president and CEO Eric Morham told COS magazine that “what Jeremy has done is very instrumental for not only health and safety but for building teamwork and Vincor… People have really embraced health and safety, and Jeremy has been the catalyst.”

For his efforts, Shorthouse was named COS magazine’s 2010 Safety Leader of the Year. As a keynote speaker at Health & Safety Ontario’s June 14 Partners in Prevention Conference and Trade Show in London, Ontario, Shorthouse shared factors that contributed to the company’s health and safety success. These factors are applicable to any workplace in any sector. But first, a corporate profile.

About Vincor Canada

The company is Canada’s largest producer and marketer of wine and related products. Its leading brands, including Jackson-Triggs, Sawmill Creek and Inniskillin, are produced at a family of estate wineries located in BC, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. The company also owns 163 Wine Rack retail stores in Ontario. From start to finish, operations include a diverse range of processes:

  • planting and growing the grape vines
  • harvesting, crushing and fermenting the grapes
  • producing, bottling and corking the wine
  • shipping to distribution centres and retailers.

The Shorthouse approach to health and safety

“My passion for safety,” Shorthouse told conference delegates, “is about getting people to buy in, from our senior management right through to employees on the floor.”

Buy-in starts with the corporate vision and mission. “Plain and simple,” said Shorthouse, “our vision is zero. We are going to work until we get to zero. Is it going to happen overnight? No way, but our goal every single day is zero, and that is an important vision that everyone should have.“

The corporate mission, continued Shorthouse, “is to make every one of our Vincor employees a safety leader… It’s critical to us being successful.”

“One thing that always scares me,” said Shorthouse, “is people coming in and saying, ‘Safety is No. 1.’ I’m standing up here in front of you as a health and safety guy, and saying that for our company safety is not No. 1. Making, producing and selling good wines at a profit is what we’re about. Safety is just an integral part of the process… We don’t go to work for safety, we go to work to make a product safely.”

The first thing Shorthouse did was to get a feel for where everyone perceived the safety program to be. “So we spent a lot of time doing perception surveys. Perception is reality…

“Our perception survey has five questions. They’re basic, simple, straight to the point health and safety questions, but it’s an amazing process that gives you a real idea of how your organization feels about health and safety. Typically, after you’ve done it, these are the results. Your senior managers score the company between 80 and 90, your supervisors score you between 60 and 70, and your employees score you between 40 and 50.

“Now, the challenge here is to eliminate the gap. So if your senior managers are ranking you at 85 and your employees say you’re 45, who makes all the decisions on the money spent on training? The senior managers. And why would they spend more money on training when they think it’s working?”

It’s critical to eliminate the gap, said Shorthouse. “In most organizations you need to reduce the mentality of senior management on how great your health and safety program is, which isn’t an easy task but you have to do it. At the same time you have to pump into workers that you’re doing a great job in health and safety.” They probably aren’t aware of all the safety work going on, said Shorthouse.

Relationships is where I made the most headway with my organization, both internal and external. Your relationships have to be positive, there has to be honesty. Honesty gives you credibility and integrity, and as health and safety specialists, if we’re missing any of these with our employees or management, you know how much trouble there already is.

“You need to be approachable. There’s nothing worse than a health and safety guy that nobody wants to walk up to and talk to. If I walk through my facility and nobody likes me and nobody wants to talk to me, I’m in trouble already. I’m not going to hear what I really want to hear. And that’s the same for everyone on the management team. That’s why everybody needs to become a safety leader, not just me.

“The next one is critical: self honesty. Are you, your supervisors and your managers going to take every reasonable precaution to protect the workers? That’s the question you have to keep asking yourself. ‘Could I have done something a little different? Could I do something a little more? Should I have talked to that employee who wasn’t wearing the personal protective equipment?’ Whatever it is, are we doing it? Be honest with yourself. Typically, we find out that we could be doing a little more, and that’s critical.”

After Shorthouse developed relationships with facilities and employees across the country, he began working with them on hazard assessments of every single site. “When I walked into the sites, the first thing they wanted to tell me was how good their health and safety programs were.” This may have been true, said Shorthouse, but many sites hadn’t recognized what their most serious hazards were.”

Shorthouse took the joint health and safety committee and senior management through the hazard assessment process, ranking all the hazards. ”Typically, the highest ranking hazard was forklifts, and I went back to them saying, ‘Tell me about what we’re doing about forklifts, tell me what we’re doing about machine guarding… “We would put a 3-year plan together, a top 10 list. ‘These are the 10 things we need to work on from our list for the next three years if we’re going to see any improvements.’ It was a very important piece of the puzzle.

“If you have not done a hazard assessment,” Shorthouse told delegates, “you need to do it. Plain and simple, it’s going to give you the hazards. It’s going to tell you where to prioritize and where your resources should go.”

Shorthouse is also a proponent of

  • physical observations. “I guarantee if you walk through your site, somebody is going to be doing something you won’t like. So you need to concentrate on getting your managers and supervisors when they’re out doing their daily duties to watch what the employees are doing, and if they’re doing something outside your standards you need to let them know.”
  • communication. “We still post our statistics on our health and safety board, but we… also put every single thing we’re doing to improve health and safety. If we have new guarding, if we’re having a new health and safety training session, we put up a photo. We put everything we do for health and safety on that board. It’s visible. And a picture does a lot more that statistics up there. So if you can take anything away from this presentation, show your work.
  • positive reinforcement. “We’re spread out. It’s very difficult for me to get everywhere. Communication has to be positive. Risk communication, the power of silence, off the job safety, long term motivation… I always start off positive. I talk about ‘opportunities,’ and then I always finish on a positive note. If you do that, you’ll develop positive relationships, and be able to work with people to get better.”

“When something is outside the norm,” continued Shorthouse, “stop. All of the critical injuries I’ve had to deal with, and the one fatality, have all happened due to something outside the norm – not a day-to-day thing we normally do. Something’s happened, and we change what we’re going to do. We haven’t sat back and said, ‘Okay, we have to do it this way.’ Instead, they went and did it as fast as they could, and somebody’s been critically injured.

“You need to get your employees to understand that when something’s outside of the norm, stop. Get the managers and supervisors over there, come up with a plan, and deal with it.”

“Put all of these components together,” concluded Shorthouse, “and we get a health and safety program, which will change the culture… You need to make health and safety a value of the organization, not a priority. Priorities change, values don’t.”