Operations, maintenance and repair: safety first, middle and last

Posted on 8 Mar 2012

Tom Moore talks to Stephen Smith, supply chain and operations director at plasterboard manufacturer British Gypsum, who explains that the company’s excellent safety record is down to time not money after another two of its sites hit a one million hours zero lost time accidents milestone.

Work site risks in the manufacturing sector can be dangerous; there were 27 fatal injuries in the sector during 2010-11 in the UK.

A Homogenizer at British Gypsum's site in East Leake
A Homogenizer at British Gypsum's site in East Leake

Roles in the sector are varied and range from handling 1,000°C+ materials to operating multi-tonne machinery. Despite complaints about the flood of health and safety regulations into low-risk workplaces, partly due to a rise in ‘suing culture’, health and safety is vital in industry. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics show that manufacturing has one of the highest rates across sectors of incidents resulting in three or more days off work. Overall, UK manufacturing saw 1,649.2 incidents for every 100,000 employees during 2010-11.

“Safety isn’t a priority at British Gypsum, it’s a core value” – Stephen Smith, Operations Director, British Gypsum

But is this high accident incidence level avoidable? Some would say that there is room for improvement, but that “accidents happen”. British Gypsum has done its best in begging to differ, and on December 20 last year, announced that its East Leake and Robertsbridge Factories have just joined a ‘million hours lost time free club’ alongside its Barrow and Kirkby Thore factories and its Fauld, Barrow and Robertsbridge mines.

British Gypsum has moved from having twenty lost time accidents per year to none across all of its sites over the past three years
British Gypsum has moved from having twenty lost time accidents per year to none across all of its sites over the past three years

The larger sites have achieved the million hours lost time accident measure in three years and the Fauld mine has now gone 15 years without a lost time accident. British Gypsum as a whole has now gone for three years without a lost time accident across its five factories and five mines.

A position on such a high pedestal must be precarious but representatives from the Leicestershire-based firm staunchly insist that risk can be managed minutely if time is taken to create a safety-conscious workforce.

Kirkby Thore’s plant manager Chris Britton comments, “It’s imperative that people go home in the same health they arrived on site. Whether they’re an employee, contractor or visitor, we make it a priority to ensure everyone understands what is expected of them and sees health and safety as an essential part of their day-to-day job.

But what does this dedication to health and safety cost the company? Stephen Smith, operations director at the plasterboard manufacturer, openly admits that the company hasn’t spent much money on achieving the zero lost time accident record.

Instead of quoting flashy sums spent on consultancy or protective technologies, Smith explains it is time – something money cannot buy – that has proved to be the essential ingredient. He expands, “Safety isn’t a priority at British Gypsum, it’s a core value that we have worked on over a long period. I go to lots of places where they say that safety is a priority, but today’s priority is not always tomorrow’s.”

The methodology

This mentality ensures that safety is embedded in company culture and drives forward a five pronged approach to creating and maintaining British Gypsum’s safety record. This approach incorporates:

  • Creating management clarity and setting the right standards
  • Embedding the right perceptions around the relative importance of productivity and safety
  • Establishing capable processes to eliminate stops/breakdowns/ process variance
  • Ensuring compliance with British Gypsum/UK safety standards and reducing risk
  • Five FOILE and operator involvement
British Gypsum's Sherburn plant
British Gypsum's Sherburn plant

With these factors requiring minimum investment, Smith states: “I am of a certain belief that we invest capital in factories only to expand output or meet industry requirements. We don’t replace our machines with new machines. If the machine is not functioning correctly we identify the root cause and repair it. Spending money does not generally solve problems.”

The introduction of a World Class Manufacturing (WCM) programme ten years ago marked the beginning of British Gypsum’s journey down this road. Smith notes “Our factories don’t break down, we have absolute control of the process, OEE has improved massively, our quality complaints are at the lowest level ever, our delivery precision at its highest. In addition, absenteeism is 1.9% across all of the factories and mines.”

“We’ve vetoed the superhero mentality. We want the right people to do the right thing at the right time” – Stephen Smith, Operations Director, British Gypsum

The company has moved from having twenty lost time accidents per year to none across all of its sites over the past three years. Smith estimates that the number of unplanned factory stops, which can be from five seconds to three days, was around 600-700 a month nine years ago. “The target now is less than 10 a month and we beat it in all factories by a long way.”

Eliminating the minor stops of just a few seconds has been an important success factor continues Smith. “This is potentially where employees can become blasé about entering the machine and end up getting hurt,” he says.

But apart from this kind of attention to detail, perhaps the most important factor in British Gypsum’s escalating safety record is its rejection of complacency. Smith reveals, “We have very high internal safety standards which we review annually. The factory managers are challenged to increase the level of compliance to a standard which ensures risk is reduced by 30% every year.”

Asking the right questions

Often with accidents, people can think they are doing the right thing. Smith puts a serious edge on the Dr Pepper joke: ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ and insists that asking the right questions sets the right mentality for thinking about the work environment and its dangers.

“We’ve vetoed the superhero mentality,” explains Smith. “We want the right people to do the right thing at the right time. If there is something wrong, stop the plant and repair it, don’t keep it running and fix it. The focus is on repair not fix.” The supply chain and operations director continues, “We use a behavioural safety programme called SUSA [Safe and unsafe act] at the shop floor, team leader and first line manager level. Above this we use SMAT [Senior Manager Audit].

Manufacturing safety stats in 2010-2011
Manufacturing safety stats in 2010-2011

“The objective of these,” explains Smith “is to encourage our people to talk about beingsafe when doing their job. Safety improvements have also been supported through a programme of work with HSE – Field Operations Directive in their Interventions in Large Employers (FOILE).

“FOILE was started five years ago and we are just in the process of finishing it now. It has taken this long due to the high standards we have put in place.” FOIL is set around rigorous reduction of risk from: slips, trips and falls; working at height; workplace transport; manual handling; machinery interventions; work in confined space and stress.

“This five-year partnership involved working closely with HSE on a proactive basis and also involving shop floor representatives who did a large part of the work,” concludes Smith. “A positive outcome is the shop floor reps are working autonomously and visit each others’ sites to audit and share.”