Back in 1989, Dave Kessler worked on workers' compensation issues for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers at Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisc. At the time, no union member was dedicated to safety. Kessler dealt with health and safety issues as part of his workers' comp responsibilities. At Beloit, a Harnischfeger Industries Company that manufactures products for the pulp and paper industry, he started a safety committee of union members. He organized plant walk-throughs, suggesting improvements to management. Typically, both union and management were cautious when dealing with one another, says Kessler. Safety problems were resolved over the agreements table.

Kessler also kept up with his safety homework. He went to Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) meetings and learned how other companies had solved their safety problems. He worked on building trust with Beloit's management. His hard work did not go unnoticed.

Making the change

Kessler says it was about five years ago when the company decided on a new structure for safety. It re-organized into two divisions. Until then, there was one safety manager in charge of the whole plant.

The execs at Beloit recognized Kessler's efforts caring for workers and his ability to motivate them on safety. They asked Kessler to become manager of occupational wellness and safety for the papermaking division.

Union leaders were enthusiastic about Kessler's change, optimistic about the chance to start a new relationship with the company. But some workers thought they were watching a valuable team player skip to the other side, says Kessler. Straightforward, honest, and motivated, Kessler has worked to change such negative attitudes into trusting relationships. After employees saw signs of change, such as installation of an exhaust system to correct a welding smoke problem, things started rolling, he says.

His long-term ties with I.A.M. members and leaders became the seed of a tight-knit relationship, producing a safety atmosphere based on respect, cooperation, and proactive caring, say union members. Kessler says he wanted to bring the union and management even closer than bargaining over the agreements table. He thought the two should work hand in hand to accomplish what was already a common goal: a safe workplace. Just after taking his new position at Beloit, Kessler discussed the ins and outs of a partnership between union and corporation with his friend and previous boss, Richard Kilpatrick, president of local 1197 of the I.A.M. Kessler took the idea to company executives. The majority of those asked thought it was a great idea. The partnership was arranged officially. The union voted 2-1 for it. I.A.M. members, Beloit execs, and Kessler shook hands at a ceremony. The goal: VPP Star status.

Reaching the goal

Jack Witham, vice president of operations for Beloit, joined the effort by taking the OSHA 501 class and partaking of discussions at safety meetings. The union was involved in writing the safety policy. Workers were sent to OSHA 501 and 503, machine-guarding, CPR and first-aid classes.

"Now, we don't have our members getting hurt. We're helping the company save money and be successful," says Dean Waters, bargaining committee chairman for the local 1197 I.A.M.

During their first VPP inspection in November, 1995, the OSHA inspector pointed out two problems: an ill-fitting respirator on a worker, and a machine repair not recorded. The safety partnership had already decided to reach for the gold: Star status or no VPP status at all. They cut the inspection short, realizing there was still a chance for Merit status, meaning the premise wasn't far from Star status but would need some improvement, says Kessler. They now expect to gain VPP Star status in March, he says.

Beloit now has 1500 workers and only one workers' comp claim. They have a Safety Awareness Program and a Back to Work Program. Their annual incident rate has dropped from 19.3 in 1991 to 4.3 in 1995. The lost-time incident rate is at .07. Harnischfeger Industries on the whole had an experience modifier rate in 1994-95 of .79.

It's an attitude ...

Honesty and understanding play a major role in Kessler's agenda. Whether a person is right or wrong, he says he listens to both sides. "When people get hurt, the blame starts, then you can't get anything done," he says. Fairness also ranks along the top line. Kessler's office is on the factory floor. He treats each problem and each worker with equal respect. Anyone is welcome to discuss a problem. The company is enthusiastic about his open-minded approach and encourages it. The only information he keeps private are medical records and confidential files.

"Dave trusts the workers to get [their safety responsibilities] done. They trust Dave to help them. To this day, neither side has been let down," says Waters. "If there wasn't a trust factor, none of this would be working."

The six golden rules

Kessler runs his program using six rules: ·
  • Create a team atmosphere. "C.Y.B., or 'cover your butt' behavior is not acceptable anymore," he says. ·
  • Expect and display true, honest goal-setting involvement from everyone involved on a humanitarian level. Go beyond money. ·
  • Treat failure as a learning experience, always try again. Go on to try for an injury rate of zero, however impossible. ·
  • Give credit where credit is due. If the floor guy deserves it, he should get it. "If I can't try to make someone's life a little better, then I'm in the wrong job," he says. ·
  • Show respect and give everyone an opportunity to explain their rationale. It may be better than your own. ·
  • Minimize conflict: "What of value comes out of continual conflict?" asks Kessler.