L’Oreal USA, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the world’s largest beauty company, announced last November its commitment to gain “Star” status for all nine of its U.S. manufacturing sites in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program in the next five years. L’Oreal is believed to be the first foreign firm to set such a goal for all its U.S. industrial plants.

What prompts a company like L’Oreal to go to the time and trouble to attain VPP “Star” level status? Compiling reams of ISO-like documentation. Opening up to OSHA auditors. Pledging to fix whatever is found wrong. Driving injury and lost-time rates below three-year industry averages.

L’Oreal’s track record is already sterling. In the past three years, the group has reduced lost-time injuries by 44 percent in its global factories. Plus, manufacturing Maybelline and the like is a low-risk enterprise. No one has ever been killed on the job in a L’Oreal USA plant. Worldwide, the last fatality anywhere in the L’Oreal Group was in Germany in 1991, according to a company official.

Face of commitment

First, let’s look at L’Oreal’s commitment to workplace safety and health.

Housekeeping is what you first notice at L’Oreal’s 270,000-square-foot Franklin, N.J., operation, where the VPP announcement was made. White pebbled synthetic floors look like they have been scrubbed by a fraternity pledge class on a work party weekend. Low-slung drop ceilings shower more light than in many offices. Automated million-dollar production lines for lip stick, skin creams and other beauty products are almost entirely encased in clear, hard plastic boxes that look like props from a Vegas magic show.

In many parts of the plant, you hear conversations from across the room. The loudest sound is clattering glass jars bumping along curving silver-metallic assembly lines. 82 decibels is as loud as it gets, according the site’s industrial hygienist.

Workers look like medical assistants in white smocks and hairnets. The plant employs about 400 workers, and runs three shifts. Still, there is scant evidence of wear and tear in the nearly 20-year-old facility.

What you see are safety visuals, banners, and bulletin boards at every turn. “Safety and drugs don’t mix.” “Don’t let safety slip away.” Signs for first-aid kits, blankets, eyewash stations, the right-to-know information station, and AEDs. Video monitors suspended from the ceilings flash safety reminders: “Be careful when walking. Never assume forklift operators can see you.” A large wall chart tracks each department’s number of reported accidents, lost-time accidents, and days without a lost-time accident for the month. The lab was up to 3,100 days through October.

Outside the cafeteria, a board lists current members of the safety committee, emergency response team members, and the fire brigade. A section is reserved for the Business Abuse Center. “Speak Up” cards are available to report anything suspicious using an 800 number.

Two printouts itemize the safety-related criteria for the annual performance evaluations of exempt and non-exempt personnel.

Non-exempt employees are measured by participation in training; housekeeping; PPE compliance; reporting near misses, injuries and hazardous conditions; operating equipment only if trained; proper lifting and bending; and proper use of tools.

Exempt employees are evaluated by participation in training and meetings; completed action items in formal audits and random inspections; signing off on the annual safety, health and environment plan; achieving goals of the plan; and setting an example with PPE usage and following rules. Supervisors are accountable for regular meetings held on safety, new employee safety training, and enforcement of PPE usage.

Backbone of commitment

Policies and procedures — a management system — build safety into L’Oreal’s operations. New equipment purchases above $400,000-$500,000 go through a process of initial risk assessment; third-party and internal reviews for safety specifications; prevention planning; ergonomic, noise and lighting level surveys; mechanic and operator job safety analysis training; and ongoing maintenance monitoring.

Employees on the floor assess hazards as part of the Safety Hazard Assessment Procedure (SHAP). Dangers for each workstation are defined and potential severity assessed, so a detailed map of each factory’s hazards can be drawn. This map is the focal point of discussions between managers and employees for tracking hazards and improving safeguards.

Industrial Safety Risk internal rules are issued by L’Oreal’s Production and Technology Division. They set out global policies and info on specifics such as personnel safety in high bay warehousing. Every factory worldwide abides by the same set of rules.

Roger Dolden, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of L’Oreal USA, chairs a safety council that meets every three months to tackle issues and track performance. A matrix of leading and trailing safety and health metrics is presented to L’Oreal’s executive committee. “This is much more than just reporting injuries,” says Mansdorf. Activity numbers, such as hours of safety training, correlate well to business performance, says Dolden.

Why bother?

What makes this $16-billion multinational powerhouse with 50,491 employees in 140 countries so particular about safety that plant visitors are instructed that no high-heel or open-toe shoes are allowed in any production area or warehouse?

L’Oreal makes shrewd use of safety and health to send a variety of corporate cultural messages to far-flung audiences broader than, but certainly including, employees and visitors.

  • To employees, L’Oreal uses safety to reinforce teamwork, problem-solving, participation and operational discipline.

  • To supervisors and managers, the message is: “If you can’t manage safety, we don’t believe you can manage quality or productivity or anything else,” says one L’Oreal exec. “Safety cannot be pulled out and separated from these other business skills and goals.”

  • Safety also builds trust and loyalty. L’Oreal’s business model is based on innovation, quality, efficiency and brand image. The company cannot be run like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, with a revolving door workforce. Retaining and developing employee talent is a business necessity.

  • Acquisitions are another part of L’Oreal’s business model, and here safety and health standards are a way of “welcoming” new additions into the fold, setting expectations and ensuring consistency.

  • L’Oreal products are personal, shaping a customer’s personality. This isn’t about cranking out pumps and valves. It’s about taking out wrinkles and preventing hair loss. L’Oreal needs a workforce attuned to emotions, wellness, health promotion. Products based on values require a values-based corporate culture. A strong commitment to safety and health reinforces the culture.

  • To communities where L’Oreal is sited (and this includes political leaders, grass roots groups and the press), safety and health efforts show that the world’s largest cosmetics company is not some ravenous globo-monster exploiting the locals. The commitment to VPP is a sign of responsibility.

    To be sure, the first objective of every safety and health program is protecting lives. But L’Oreal and the 1,000+ other VPP sites show how safety and health is leveraged to accomplish broader aims. “Great companies make great moves,” said OSHA chief John Henshaw at the company’s VPP announcement ceremony. “Drive better performance in safety and health and you are more productive, more profitable.”

    Indeed, L’Oreal has shown double-digit earnings growth for 18 straight years.