"We were formed in March of 1908...many of our facilities were over 50 years old, and many of our work habits and attitudes toward safety were just as outdated," says Harlan Schafer, maintenance and safety supervisor for Aurora Cooperative Elevator Company in Aurora, Neb.

Those attitudes had to change in order for safety to improve at Aurora's central Nebraska facilities. "Because of our heritage, it wasn't something that could happen overnight," Schafer says.

Also, Aurora has steadily improved its safety record during a period of rapid growth. In 1985, Aurora owned facilities in three Nebraska towns, and had about 50 employees. As 1997 begins, the company has 179 employees and 42 facilities in 17 Nebraska towns.

Yet accident figures have steadily declined, Schafer says, since Aurora's safety program was initiated in 1991. In 1993 Aurora had 36 accidents, with 19 recordables. In 1996 they had 6 accidents, with only 4 recordables. Aurora is a member of Farmland Industries, a cooperative serving the agricultural chemical and fertilizer industry. It was Farmland Industries' Ag-21 program, which combines safety with best management practices, that started management at Aurora thinking about safety issues.

Consultants from Farmland Industries worked with Aurora to put its initial programs in place, then the company chose Schafer as the inside man who would be responsible for the program beyond Ag-21's initial assistance.

Managers prove it

In 1995, Aurora spent $100,000 on facility improvements and safety programs, and in 1996 they spent an additional $50,000. They expect to spend that much again this year.

"The board of directors and the general manager play a supporting role in program implementation," says Schafer.

Schafer himself started with Aurora as an electrician 10 years ago, and thinks it's helpful his fellow employees know him and watched him move up the ranks.

Their familiarity with him notwithstanding, initial resistance was strong, Schafer says. Employees balked at changes that they felt infringed on their ability to do their jobs. But management's commitment carried the program until employees could begin to see the benefits.

"We threw away all the old unsafe ladders and bought new ones," Schafer says. "They saw that this wasn't lip service."

Then the employee group as a whole began to respond by offering suggestions for additional safety improvements. The process took five or six years, Schafer says, but now Aurora is seeing the benefits of employee commitment to the program.

One of the most progressive steps in the safety program was taken in 1993, when the 17-member Employee Safety Committee was formed. In 1995, the safety committee completed a workplace hazards assessment and job hazard analysis. "They implemented several new personal protective equipment programs and training programs," Schafer says. In doing so, employees showed themselves to be both reactive and proactive, addressing potential hazards as well as recognized ones.

"In the case of hard hats in our elevators and feed mills, we really hadn't had an injury, but the potential was there," he says. Schafer has now turned over control of the committee to the employees, who choose their own moderator, schedule their own meetings, perform safety audits, and set priorities.

Employees who are not on the safety committee have become more involved in the program as well. In one of Aurora's feed mills, for example, there was no safe way to access a distributor for cleaning. Employees had to lay on a plank to do the job. Once reported, the situation was quickly corrected. "Updating our facilities was really the easy part of the project," Schafer says. "The program succeeds when everyone is involved and has ownership of it."