Do you remember McWane? On January 8, 2003,The New York Timesprinted the first of a three-part series on McWane, Inc., an 80-year-old, fourth-generation family company based in Birmingham, Ala., and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cast-iron sewer and water pipe.The Timescalled McWane “a workplace in turmoil.”

Between 1995 and 2003, at least 4,600 injuries had been recorded in McWane foundries, nine workers killed, and more than 400 OSHA violations cited, according toThe Times.

A television documentary, “A Dangerous Business,” was broadcast on PBS’s “Frontline” on January 9, 2003, in conjunction withThe Times’front-page articles. In front of the camera, former OSHA chief Charles Jeffress called McWane “a rogue company,” “a renegade company.”

“It’s hard to overstate the significance of a company having that many violations,” David Uhlmann toldISHN. Uhlmann, who was chief of the environmental crimes section of the U.S. Department of Justice from 2000 to 2007, led a criminal investigation of five McWane facilities in a pilot project for the Justice Department’s worker endangerment initiative.

“There’s no question the McWane prosecutions changed industry,” says Uhlmann. “I’m confident it scared a lot of companies straight.”

The comeback

Flash forward to 2010.

Seven of McWane’s 27 locations have qualified as OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) sites. All U.S. facilities are shooting for VPP status. The company, with 7,500 employees worldwide and annual revenues estimated at $1.75 billion, has spent more than $300 million in safety and environmental upgrades, say McWane officials. Since 2002, McWane’s total recordable incidence rate has improved 57.6 percent; the days away from work case rate has improved 56.7 percent, according to the company. Since 1999, McWane has hired 175 new environmental health and safety and human resource people, and created 70 new health and safety positions, Barb Wisniewski, the company’s vice president for health and safety, toldISHNin an exclusive series of interviews conducted this past April.

“Safety is now a core strength of our culture and organization,” said McWane President G. Ruffner Page in an email.

First impressions

Wisniewski was flipping through channels that January night in 2003 when the “Frontline” McWane exposé aired, and watched the last 30-45 minutes of the program. “I was appalled,” she says.

Three months later she received a phone call from McWane President Page. “He said he had an opportunity for me,” Wisniewski recalls. “I said, ‘I’m sorry sir, but I can’t work for a company like yours.’ He said, ‘We’re not that kind of company’.”

Page was given Wisniewski’s name by Pat Tyson, a former acting OSHA chief working as a consultant for McWane. Tyson, former chairman of the board of the National Safety Council, and Wisniewski had known each other for 20 years. She flew to Birmingham for an interview with Page. Returning that evening to Milwaukee, where Wisniewski had worked for Miller Brewing for 14 years, she was seriously considering the offer to be McWane’s VP of health and safety.


“Ruffner said, ‘I’m not going to tell you how to do this. You have latitude.’ They admitted they didn’t know what they didn’t know. ‘Do whatever it takes,’ said Ruffner. ‘Get us out of this and make sure it never happens again.’ That was my job description. Short and sweet.”

This was not about turning around media attention, a quick fix, but a “forever commitment,” says Wisniewski. McWane’s culture change started in the late 1990s before she arrived and had a new urgency afterThe New York Timesseries and “Frontline” broadcast, she says.

"Show me" skepticism

Other safety and health pros hired by McWane also needed to be convinced.

“I never would’ve considered (taking a job at McWane) if Ruffner Page didn’t get it,” Jeff Willman, a group safety director, toldISHN. “The people above me were going to give me the tools I needed. This is a dream scenario for any safety professional.”

Will Yarbrough, safety manager at McWane’s Amerex facility in Trussville, Ala., worked for U.S. Pipe, a direct competitor of McWane, before he was recruited. “I was really excited when I had the opportunity to interview and Ms. Wisniewski laid out the plan. She said, ‘We’re going to staff up, provide facilities with the tools and the authority to get things implemented.’ She came across very, very professional and knowledgeable. She had I guess a passion for safety unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

In 2008, “Frontline” aired an update on the McWane story. Ruffner Page told reporters, “If you think OSHA is tough, you ought to meet Barb Wisniewski, our health and safety VP. She is as tough as they get and she has our full support.”

“I am a Type A workaholic,” she says. (ISHN’sinterviews with her were conducted during a twoweek road trip through the Midwest where she and a consulting attorney made unannounced audits of facility recordkeeping. The attorney drove while she answered questions.)

“I hold my staff to very high standards. If you have zero injuries for a year, then go two years. If you have no OSHA citations for ten years, make it 20 years.”

Wisniewski wants to be clear: “This isn’t The Barb Story. So many people worked years to make our success happen. From Ruffner Page and Phillip McWane on down through general managers, production supervisors, and hourly employees. Without everyone pulling together in the same direction it would not have happened.”

McWane has “certainly brought in an A team of environmental and safety people, you can’t argue with that,” David Uhlmann, the former Justice Department prosecutor, toldISHN.

The "A team" take action

So how has this "A team" gone about building a new culture of safety at McWane? Here are ten key essentials:
  1. Systems approach — McWane had numerous procedures (confined space, lockout/tagout, fall protection), but they lacked cohesion. An EHS management system was started in 2002 by Jeet Radia, P.E., CIH, working for McWane as a consultant at the time. (Today, Radia is McWane's senior vice president, environment, safety and human resources, leading overall EHS and HR functions.) The management system was crafted from pieces of the VPP model, OSHA's 1989 voluntary safety and health program guidelines, and the 18001 OHSAS voluntary global standard.

    "We needed a systems approach right off the bat," says Wisniewski.
  2. Hiring surge — "Early on I asked for corporate help," says Wisniewski. "There needed to be a degreed health and safety professional at every facility, versus someone who did HR and safety on the side. Staffing was important right up front."

    Fire-fighters need not apply. McWane wanted strategic planners and thinkers, says Wisniewski. People with organizational skills who could multi-task.

    Desk jockeys also need not apply. Wisniewski wanted safety and health managers out on the shop floor as often as possible, accessible to employees, not shuffling paperwork. "You need to get to know individuals on an individual basis; show them that you care about them," she says.
  3. Leadership message — Wisniewski started at McWane in July, 2003. In October, 2003, Page brought the company's 300 top managers to a meeting in Atlanta. Both Page and McWane chairman Philip McWane spoke. Their message, says Wisniewski was, "It is a new day at McWane. We are going to have the premier EHS program in our industry. If you don't want to be part of this change, McWane is not for you. Those willing to be part of it will be helped, but stragglers will be shot."
  4. Trust factor — "The first thing we did, we really went after employees' trust," says Group Safety Director Jeff Willman, who joined McWane in 1999. Tyler Pipe, the McWane facility in Tyler, Texas, singled out as especially dangerous in the media coverage, had a safety program in place but employees were not truly involved, according to Willman. "The program lacked depth. Management commitment existed at a high level, but was not driven down to the employee level," he says.

    "Shortly after I got to Tyler I did a perception survey," he says. "There was a gap. Employees felt safety was just coming down from above. Management felt we had a tremendous amount of programs in place. From 1999 to 2001, Willman strove to close the gap, even before McWane's safety problems became national news.
  5. Open communication — Willman sat down with Tyler's existing safety and health committee and "broke down all the walls. We let them vent. Let them tell us the problems. Then we told them how we'd solve things. We said, 'Let's agree safety is not employee-driven, not management-driven, there is no us-and-them. It's a team approach.' This began pulling employees in."

    Tyler developed a "safety alert system." If an employee has a safety issue, he or she goes to their supervisor. A five-part reporting form is used to record the employee's name, date, the issue in question, what the employee wants to see done about it. The supervisor fills out the form; copies go to the safety department, the plant manager, the general manager, the employee and the supervisor.

    "This opened up the ability for employees to put issues directly on the GM's desk," says Willman.

    When an employee approaches Yarbrough with a complaint or issue, he makes certain to follow up. "I'll go look at the problem and get that one-on-one face time with the person who brought it up."

    Bob Shepard has worked at Clow Valve, a McWane facility, for 17 years as a turret lathe operator. A supervisor's response to an employee safety issue is all about actions speaking louder than words, he told ISHN. "Some supervisors get it, others don't," he says. "If I report my hoist is hard to pull, that's a big deal to me; maybe not to the supervisor. If he goes right to maintenance and tells me they're coming down to work on it, that means a lot of people. Some supervisors forget about it, turn and walk away."
  6. Accountability — Each year every McWane supervisor has goals and objectives relating to safety and health. For example, supervisors must make sure any incident investigation is initiated immediately when necessary and any corrective action is closed out on a timely basis. "We investigate all near misses, including any incident that has the potential for property damage greater than $500, and all first aid cases, recordables, lost-time injuries, all the way up (the severity scale)," says Wisniewski. EHS performance also factors into management performance appraisals, using lagging and leading indicators, according to Wisniewski. Injury rates are a lagging measure. Leading metrics can include number of hours of employee training per month; numbers per month of medical evaluations, respirator fit tests, hearing tests, industrial hygiene samples collected; timely closure of inspection actions; and also internal facility safety and health reviews.
  7. Reporting — A computerized communications network was developed, with an EHS website to post policies, directives, procedures, training materials, and to report safety and health incidents and environmental releases. Wisniewski says McWane spent "just over $500,000" on the IT software. Monthly one-hour webinars cover specific EHS topics for safety and health, environmental and human resources personnel. Attendance is mandatory, says Wisniewski.

    Ruffner Page gets copies of any recordable incidents emailed to him within 24 hours, says Wisniewski. Most minor cases involve strains and sprains common to an aging workforce. Lacerations are the second most common case.

    The Tyler Pipe plant started to pay employees to report, to come up with safety alerts, says Jeff Willman. "If you had an idea that impacted your department's safety, a big idea, the joint health and safety committee would take a vote once a quarter and give that employee $100. We'd give $500 for an idea that was really good.

    "Before I got here, this kind of communication didn't exist. Maybe employees would make a report to a supervisor, but it wouldn't get corrected. So the employee walked around and said, 'This company just doesn't' care.' So they would call OSHA. Now, to close out any safety alert, you have to circle back and say, 'This is what we've done. Has this addressed your concern?' We still have an open issue until the employee signs off and agrees it's closed."

    A number of communication avenues exist for employees, says Wisniewski.

    A 24-hour, toll-free hotline has been deployed company- wide. Every employee is given a safety brochure with Wisniewski's office phone number. Employees can talk directly to their supervisors. Or to silver hardhat safety "ambassadors" — employees from every facility department, on every shift, designated as safety representatives and trained in the OSHA ten-hour safety basics course. These safety reps are a conduit between the production floor and the joint health and safety committee at each facility.
  8. Engagement — James Stephenson is a millwright at the Tyler Pipe plant; he started in 1973. "Back then, you had safety, but not nearly what you have today," he says. Into the 1990s, employee safety attitudes were "fair, not great," he says. He joined the plant's safety committee in 1994.

    Stephenson goes beyond what many employees think about safety. "I've been involved in safety for 20 years. I want to see people walk out of this place as they came in. I believe in safety all the way."

    That's the kind of engagement Wisniewski wants to see across McWane. Sitting on a safety committee is involvement, she says. Voicing opinions, making suggestions, discovering and resolving problems, actually doing things amounts to engagement, she says.

    Will Yarbrough's Amerex plant uses an incentive program to drive active participation. The Amerex Safety Achievement Program — ASAP — was created in 2007 by the hourly health and safety committee. Points are awarded for participation in 15 proactive indicators, such as partaking in a safety investigation, turning in a safety process improvement idea that is accepted and implemented, leading a toolbox training session, completing extra health and safety training, trying on new personal protective equipment. Depending on the level of participation, employees can receive $25 to $100 in prize money, plus a oneounce silver coin designed by the committee.
  9. Recordkeeping — ISHN first interviewed Barb Wisniewski on a Monday morning in early April, as she and consulting attorney Bill Principe were leaving Birmingham on a two-week, 2,409-mile road trip that would take them to Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee to arrive unannounced at six McWane facilities to conduct injury and illness recordkeeping audits. Every McWane facility has its recordkeeping audited this way annually.

    Records are examined; medical records and physicians' notes reviewed; and interviews conducted with employees, nurses, recordkeeping personnel, and management. Employees are trained via toolbox talks once a year and by posters on how to report cases and who to report to. Every January, the law firm of Constangy, Brooks and Smith, Principe's employer, presents a two-hour webinar on recordkeeping training for McWane personnel.

    Tyler Pipe has surpassed one-million man-hours without a days-away-from-work case. McWane's Union Foundry passed two-million hours in 2007. Wisniewski is confident no under-reporting is occurring: "We've had Constangy, Brooks and Smith audit every single medical and first aid case since 2003."
  10. Sustainability — David Uhlmann, who prosecuted McWane for worker endangerment and environmental crimes for several years, says, "It's not what you say, it's what you do over not a short period but a long period of time."

    What about organizational drift? The kind that saw NASA experience the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003 after the Challenger shuttle tragedy in 1986.

    "This program, this culture will remain after Ruffner and I are gone," says Wisniewski. "There is no one at McWane who wants to go through this again."

    "We're 80 percent of the way" to creating a new safety and health culture, says Wisniewski. "I am a perfectionist. We're not perfect; we continue to improve. I'm extremely pleased with our progress. But the goal is zero injuries. That's safety 101. So we're not where I want us to be."