Pulp and Paper Canada

Taking the Temperature on Safety

September 1, 2007  By Pulp & Paper Canada

“North American pulp mills have taken a proactive stance in health and safety by making safety a topic that is talked about 24/7,” notes Bob Leslie, former mill manager of Millar Western in White Cour…

“North American pulp mills have taken a proactive stance in health and safety by making safety a topic that is talked about 24/7,” notes Bob Leslie, former mill manager of Millar Western in White Court, AB. “Safety, quality and production are like legs on a three-legged stool. Each one is equal. As our industry becomes more global and more competitive we must focus on continuous improvement by finding new and better ways to do things. The attention to detail necessary for production and quality improvements is also the same attention that is needed to keep people safe at work. All three must be focused on. I think this is happening.”

Few would argue with Leslie’s perception, both that our industry is indeed becoming increasingly global, and that safety needs to be continuously emphasized. However, it is possible that one impedes the other. As consultant and trainer for the Pulp & Paper Health & Safety Association, Dan Suess says, “Canadian companies are leaders in health and safety, we are extremely socially advanced and we are very conscious of not only meeting our social obligations, but exceeding them. It may be, however, that this makes us less competitive.” While Suess notes a lack of hard-line evidence to support this theory, the correlation makes sense. If Canadian pulp and paper mills devote vast resources to health and safety, while our counterpart competition is more lax when it comes to this area and alternatively direct their own resources to production, it logistically implies that our bottom line is going to suffer as a result.


From a more localized perspective, the very nature of the industry poses threats to safety in the workplace. As Kim Nibarger of the United Steelworkers’ Union notes, “something else that we have seen are the behaviour-based safety programs where the emphasis is on personal safety as opposed to process safety. One aspect of a behaviour program is often a rewards program for low safety numbers. This tends to drive reporting of accidents down and nearly eliminates any near-miss reporting. Hence the low numbers are achieved but at the expense of masking causes of accidents, as they are not reported so they cannot be investigated to find the root causes. This gives a false sense of safety and usually leads to a very serious accident eventually, because the underlying causes are not being captured and eliminated.”

The inherent nature of the work organization in a pulp and paper mill can also be detrimental to employee health and safety. While Bob Leslie points out that, “long shifts have been around for 30 years, staffing levels have been dropping steadily and there is always a deadline somewhere,” Kim Nibarger points to numerous studies that illustrate the negative impact from working long hours in consecutive days without sufficient rest, on safety. “Many of these studies have shown that excessive work hours impair an employee’s judgement. Many industries (truck drivers, airline pilots) have restrictions on number of hours they can work. The manufacturing sector workplaces of the pulp and paper industry are no place to be when you are tired and not as alert as normal.”

Nibarger notes the solution to such challenges could potentially lie in revisiting the way in which shifts are scheduled. “One solution to overtime is hiring more workers so that there are enough personnel to cover shifts for vacations, training days and sick days. There are also other shift schedules that accommodate the training and sick days issue by utilizing five teams. The question of deadlines or production schedules will always be a problem. Obviously, if you promise the customer a completed project in X amount of days and you cannot meet the schedule, it reflects badly on you as you bid for work again. Scheduling that is more flexible or more realistic would be the wiser thing to do. You may not get every bid, but you can produce quality work in a timely manner and do it safely.”

How can we work to weed out some of the threats to safety that seem to be firmly embedded in the nature of the industry? For Paul Andre, manager of field services for the Pulp & Paper Health & Safety Association, there is a one-word answer. “Accountability.” He explained, “It can be the single largest factor that impacts the success of safety in a particular workplace. Responsibility for safety can be dolled out like ice cream on a hot day, but unless true accountability is built into the framework, all the responsibility assigned in the world will not work. Individuals will focus on those areas that get rewarded and are perceived to be the most important to the organization and their immediate supervisor (this is why values are so important). Accountability for safety must be built into all job descriptions and tied into whatever performance management system is in place and weighted equally to other measures. The further up the hierarchy, the more emphasis on results versus activity.”

However, and as is true of the achievement of any goal, success starts with a shift in attitude, the perception that something is indeed attainable. “We can all do more,” Andre says firmly. “We must promote the concept that all accidents are preventable. Our goal should be zero. Anything less is unacceptable.”

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