Working with Minnesota’s safety regulatory agency, metal fabricator Anderson Dahlen finds its shop floor to be a safer place

Posted on: December 9, 2016

Anderson Dahlen is like other fabricating companies. It started from humble origins, a heating and air-conditioning company, more than 70 years ago, and its expanded its capabilities in the subsequent years, moving several times and even making a few acquisitions, the most recent of which was Applied Vacuum Technology in 2009. Today the Ramsey, Minn.-based fabricator designs, engineers, and manufactures capital equipment for the food processing, pharmaceutical, energy, and industrial markets. It has about 200 employees and three facilities.

quality-1One way that Anderson Dahlen is unlike other fabricating companies is that it has fostered a safety culture by working with state occupational safety and health officials. It finally had enough of the injuries and the near-misses and welcomed the guidance that was offered to them. It decided to work with state regulatory officials, not fight them.

The result has been a more engaged and safe workforce.

An Unsafe History

Anderson Dahlen had a mixed history as it relates to safety. The company experienced frequent visits from the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) officials over the years, and it typically had high insurance rates. The workforce also had a poor attitude about working safety and viewed OSHA as the enemy, government bureaucracy looking to make life hard on employers and employees.

quality-2One of the incidents that slowly got management and workers to reconsider that thinking was a press brake accident in 1990. An operator lost two fingers while running a job. Because it was a small company, most people knew the operator was a gifted guitar player that wouldn’t be able to continue with his passion. The incident struck home with everyone.

It also led the company to rethink safety efforts. This was a terrible accident, so what could have been done different?

At that time, Anderson Dahlen didn’t engage its staff with a lot of safety training. That thinking was set to change after the press brake accident, and one of the first things management did was create a team to investigate how the injury occurred.

The investigation revealed three major points:

  • The company had a lack of formal equipment training. The person who lost his two fingers wasn’t a regular press brake operator. He had only about a day’s worth of training before manning the machine.
  • The press brake was an old mechanical model that didn’t have any guarding on it.
  • The brake also was poorly maintained and had clutch issues.

Anderson Dahlen also found out that it was mostly in the dark about OSHA regulations as well. The agency investigated the accident and quickly enlightened everyone as to what needed to be done to meet basic guarding and training requirements. It also fined the company heavily for not having those safety programs in place.

quality-3The company reacted quickly after the incident, investing in safety equipment and programs to meet OSHA compliance, but problems still existed. It was hard to change employees’ thinking about OSHA, even with the accident. They still saw OSHA as a predatory operation aimed at hurting businesses, not helping them. Management didn’t help the situation any because it also was skeptical of the safety agency.

The shop actually enjoyed a fairly good safety record for the remainder of the 1990s, but it seemed that every three years or so an accident would occur, causing everyone to scramble and try to figure out what went wrong. This not-so-proactive approach to safety ultimately lead to a near-miss accident in 2004 that could have been disastrous for numerous workers.

The company was installing a new horizontal boring mill, and the installation technicians wanted to use an overhead crane. Meanwhile, an electrical contractor was installing power conduit and pulling wire through that while he was in a vertical lift. The lift just so happened to be in the way of the crane, and the installation technicians ran the crane into the lift. The electrician grabbed onto the crane rail as the lift tipped over, knocking down two manual mills when if fell to the ground.

That was another wake-up call for the company. This time it was a reminder that no contractor training safety program was in place. Winging it almost cost several contractor to be injured.

About the same time, OSHA came through for its three-year inspection visit. This time it was different however. The inspector was from the consulting division of OSHA, and he talked about the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP). The inspector acknowledged that Anderson Dahlen had a lot of safety programs in place, but the company was missing quite a few pieces of a comprehensive plan. By participating in the SHARP program, Anderson Dahlen could improve employee safety and boost morale, the inspector said.

Management looked at the federal program and decided to commit to it. A manufacturer simply can’t decide to participate however. It has to be selected.

The program—in Minnesota it’s called MINSHARP—is focused on companies that have 250 employees are fewer. It’s site specific, so if a manufacturer has multiple sites and they all want to be a part of the program, they all have to qualify separately. A multisite organization can have no more than 500 employees total at all of its sites. Other prerequisites for being a part of MINSHARP are that a company has to have what is considered a hazardous environment, which most fab shops are; has to have at least one year’s operating history; and has to have better-than-industry averages when it comes to on-site accidents.

Learning to Work Together

As part of this new-found willingness to work with OSHA officials, Anderson Dahlen started to welcome visits from agency officials. These visits covered an initial in-depth review of the facility and subsequent meetings where they went over everything that they found. The company agreed to correct and pay for any deficiencies over an agreed-upon timeline.

Moving forward, Anderson Dahlen had to maintain a safety and health management system and had to meet minimum guidelines, which are reviewed regularly as part of a master checklist that includes 59 different criteria, which breaks out into the following major categories:

  • Hazard anticipation and detection
  • Hazard prevention and control
  • Planning and evaluation
  • Administration and supervision
  • Health and safety training
  • Management leadership
  • Employee participation

Inspection officials grade a participating manufacturer on a scale of 0 (no program at all) to 3 (at the standard) for each of the 59 criteria. A company needs a score of two or better on all criteria to be a part of the MINSHARP.

When Anderson Dahlen first began the program, it didn’t do very well. On the first evaluation, it didn’t get any 3s. It had only six questions where it scored at 2 (adequate but not at the standard), 51 questions where it had a 1 (in the beginning stages), and two zeroes. A lot of safety programs were in place, but they weren’t up to standards stressed by OSHA officials.

It took two years and several hundreds of hours putting in the work to boost safety training and awareness, but in 2008 Anderson Dahlen received its MINSHARP certificate.

As part of the select group, only 34 companies were qualified as of 2014, participating in MINSHARP, Anderson Dahlen has to work constantly to stay on top of its safety efforts. This means not only correcting all hazards and maintaining the basic elements of an effective safety program, but also management and employees working side-by-side in conducting worksite analysis to identify potential hazards. Accidents and near-misses have to be reviewed, and corrective actions put into place. Prevention programs are a regular part of a new pro-active approach to safety. Annual training about what makes a safe work environment occurs for all employees, supervisors, and managers.

Anderson Dahlen also has a closer working relationship with OSHA officials. Anytime changes are made to correct a hazardous condition, management has to contact MINSHARP officials and request a new consultation. Also, OSHA officials have regularly scheduled inspections; there are no surprise visits. (During one incident, an OSHA inspector showed up for a surprise visit, saw the MINSHARP certificate on the wall, and turned around, realizing his inspection wasn’t necessary.)

A Safe Result

Since being a part of the program, Anderson Dahlen has seen several benefits. The most obvious is a 43 percent savings on workers compensation insurance rates from 2008 to 2014.

The company also has established a Workplace Accident Reduction Program, which is a continuous improvement program that is focused on reducing accidents and improving safety. A safety committee, which has a rotating membership of management representatives and front-line workers, meets monthly and performs regular safety audits. Safety training now occurs on a routine basis for everyone in the facility.

As mundane as it might sound, Anderson Dahlen also developed new forms, such as risk analysis plans. It’s very critical that these analysis plans are done when new equipment is installed or facility updates take place. In this instance, these forms cover the scope of the change, initial hazards, parties involved in the installation, and other basic knowledge. These plans are then submitted to OSHA, and they decide to come out and do a consultation or not.

From an employee standpoint, everyone is much more engaged. Everyone feels that safety is their primary responsibility. Reportable accidents and injuries have been trending down from a high of 38 in 2007 to just 13 in 2014. Employees are really focused on identifying hazards and reporting them so they get corrected before someone gets hurt.