By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
Of the 90,000 or so businesses in Oregon, only nine of them have achieved a safety standard so high that state safety and health officials won't even bother with routine inspections at their plants anymore.
That exclusive list now includes Baker City's Marvin Wood Products plant, which received an award from Oregon's Occupational Safety and Health Administration Wednesday, inducting the local firm into the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Merit Designation.
andquot;Why should we waste our resources inspecting a plant like this one?andquot; said Mark Hurliman, who administers the program for Oregon OSHA.
VPP participants are no longer subject to routine inspections, but Oregon OSHA still investigates accidents, formal complaints and chemical spills.
The VPP designation, earned by only about 1,000 facilities nationwide, is not bestowed simply for not having accidents. A company must develop a comprehensive safety management program, developed both by management and employees.
andquot;We don't just give out these awards. They have to be earned,andquot; Hurliman said. andquot;You've stepped up to be counted among the best of the best.
To mark the achievement, state officials presented plant manager Everett Vassar with a plaque and a flag designating the plant as a VPP designee. The flag now flies from the plant's flagpole.
To achieve VPP status, a work site must undergo an extensive Oregon OSHA review of workplace conditions, safety records, employee safety and health programs, and regulatory compliance, including interviews with employees on the plant floor.
andquot;This award may be management led,andquot; Hurliman explained, andquot;but it's employee driven.andquot;
Most of the rank-and-file workers are firm believers in the program, said Bill Dixon, the plant's safety coordinator.
andquot;I think the process has brought about better communication between employees and management and among employees,andquot; he said. andquot;Our goal through all this is zero worker injuries. We're not there yet, but we're working on it.
andquot;People have started to take this stuff home with them, too, especially when they're recreating. If you're injured off the job, you're still injured.andquot;
Since 1999 the company's local mill has qualified for the SHARP award, for Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program.
The VPP represents an even deeper commitment to worker safety, Hurliman said, one that company management and employees decided to attempt beginning in July 2003.
It's a process that has been good for the company's bottom line and for morale. According to Hurliman, VPP companies pay between 60 and 80 percent less in andquot;that great black holeandquot; workers compensation claims.
andquot;It's a milestone on our safety journey,andquot; Vassar told plant workers. andquot;Without buy-in and support from all our employees, all this would have gone for naught.andquot;
The Baker City plant is the fourth of Marvin's five plants to earn the designation, said Gene Harmer, the company's director of risk management. The fifth plant, in Fargo, N.D., has applied, but won't learn if it's been accepted until spring.
The long and winding road
Bruce DeRosier, an OROSHA consultant who helped the plant earn its new safety status, outlined the history of the Baker facility's emphasis on history.
Once Marvin made the commitment to seek SHARP status in mid-1998, the plant cut its lost work days in half in less than a year and scored 19 percentage points higher on an injury and illness matrix over the previous year.
andquot;Those are phenomenal achievements,andquot; he said, andquot;We work with a lot of companies, and Marvin represents the best of the best.andquot;
Peter DeLuca, OROSHA administrator, made the official presentation.
andquot;You're the first VPP site in Eastern Oregon, and now we need more,andquot; he said. andquot;This side of the mountains ought to be just as safe as the other side. This award tells your employees that you appreciate them, and the employees appreciate the fact that you care about their safety.
andquot;Ring one up for Eastern Oregon, for Baker City and for Marvin Wood Products.andquot;
Hurliman said that it was andquot;significantandquot; that a company in the wood products industry would win such an award, andquot;an industry I grew up in, an industry that has killed or maimed thousands of workers over the past century.
andquot;When it really hits the fan, most companies in this industry dropped safety and emphasized production. But you've maintained safety and product quality, and it's improved your profitability. Like it or not, making money is what keeps the doors open.andquot;
With the award comes responsibility. Marvin workers and managers are expected to mentor other area companies on how they've accomplished their safety standards, he said.
andquot;We're going to point to you when we're asked for examples of how safety and health are achieved,andquot; he said.
George Vorhauer, the OROSHA consultant who evaluated Marvin's application, expressed why he was so happy to help present the award: he used to perform fatality investigations after workplace accidents, 80 in five years.
andquot;Your employees all are knowledgeable about safety, and they understand the on-site hazards,andquot; he said. andquot;We expect and encourage your continued improvement.andquot;
Other VPPs are VIPs
On hand to help Marvin employees celebrate their award were a pair of unionized workers from the Georgia-Pacific West plant in Toledo, which garnered its own VPP award in 1999. Since then, that plant, which manufactures brown paper, has earned the even more rigorous VPP andquot;Starandquot; designation.
Judy Vickery, a 30-year forklift operator at the Toledo plant, said the process of earning and then maintaining the VPP designation has forced employees to andquot;take ownershipandquot; of safety at the plant, which employs 377 hourly employees.
andquot;It used to be 'us and them,' and employees took no responsibility for their own safety,andquot; she said. andquot;Then, in 1993, two employees died (in a plant accident). That really turned things around for us.andquot;
andquot;Safety is not a flavor of the month for us it's forever,andquot; said Gary McDonough, who works with Vickery at the Toledo plant. andquot;You work hard every day to make sure your workers go home at the end of the day with everything they started with.
andquot;You're redefining the workplace, and not just in Baker City. Oregon OSHA needs your help, because you know more about safety in your workplace than any inspector does.andquot;