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SAFETY FIRST: WestRock takes safety standards to new heights

A group of employees at WestRock plant in Demopolis has been recognized for their efforts in creating a safer work environment.

The Pulp and Paper Safety Association, which includes members of paper mills across the nation, recently recognized the Demopolis WestRock plant’s safety committee for developing a valve labeling system. The organization’s annual Safety Committee/Team Award honors a pulp and paper industry committee or team that has made a significant contribution to safety and health at their location, company or within the industry.

“WestRock-Demopolis, designed a new process to reduce risk for everyone through a valve labeling system,” stated the announcement from the PPSA. “The special color-coded valve labels are based on the respective product, such as water and hazardous materials and are etched with product information and unit numbers that match documentation for safety checks. The color-coded labels on each valve enable employees to easily and quickly identify specific product types, which increases awareness and knowledge of all valves, particularly if hazardous.”

According to WestRock Safety Manager Craig Dukes, the labeling system provides a clear communication on each valve.

“We have all sorts of chemicals and it’s beneficial to know what you may be working with. We have a lot of water, but there are some flammable or corrosive liquids. The labels allow employees to take appropriate precautions,” Dukes said.

“It’s important to note PPSA includes many of the paper mills, we belong to it, International Paper, Georgia Pacific … all paper companies belong to it.  So Demopolis was competing with paper mills from all over, as well as other facilities such as box plants. We competed against a lot of folk, so it is a great shot in the arm for our safety committee.”

While the labeling system was recognized by the PPSA, Dukes said the safety committee’s efforts in many areas have led to a higher standard in safety at the plant.

“The mill is on the verge of having its best safety year since it was built in 1958,” he said.

So far in WestRock’s fiscal year, spanning October 2019 through September 2020, the plant has gone 323 days without a recordable incident. A recordable incident would include an injury that cannot be treated with first aid at the plant.

“For a mill our size that’s unheard of. Other mills may have as many as 10 or 11. Even our first aid cases — someone gets a cut or burned — have been cut by 52 percent over last year,” Dukes said.

Dukes said the plant has continuously improved its safety ratings over the past five years. During the previous fiscal year, the plant had reduced to six the number of recordable injuries.

“We have steadily changed the culture here to one of caring. Everybody cares for one another, they care for their teammates and that doesn’t happen overnight; it is a slow, methodical process. The safety committee has been paramount in getting us to this point,” he said.

The committee is made up of employees across the plant that takes on a variety of safety-oriented projects, the labeling system being only one example. The group visited Demopolis High School early this year to speak to three classes about safety topics that pertains to their age group and they even sponsored a family at Christmas.

Jackie Whitfield is the chairperson of the committee and Dukes said she “is a very dynamic, safety-driven individual. We are very lucky to have her and all the other members.”

With the success of the committee in recent years, Duke said there would always be new challenges.

“The biggest thing we have to face is complacency. Once you’re running well, you tend to get complacent. In an industrial setting, you can’t do that. You have to be on point at all times, every day,” he said.

Dukes added that the committee wants to focus on burns, which he described as the top injury at the plant.   “It may be a chemical or thermal burn, but we are going to tackle those burns. Previously, our biggest issue was strains and sprains. We put together an ergonomic committee and we’ve had a lot of success in reducing those.”

Each month, the safety committee introduces a theme. To begin the current fiscal year, that monthly theme was strains and sprains and so far there’s only been two of those incidents.

As for recordable incidents, the plant has had three months of the current year when no recordable injuries were reported. “Other mills are calling asking us how we are doing it,” Dukes said.

He said they are doing it with a commitment from those individuals on the safety committee.

“They are the cornerstone of all this. A lot of facilities have these committees, but are ineffective. We have specific tasks and projects we are always working on.

“I’ve been in safety 38 years with different companies and I’ve never gone a year without a recordable injury,” Dukes said. “I’ve never been around a more dedicated and committed group. They have taken safety to a new level and I’m proud to be part of it.”

The WestRock safety committee includes: Chairperson Jackie Whitfield, Sherri Nettles, D’Mar Moore, Russ Gaddy, Billy Ray Brooks, John Collins, Clayton McVay, Marc Bozeman, and Dukes.