Case Study: Smurfit Kappa SSK

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The major hazards in the industry are fast moving equipment, erm it’s noise things like slips, trips and falls, manual handling erm falls from height.  In the past when we had a health and safety coordinator what tended to happen was all health and safety issues were driven from one individual and he was trying in vain most of the time do drive it down through the organisation.  What we now have is a culture where the employees represented by their safety reps are engaged with the management team here, where things that had been raised by individuals are worked on erm in a combined fashion by both the employees and the management team, erm to come up with solutions.  The Health and Safety Committee or Health and Safety Team as we like to call it here.  There’s roughly a 50/50 split between between the workers or the safety representatives and the management of the organisation.  So it’s a very flat structure and I run it so that we work together.

The safety concern system, reporting system that we’ve got is quite a good system.  This gives everybody the opportunity to put all their safety concerns forward no matter how small it is or how trivial.

All the health and safety concerns that have been raised during that week will be taken to the morning meeting.  Where we have a group of managers and team leaders and err we will look at that concern and come up with all the various corrective actions which would resolve the situation.

The no blame culture is the best thing that’s really happened in this mill.  Where in the past people wouldn’t report things for the further that they might get disciplined in some way it’s changed that round considerably now.

When incidents are reported we have a response from from both the team leader on the particular crew and the safety rep on that crew in order to get a first hand account of what has happened so that we can then put corrective actions in to prevent it happening again.

Back in the early eighties I was a one man band looking to make this mill and the industry a lot safer.  Now, it’s changed completely where I have the support of the management I have all the other safety representatives to help me as well and we all work together to make this industry a safer industry to work in.

We’ve just seen a significant reduction in our insurance premiums as a response of our very much improved health and safety performance over the last 2 years, so we are seeing direct bottom line improvements erm in our business as a consequence of good health and safety performance.

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Smurfit Kappa SSK is part of the Smurfit Kappa Group, market leaders in paper-based packaging with over 40,000 employees world-wide. The Smurfit Kappa SSK paper mill, based near Birmingham, has approximately 110 employees. It is a 24/7 operation, closing only on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and works on a shift pattern. The site specialises in the production of Testliner 2, Testliner 3 and Waste Based Fluting paper.

The problem

In 2007 Paul Freeman became Operations Director. Although the company followed all statutory regulations he identified a need to drive down accident rates to improve health and safety performance.

Years before, Smurfit Kappa had shown foresight in setting up a health and safety committee made up of management and workers, but Paul felt it now needed more drive and commitment.

Shop floor worker Dave Allen first got involved with health and safety in 1982. ‘Back then there were hazards everywhere you turned, so I put myself forward as a safety rep and went on the safety courses of the time,’ Dave explains.

Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with him and he was viewed by both his colleagues and the then management as a hindrance. ‘One of the biggest stumbling blocks was management – just getting meetings on health and safety was a big issue. We were lucky if we had three a year and the outcome was always the same – lack of money to make the site safer.’

The paper industry has moved on since the early 80s. Health and safety is now paramount and for Smurfit Kappa finances in this area aren’t an issue. With that in mind, Paul and Dave set themselves the challenge of achieving an accident-free working environment.

The solution

Until 2005 the plant had a specialist health and safety advisor. When he departed, instead of appointing a successor, the management at that time decided to involve all the members of the management team and the health and safety committee. As a result, members are now fully involved in both long-term and day-to-day safety matters, and there are eight safety reps from across the various departments and shifts.

So while the committee meets every six weeks or so - ten times a year minimum - safety representatives and workers meet every day at shift-changes to consult on health and safety issues.

In 2008 Paul introduced another initiative, the Safety Concern reporting system, in which workers fill out a simple form indicating any concerns they may have. This enables the company to take steps to eliminate potential problems.

Last year workers handed in 100 forms. One example reported a safety gate not closing, so not offering protection. As a result it was repaired before any accident occurred.

The company holds twice-yearly off-site refresher and briefing meetings for everyone. Over the years the health and safety element has risen to about 80% of the training. Meetings, held over 3 days, are interactive and imaginative: recent activities include ‘Name that Alarm’ - a test on the different alarms at the plant - and ‘Trial by Jury’ where the workforce ‘jury’ decided Paul’s guilt or innocence on a range of health and safety procedures.

Health and safety training is constant throughout SSK.  The safety representatives’ target is NVQ level 2, while all workers take the IOSH Working Safely one-day course.

The results

Paul says his site spends around £50 000 a year on health and safety measures. Benefits include lower injury frequency, less time lost, reduced insurance premiums and higher staff morale.

Last year SSK went 325 days without an injury. When the spell was broken by two accidents - a slip and trip and a manual handling incident - there followed a surge of Safety Concern forms from the workforce – sixty within a short period. Paul says there is often a rise in Safety Concern reports following any accident, however small.

Paul’s aim is a 100% non-injury record. He believes this is achievable. 'We live in a changing world, so health and safety can deteriorate as well as improve. Keeping on top of it is the thing – not letting it slip.'

For Dave Allen the changes have been immense. Suspicion has turned to respect, and coworkers now approach him when they see a potential problem.

Tim Watts of TWA People Development provides an external view after working with Paul and his team in 2009. He says: ‘I’ve worked in the papermaking industry since 1979 and grown up with the hazards and horrors you hear about. Changes in UK mills, particularly within the past ten years, have been nothing short of dramatic, and SSK has been at the forefront. I’ve witnessed how Paul and his managers and Dave and his safety representative colleagues work together towards zero accident and injury. Worker involvement is alive and well at SSK and producing demonstrable results.’

The Smurfit group takes workforce welfare so seriously that the success of the Birmingham site’s safety strategy is now a blueprint for sites throughout Europe.

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