25 March 2010 14:35 [Source: ICB]
Since its US initial public offering in 2005, Celanese has made safety a "precondition" of doing business. Effective communication along the chain of command is vital
IN MANY ways, industrial benchmarking is like keeping up with the neighbors. They have a new fence; we need one. They've traded in their old car; it's about time we did that.
In industry, this type of behavior is a force for good. It helps companies assess how they are faring against their competitors - and what they need to do in order to surpass them.
US-based Celanese, which was spun out of Germany's Hoechst in 1999, has come a long way in its own attitude to benchmarking - particularly where safety is concerned. It has started talking about benchmarking itself against the nuclear industry - and has a target of "zero incidents." But once, it was content to treat safety figures as an internal matter, assessing improvement by simply bringing down the number of reported incidents, year on year.
"It was only in 2004, when the number of incidents rose, that we realized we needed to know what 'good' was," says Jim Alder, senior vice president of operations and technical at the company.
Celanese realized that if it was to compete effectively, it needed a far more robust way of measuring safety performance. So it moved to a common metric across all of its plants - in this case, the OSHA system, from the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which tracks the number of "reportable incidents" per 200,000 man hours, or per 100 employees. Previously, Celanese had used different metrics in different countries.
This increased focus on safety coincided with Celanese becoming a US public company in 2005. At the time it was scoring 1.06 on the OSHA scale, which - in Alder's words - made it "average" compared with similar companies (whose performances it had now begun to assess). This is when it also made safety one of its core company values.
"Across the organization, we had to view safety as a foundation on which other priorities were built," says Alder. "It was a precondition for doing business."
To start improving on its safety record - and become better than average - Celanese needed to make big changes. In order to raise awareness, it pushed the idea through the company using a simple acronym, ALERT: Accountability, Leadership, Engaged employees, Requirements (for best practice) and Tools/models. "We used this to illustrate that things were changing," he says.
Celanese also found local "champions" who would push through the necessary safety changes at each of its plants.
"With 25 or 30 plants worldwide, we were looking for 25 or 30 people to start spreading that message to our 8,000 employees worldwide," says Alder.
These people were typically the site leaders, who were accountable for safety improvements. One way that Celanese drove accountability was to ensure that any site that reported a "lost time" incident needed to have a conversation with the CEO within 24 hours. Another introduction was to hold monthly conference calls, in which Celanese site leaders shared best practices among one another.
This process - and that of passing knowledge to the next "plant manager" tier - was achieved successfully, leading to an OSHA rating of 0.4 by the end of 2007, which Alder calls a "good interim level."
But passing the baton to the next level - the line leaders, to whom mechanics typically report - was less effective. This was a critical "break in the chain" that meant the message was being interrupted.
"Our performance had reached a plateau," says Alder. "We needed to refresh some of our tools and processes."
One of the ways it did this was to establish "structured benchmarking" against the leading five or six companies in its sector; another was to share learning between plants.
"At our largest plant - in Frankfurt, Germany - we had five or six OSHA incidents, most of them in a single unit," says Alder. "So we took the line leaders to a Netherlands plant - where they had developed some best practice - for cross-training. We've not had a recordable incident at that site since."
LOOK BEYOND CHEMICAL INDUSTRY
In the five years since it made safety a "precondition," Celanese's OSHA rating has gone from 1.06 to 0.22, making it "probably the best in our industry," says Alder. For this reason, Celanese has now begun to look beyond the chemical industry in order to set new benchmarking targets.
"When you're driving reductions, it's important to maintain safety"
Jim Alder, senior vice president of operations and technical, Celanese
Bearing this in mind, does Celanese have particular insights or techniques that it uses to drive safety forwards?
"There's nothing unique in the tools that we use," says Alder. "It's a case of taking known tools and procedures, and implementing them in the most effective way. That commitment must start at the very top of the organization."
And he says it is more than just getting out a safety message: it is also about investment, attitude and training.
"Safety is an emotional commitment, and a 24/7 commitment. If people are trained to recognize hazards, they will take action to minimize them. We will also spend money in order to reduce hazards."
And while the importance of "safety first" is embedded in the minds of all employees by now, this is no reason to step off the gas.
"Part of the real challenge in driving change is that everything you do will not always be read in the way that you intend," says Alder.
For this reason, senior managers make regular trips, every few months to every site, in order to keep reinforcing the "zero target" message. "In turbulent times like these, you have to ramp up communication," he says.
And Alder is adamant that recent cutbacks seen within the company will not affect safety. "We've made cutbacks in the past year, but we've not touched the safety area. If anything, we're increasing staff there, as product safety and other factors become more important. When you're driving reductions, it's important to take extra effort to maintain safety."
He also says there must be different rules for plants that are running at lower capacity.
"It's true that when a unit is running at steady state operation - or near capacity - it's the least risky time. That's why, for start-ups, we have a line leader responsible for the shift and a second 'process safety officer' whose only job is the safety of the unit. They see things with a different set of eyes."
While the mantra of 'zero incidents' helps to focus the mind - and crystallize the company's policy in the minds of employees - is such a target actually achievable?
"Two or three years ago, I would have said no," says Alder. "But in 2008, two-thirds of our sites had no recordables. Last year, that rose to 75%. We've gone 400 days without lost time - that's more than a year. I think that zero is truly possible."
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