Creating a culture of safety doesn't happen overnight. But for one Health and Safety supervisor, it was a challenge worthy of tackling.
George Van Hemert oversees safety in what could otherwise be a very unsafe place. As Health & Safety Supervisor for the City of Oxnard, California’s Environmental Resources Division, Van Hemert is responsible for worker safety at Del Norte Regional Recycling & Transfer Station. This Materials Recovery facility (MRF) serves as the central hub of the City’s overall solid waste management system and as a regional resource for other adjacent cities as well.
The recycling and transfer station is housed in a cavernous building, with huge side- and front-end loaders rumbling by in every direction. The building is well-lit, and workers and spotters wear custom-made red LED helmets, use special red LED wands for traffic control plus carry with them a special blue LED beacon marker they can toss to mark a chemical spill or alert emergency response teams to a specific spot within the building. Because drivers spend so much time backing up, each vehicle is equipped with a rear-view camera and in-cab monitor. It’s a dangerous environment, and Van Hemert knows he needs to go above and beyond to keep it safe.
“I try to be ahead of the game and determine where we can prevent a serious injury or death,” Van Hemert says. “We make the environment inside the station a safe as possible, and standardize all communications so we’re prepared for natural disasters and have included the use of mountain top repeater stations.”
But one of the most important things he does is talk to employees when they’ve been involved in any kind of accident. He listens closely to what they say so he can go beyond the statistics and the data and understand exactly why the mishap took place and take corrective action.
“You don't just provide people with safety gear. You also have to hold them accountable, and that's part of the program that I’ve developed here in Oxnard. It's reduced accidents to the point that our insurance company sent us a letter saying it was ‘awestruck’ by how much we’ve reduced injuries. They told us that our indemnity costs are lower than any other company our size and in our industry in Southern California.”
If a driver has backed into something—even if it’s something small, Van Hemert will talk with him or her to find out exactly what happened. Was the driver looking at the monitor? Did something at the front or on the side catch their attention? When employees file Workers’ Comp claims, Van Hemert will ask them how they think the injury might have been avoided. If appropriate, he will make sure that a change is made to help prevent it from happening again. He makes sure modified duty is available to all employees regardless of the accommodation needed and that the work is meaningful and employees feel productive.
“I used to work for a company that gave monthly gifts to employees who had the best safety records. I didn’t think that worked. So I just started walking around, telling people they were doing great and thanking them for being safe. The whole environment changed dramatically. People saw how committed we were to helping them create a safe workplace.”
The icing on the cake, Van Hemert says, is that safety not only prevents accidents and saves lives, it also supports the bottom line.
“Our city council is happy these days. They see we're in the black after being in the red for a while. This is a $43-million facility and last year, we made between $3-4 million in profit. We’re feeling good about how well the safety program is working and the direction we’re headed.” “Our Workers’ Comp costs have been dramatically reduces and we expect to make more money this year.”
It’s because of his efforts PRECO Electronics proudly presented Van Hemert with the 2016 Safety in Motion Award. He demonstrates an unparalleled commitment to safety to truly distinguish himself as a leader in safety.