CLOQUET, Minnesota (From the Pine Journal) -- Dave Little recalls looking at the hands of the oldtimers when he first started at the paper mill in Cloquet.
"None of them had a full set of fingers," said Little. "I tell new employees that this equipment is big and it's unforgiving. It just can't stop on a dime. It just keeps going."
The president of the United Steelworkers Union Local 63 at the Sappi mill in Cloquet explained that the pulp and paper industry is considered the most dangerous of the all the industries -- even including steel, oil, glass and rubber -- that employ USW members. Of all those industries, paper has the most fatalities, according to Little.
The statistics, and the fact that there have been injuries and even deaths at the Cloquet mill in the past, make the mill's recent milestone of 2 million hours without a lost-time injury all the more remarkable. That's 455 days that none of the mill's 700 employees missed time from work because of a work-related injury.
"It's unique in the industry," said Chuck Skalsky, safety manager at the Cloquet mill. "I've been in safety for a lot of years and I've never heard of a mill making 2 million hours. It's a tremendous accomplishment. And we're still going," he adds, noting that the mill hit the 2 million mark on Jan. 16.
Mike Schultz, managing director at the Cloquet Sappi mill, puts the achievement into a historical perspective.
"If you go back in the 120 years of this mill's history, the first time the mill ever made a million manhours without a lost-time injury was in 2008," Schultz said. "The second time was 2015. We had one (lost-time) injury. Since then we made 2 million. And if we hadn't had that injury, we'd be at 3 million hours."
According to a USW report "Papered Over" published in August 2010, 33 workers were killed in USW-represented paper mills between Jan. 1, 2005 and July 1, 2010. Four died in explosions; two from scalding; one in a flash fire. Nine were killed by mobile equipment; seven by failures of fixed equipment. Five were killed in falls; two were electrocuted; one was crushed by a roll of paper weighing almost a ton; one died by inhaling poisonous chlorine dioxide; one fell into equipment used to chop and slurry recycled paper. All of the accidents were preventable, the report stated. The last death at the Cloquet mill was in 2003.
Now Schultz, his management staff, the union leaders and the workers at the paper mill are justifiably proud of the increased safety at the mill. It's not something that happened by accident either, as the mill took a variety of steps to get there.
Here are some of the things that have made a difference:
The industry has advanced and so has Cloquet. The design of the equipment is better. There's better guarding (of equipment) and lots of new procedures.
New employees get extensive training and are assigned a mentor when they start work, to look out for them and be there to answer questions.
There has been a cultural shift from "reducing injuries" to "eliminating injuries."
"We used to just expect that a certain number of people were going to get seriously hurt in a year," said Loren Manty, National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO) Local 939 president and a 32-year employee at the mill. "Now that number is zero."
They hired a "fit for work" service provider, an athletic trainer who comes to the mill and meets with employees face-to-face. Sometimes he goes and watches a person work and helps them figure out a way to avoid injury from repetitive motion or other tasks.
"He can look at your personal workspace and see what you're doing and make suggestions based on your specific job," Little said.
His advice has also helped maintenance staff avoid back and other soft tissue injuries, said Manty, noting that 2 million hours is a very long time to not have any maintenance injuries.
Little pointed out that the mill and its employees started doing risk assessments a number of years ago. Each area broke down the jobs and tasks that it did, and did a risk assessment of each. If the risk assessment came out high, they did a safety project to address that and assessed the task again. Skalsky said the mill has completed more than 1,100 risk assessments since then.
"We're calling it a risk assessment, but really you're investigating something before it ever happens," said Little. "You don't know how many accidents you've prevented."
Any injuries or even near misses are investigated with the mandate of figuring out how to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"There's been a natural evolution," Skalsky said. "There used to be more recordable injuries. We investigated those thoroughly, now we pay more attention to first aids and near misses."
The message of safety is repeated again and again throughout the mill, at all levels of employment.
Employees know they are accountable for safety too, Schultz said. It's not just a management issue.
"If you see something that isn't right, take care of it," he said. "Don't leave it for someone else to stumble on it and take care of it later. What we want to see is 'Are you doing the right thing when nobody is watching?'"
"That's the key," Schultz said, "and the culture we are working together to develop."
It's a journey.
"Just because we've reached 2 million hours doesn't mean we've arrived," he said. "We're a long way from where we want to be, but I think we all feel we're headed in the right direction.
"And we want to recognize our employees for that, publicly."
To reward employees for their efforts, the company is giving every employee an extra "safety day" off in 2017.
"We told them, this is a day off to enjoy with your family and friends," he said. "As a reward for being safe, you get to go home and enjoy that time, as opposed to being injured and not enjoying that time."