Practicing what you preach

By |  June 27, 2013

MSHA inspectors are finding fewer hazards at Conmat Inc., and the hazards they are finding are less severe than the ones they used to come across at the operation’s limestone quarries in northwest Illinois.

So what’s making the difference?

It’s difficult to pin the improvements to one specific change, but Conmat safety director Shawn Meier largely credits the institution and practice of a concept called Peer Review Check for the reduction of hazards. According to Meier, the goal of Peer Review Check is to bring miners together to inspect and check operations before starting, resuming or imposing major changes to operations.

“The MSHA inspector we had last year thought it was one of the best ideas he’s seen put in place,” says Meier, whose company is based in Freeport, Ill. “He asked for a copy of our Peer [Review] Check sheets and if he could share them with other contractors or quarries. I told him that’s what it’s all about.”

According to Conmat, its number of Significant & Substantial (S&S) citations dropped by 25 percent from 2011 to 2012, while the number of MSHA inspections conducted increased threefold. In addition, almost all of Conmat’s 2012 citations were classified as “low negligence.”

More importantly, Meier says instituting Peer Review Check has established an improved safety culture at Conmat, which was awarded the Innovative Safety & Health Leadership Award from the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers for developing and practicing the concept.

“Our guys were getting kind of frustrated when MSHA would come up and write citations,” he says. “The guys were kind of like, ‘What could we have done better to prevent getting these MSHA citations?’

“Now, it’s a culture of everybody’s a team; everybody’s building and inspecting together. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the ownership of the processes and an increase in the pride level of what they’re doing.”

The concept’s origin

The idea to introduce Peer Review Check to Conmat was Meier’s, and President Eric Helm approved its implementation in 2012. Meier spent 13 years as a safety division manager for a construction company that served most of Exelon Corp.’s nuclear power plants in Illinois. According to Meier, his previous employer built dry cask storage units for Exelon’s spent fuel. And it was during projects at Exelon where Meier was first exposed to Peer Review Check.

“Anytime [Exelon] did a critical evaluation – a pump change, a critical process – they would have these very detailed work orders,” he says. “As you made your way through the orders, there would be stopping points where your peers would review the work you did up until that stopping point to make sure everything was done correctly.”

Meier, who’s been at Conmat for six years, brought Peer Review Check to his new employer because procedures like setting up equipment spreads are equally complex. Likewise, failure to follow procedures during setup can lead to catastrophic consequences.

“We’re a highly mobile operation and we move equipment from place to place fairly regularly,” Meier says. “I wanted to apply Peer Review Check to our operations for when we would tear down a crushing or a washing spread and move it to another location.”

Upon completion of setup, a goal is to inspect the area around equipment. Everybody involved in setup walks the area as a team to check out their peers’ work.

“You’d have your electrician; guys who were better at guarding – everybody walking as a team,” Meier says. “We’d walk it to make sure the grounding and continuity checks were done. We’d make sure we had alarms working on conveyors. On telestackers, we would make sure all the travel alarms were working. We’d look for tools that were left over.”

Three people participated in the first Peer Review Check at Conmat. Meier says the three noticed several issues that would not have met MSHA’s standards, including a couple that would have been S&S violations.

“When we first instituted it,” Meier says, “instead of having a safety guy walk around or having our operations guy walk around it, we said, ‘You guys are the ones who built it. Each one of you has an area of expertise. Check each others’ work and learn from one another. Ask what you are looking at.’ ”

The procedure’s benefits

One advantage of doing a Peer Review Check before running equipment is a reduced chance of having to halt production midway through operations.

“Obviously we don’t want anyone to get hurt, and we don’t want to get any MSHA citations,” Meier says. “But you also don’t want to stop production halfway through when you find a guard missing. Once you start crushing, you’d have to stop the operation to fix a guard or an electrical thing; you’ve got to empty the belts; you’ve got overflows.”

Although Meier can’t quite measure how much the elimination of such tasks has impacted production, he says production has clearly improved.

“We did this for safety as the primary purpose,” he says. “We found out that not only has this had a tremendous impact on safety, but it’s also had an impact on production because things that may have been detrimental to production have been taken out.”

Reducing the possibility of receiving more severe MSHA citations is yet another benefit.

“Inspectors are forced to stay a little bit longer to find and write citations,” Meier says. “The number of citations per inspection has gone down. When they do find citations, they’re not as severe as they used to be.”

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