Cultivating Safety

Snapshots from the busy lives of Safety and Compliance Officers.

Safety and compliance officers may be the unsung heroes of the welding and gases industry. They work tirelessly to ensure that our businesses stay in compliance with complicated and often burdensome regulations, and that our employees are keeping themselves and everything else entrusted to their care safe. Some distributorships maintain full-time safety and compliance officers, whereas at others, employees handle part-time compliance duties or distributors variously delegate such responsibilities. On the following pages, a sample of distributor employees from across the spectrum reflect on the best—and most difficult—aspects of their jobs, and offer wisdom culled from their years of experience on how best to cultivate a safe, secure and successful welding and gases distributorship.

In Safety, There Are No Small Oversights

Kelly Bladow
Director of Safety and Compliance
Oxarc (Pasco, WA)
Locations: 15
Employees: 260

As director of safety and compliance, I don’t have “typical” days. I’m also responsible for transportation and trucking issues, so a typical day could include many, many different issues. For example, on a recent day, I set up morning training sessions in Spokane, then had to leave and drive 150 miles to take care of a problem in a fill plant at another location. I make sure all ten of our facilities that fill oxygen are in compliance with FDA regulations.

My biggest challenge is getting all Oxarc personnel on board with safety. Some of our 15 locations have only three employees, so they’re very easy to get on board. But some other locations have as many as 60 or 70 employees, which makes it a little harder. I’m based in Pasco, Washington, our main filling location, so I’m here frequently. I travel to our main office in Spokane a couple of times per month, and to the other eight facilities that fill oxygen at least once a month. I visit the outlying facilities once or twice a year. For our larger locations, I’ve established safety committees that meet quarterly, and the members of that committee are my eyes and ears at that location when I’m not present.

Kelly Bladow (left) reviews lab safety procedures with Oxarc Specialty Gas Lab Manager Buzz Vickery.

Kelly Bladow (left) reviews lab safety procedures with Oxarc Specialty Gas Lab Manager Buzz Vickery.

Oxarc didn’t have a full-time safety and compliance position until five years ago. Previously I was the production manager at our Pasco facility, with additional responsibility for all of Oxarc’s facilities that were filling medical gases. Eventually, with all the added safety responsibilities, I was stretched too thin, so the company created the safety and compliance position for me. I got about 90 percent of the information I needed to create a comprehensive safety program for Oxarc from GAWDA resources.

In a sales-driven organization like a distributorship, sometimes it’s hard for people to see the monetary value of safety. When you make a big sale, you can see how that brings money into the organization. But safety is different because it helps keep the company from spending money. By getting employees to recognize that safety is important, we’ve reduced Oxarc’s claims with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. In the last year in particular, they’ve been reduced tremendously.

I’m most proud of how my efforts have helped Oxarc employees recognize how important safety is. I keep a plaque in my office that says: “Asking me to overlook the value of a simple safety violation would be asking me to compromise my entire attitude toward the value of your life.” That’s the most important thing I’ve tried to project. Not having your safety glasses on when you’re in a fill room may sound like a small thing, but to me that’s as major as a truck getting into an accident.

Little Details Add Up To Big Expense

Jim Mikus
Advanced Gas & Welding Solutions (Eastlake, OH)
Locations: 1
Employees: 8

I’ve been handling safety and compliance issues for Advanced Gas & Welding Solutions since my partner and I founded the company six years ago. I started out making sales calls and got my CDL so I could drive the truck, so I was more familiar with a lot of safety issues right from the start.

What I do now is act as more of an overseer for the company’s safety program. We have an operations manager who is responsible for the drivers’ logs and making sure the manifests are correct, but I keep track of dates for training, driver’s license renewals, medical cards and so on. I have a list in huge, bold print on the wall showing when everybody has to be tested and when the next training seminars are, which goes out as far as 2009. This way, we know when all of this has to be done, and we just check it off.

Something we do today that we didn’t do in the beginning is put together a daily morning checklist for our drivers. A driver does not pull out until either myself or the operations manager has checked it off. It takes five minutes to run through the truck and make sure everything’s done, it’s placarded right, and everything essential is in the vehicle. Doing this forces the driver to be aware of all the safety regulations he has to follow, and it gives us a record of whether he’s following them.

The hardest part for a small distributor isn’t selling and getting product to the customer; it’s trying to figure out what regulations have changed and how we have to keep up with that. We rely on GAWDA and other resources to keep us up to date, and some suppliers have distributor programs that are very beneficial in helping small companies stay up on regulations. It’s good to have qualified people help you, but the key is to talk to experts who know this business and can explain in layman’s terms.

When I started out working on the company’s safety program, I didn’t expect the detail in the record-keeping to be as extensive as it really is. The paperwork is tremendous. I had to learn how to stop, slow down and take my time to make sure everything’s done right, because there are a lot of little details that can add up to big expense. But it’s the right thing to do, because our trucks are safe and our guys know what they’re supposed to be carrying.

Look At The Whole Picture

Mike Fisher
Safety and Government Compliance Officer
General Air Service & Supply Company (Denver, CO)
Locations: 6
Employees: 115

The first thing I do most days is run the program that prints off all our MSDS sheets for the items that were sold the day before and get those to the people who put them in envelopes to send to customers. After that, I do a variety of tasks to make sure everybody at General Air is in compliance—making sure my files are up to date as far as CDLs, DOT examinations and hydrostatic tests on liquid trucks. I also do safety and security inspections, and at least every six months I’ll do a safety audit at each of General Air’s six stores.

Mike Fisher checks to ensure that General Air's first aid kit complies with government regulations.

Mike Fisher checks to ensure that General Air's first aid kit complies with government regulations.

When a new employee starts at General Air, the first presentation he sees is on safety. Once a month, I hold safety committee meetings, so I’m always looking for good ideas to make sure that we have interesting meetings that keep employees paying attention. As a committee, we develop monthly safety training topics—such as winter driving, lifting properly, and filling and handling propane cylinders—that we send out to the supervisors of all our locations, and they meet with all the employees and talk about safety problems.

The key to safety training is to get employees involved. If it’s just me standing up in front of them, blathering away, I’m going to lose them. So I try to keep things interesting—I joke around with them, and I get them to ask questions. I want to stress that safety is a serious issue, but I don’t want my presentation to be so dry that they tune out what I’m saying. I frequently check out training programs on the Internet to see if there’s anything new that I might want to include in my safety training program to keep it up to date.

I often ride with our drivers to see if they’re developing any bad safety habits while they’re driving. I ride with them the whole day, take them to lunch, and talk to them to see if there’s anything we can do to make their jobs a little easier. What I enjoy the most about my job is when I’m out riding with a driver and they’re doing everything they’re supposed to do and have a good rapport with customers. That’s great to see.

This isn’t an easy job. There’s a lot of work involved, but it’s worth the effort. You can’t just look at the statistics and say, “We’re not having any problems this month. This is good.” You need to look at the whole picture and ask, “Well, why is that? Is it because the supervisor is doing a good job? Are the employees listening to what we’re saying? Or is it just a blip?” That’s how you build a comprehensive safety program.

Safety Is An Issue In Every Decision

Jim Schultz
Operations Manager
Jackson Welding Supply Company (Rochester, NY)
Locations: 4
Employees: 34

Taking charge of Jackson Welding Supply’s safety and compliance program is just one of the hundred hats I wear. Safety is an important part of everything we do as a company, so it was a natural fit with my other job responsibilities. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve really begun to focus company-wide on compliance as a result of 9/11 and the Department of Homeland Security, and I was asked to take on the responsibility. We brought in GAWDA Consultant Mike Dodd to do a mock DOT audit, which helped us realize what we weren’t doing.

The most challenging aspect of the job is staying on top of all the various regulations, because safety and compliance are only part of my job. I have to make sure I find the time to stay current and to do the job right. The GAWDA Web site and the GAWDA Consultants are a big help.

We do monthly driver meetings, and we have safety meetings as a company on a regular basis, where we bring the employees from our three small branches into our headquarters. We also keep employees updated on safety and compliance issues via e-mail. We only have 34 employees, so it’s easy to keep in touch with everybody.

Everybody at Jackson Welding Supply has stepped up to become more aware of compliance issues, and that includes the upper management. I think it helps employees’ morale to see that the managers and owners of the company are concerned about safety and compliance, and it reinforces that they should be too. If the owners of a company don’t care about safety, none of the employees will either.

Being in charge of the company safety program has made me much more aware of safety in general. You look at situations differently when you realize that safety has to be an issue in whatever decision you’re making for the company.

Stay In Front Of Your Customer 

Robbie Roberts
Compliance Officer
Norco (Boise, ID)
Locations: 40
Employees: 670

A compliance officer has to be detail-oriented—and that’s not something that comes naturally to me. But over my years at Norco, I’ve had a lot of practice in keeping our I’s dotted and our T’s crossed, and I’ve learned that having a quality system in place to keep us compliant with the law helps us improve our services to our customers. That translates into improved profitability.

At Norco we have an adage: Stay in front of your customer. By working with individual branches and making sure I’m on top of the most current standards, I help to ensure that our quality system is top of the line, and our customers benefit from that. My best day as a compliance officer was when we had an FDA inspector come through, and instead of picking our system apart like we’d feared, he told us it was top-notch.

Robbie Roberts (left) audits Norco's central warehouse in Boise with Warehouse Manager Jim Carlin.

Robbie Roberts (left) audits Norco's central warehouse in Boise with Warehouse Manager Jim Carlin.

I audit every one of Norco’s 40 branches at least once a year. I’m also responsible for auditing 11 “stock points” on our medical side, which are facilities that handle business for us in areas where the demographics don’t justify Norco adding a store. We use an Access database to track our own internal Norco action reports that we generate whenever there’s a corrective or preventative action. When I go out to a branch, I pull up the action reports for that branch and review those with the facility manager to determine if the action has been taken, and then evaluate the action itself to see if it’s been effective.

My department administrates Norco’s online training university, called Norco Virtual University, which we developed to respond to compliance-related issues. We’ve developed a matrix that coordinates the training for each job function, and if I’m auditing a branch and find that an employee doesn’t have a proper understanding of a particular issue, we’ll target that employee to take a course. Some of the most frequently taken courses include Safety in the Workplace, Hazardous Communication and Driver Training.

If employees are safe in their personal lives, that will translate to work, and vice versa. So we developed an initiative to increase safety awareness for all Norco team members, including in relation to their own personal lives. For example, we’ve provided employees with tips on traveling safely during the holidays and “beating the heat” in the summer. As the safety manager, I review our Workers’ Compensation claims to see if there are any trends, and I’ll work with senior management to determine if there are any improvements we can make through either a procedural change or staff re-education. In the eight years that I’ve been in this position, we’ve seen both the number and the severity of our Workers’ Compensation claims drop, which tells us that our program is working.

My favorite part of the job is getting out to the branches and working with individual team members. I go out on ride-alongs, shadow them as they’re doing their jobs, and interview them to help them find ways to improve their efficiency. When the light bulb goes on and they realize, “I can do this better!” then I know they’re going to be saving Norco money and helping us improve on our mission of serving our customer better.

Make Safety A Priority For Managers

Brian Nowell
Seaboard Welding Supply (Oakhurst, NJ)
Locations: 1
Employees: 27

Balancing safety with other responsibilities is a challenge, but we have to put it at the top of the pyramid in terms of priority. I have three employees—my vice president, my general manager and another manager—who work on managing different safety and compliance issues, but it’s not a full-time job for any of them. They’re fitting it in with their normal duties every day. Usually we have meetings and divide up the responsibilities according to who has the most familiarity with the regulations, whether they’re FDA or DOT. We’re lucky in that our management has been with us for quite a while, so they’ve worn many hats working in a small business.

We have regular meetings with our drivers. When it comes to safety, a lot of it is just reviewing things that many times seem like common sense. But you have to review it to remind employees of how important it is, so that it becomes second nature to them. General safety awareness has become much more prevalent. But we have to do more than just hold safety meetings. We have to make sure policies are being followed when we’re out in the field, on the dock or watching paperwork.

We used to have only one or two people who handled safety and compliance issues, but over the last ten years we’ve grown as a company and the laws have become tougher.

I use GAWDA’s safety notices to keep abreast of what’s going on, and we’ve relied on the help of the GAWDA Consultants. As a small company, it’s incredibly helpful to us to know that industry associations like GAWDA are watching the rules and regulations as they affect us in the industry.

All In a Day’s Work
What are the duties of a Safety and Compliance Officer? Mike Fisher, safety and government compliance officer for General Air Service & Supply Company, provided the following list of official job responsibilities:

  • Oversee implementation of the organization’s safety program.
  • Annually review the organization’s safety policy and safety rules.
  • Maintain accurate records and annually report the results of workplace accident and injury trend analysis.
  • Recommend actions to reduce the frequency and severity of accidents and illnesses.
  • Integrate safety into the day-to-day activities of all employees.
  • Coordinate employee orientation and safety training programs.
  • Assist the organization in compliance with government standards concerning safety and health.
  • Assist supervisors with accident investigations.
  • Identify unsafe conditions and practices and determine remedies.
  • Discuss with and make recommendations to management on matters pertaining to safety.

Use Mistakes As A Learning Tool

Gene Lynch II
Lynox Welding Supply (Presque Isle, ME)
Locations: 3
Employees: 17

We don’t have a dedicated, full-time person on staff to take care of safety and compliance issues. The ultimate responsibility is mine, but I certainly delegate. For example, our office manager has been very thorough in setting up files to help us stay compliant in certain situations, like when hiring a driver. We also rely on GAWDA Consultants for compliance training. We keep a very thorough outline on what to do internally to train our employees.

We hold monthly safety meetings. Sometimes the topic is based on information we receive from GAWDA; sometimes it’s based on an occurrence at either a competitor or our own company. Last fall, for instance, one of our drivers forgot to record some anhydrous ammonia he was transporting, and at a roadside check we got caught and had to pay a fine. That was the first time we’d been in that situation in the 33 years I’ve been here at Lynox Welding Supply. But we used it as a learning tool. We try to develop and foster an environment where everybody understands the levels of responsibility and the ramifications of non-compliance.

We developed an environment whereby as a company we recognize that safety and compliance are not optional, but we take it one step further. We convey to employees that we’re focused on safety because we’re concerned about them. Often our safety meetings don’t even involve welding. Recently we talked about the importance of wearing a seat belt after a local teenager who wasn’t wearing a seat belt was critically injured in an accident. Sometimes employees share stories about things that have happened to family and friends. It brings in local flavor, and it gets them to pay attention.

The greatest challenge for us is the sheer number of compliance issues that we’re required to uphold. As a small business owner, I have to keep a pulse on all the things that could affect my business. Larger companies tend to have people in the organization who are trained specifically for safety, compliance, human resources, etc., but as a smaller company, keeping my key people up to speed on all the different tasks is a challenge.

Keep Safety At The Forefront

Jack Melsom
Plant Manager/Safety Director
AWESCO (Albany, NY)
Locations: 2
Employees: 38

Jack Melsom (left) trains AWESCO Plant Operator Terry Colony on a newly installed gas panel.

Jack Melsom (left) trains AWESCO Plant Operator Terry Colony on a newly installed gas panel.

I was already AWESCO’s plant manager when I was asked in January 2006 to also serve as safety director. The jobs go hand-in-hand because, being in charge of the plant, I see the day-to-day activities of the drivers and the plant employees, so it gives me an opportunity to gently remind the plant operators and drivers of the importance of safety in their jobs.

Eight employees report directly to me, but I coordinate safety programs for 38 employees company-wide. We have monthly safety meetings, and I always try to bring safety to the forefront. We impress upon employees that different times of year present different safety concerns. For example, in December, the holidays create extra stress on everybody, so we work harder to keep them focused on their jobs. When the new school year starts, drivers have to be on the lookout for kids and buses. And in the winter, their driving skills have to change. Our employees realize that; we just need to touch base and make sure everybody’s on the same page.

The biggest challenge is keeping employees focused on safety, and I do that by creating general awareness. Every day, I try to point out suggestions to help employees do their jobs more safely, and remind them that we want them to go home the same way they came to work.

This can be a time-consuming job, but a lot of it is what you want to spend on it. The bottom line is, if you keep safety at the forefront, that comes into play in your company’s overall performance. And that’s time well spent.

When Is it Time to Hire a Safety and Compliance Officer?
For most small distributorships, keeping a full-time safety and compliance officer on staff is simply out of the question due to financial considerations. However, for growing companies, it may be time to take the next step. Here are a few signs that your company may benefit from a dedicated safety and compliance officer:

  • Your company has experienced a severe accident, or an increase in accidents.
  • You’ve recently experienced an increase in penalties from regulatory agencies.
  • Safety and compliance issues consume too much time for an operations manager or other individual to oversee as only part of his or her duties.
Norco CEO Jim Kissler points out that, for a growing company, eventually a good safety and compliance officer should pay for him- or herself in terms of reduced insurance premiums, although that won’t happen immediately. “It’s a hard return on investment. You have to be forward-thinking and realize that if a safety officer will reduce the number or severity of accidents, it will pay off in reduced claims and, therefore, lower premiums in the future.”

Safety • Courtesy • Quality • Efficiency

Marilyn Dempsey
Safety and Compliance Officer
Tech Air (Danbury, CT)
Locations: 5
Employees: 60

Tech Air created a dedicated safety and compliance position ten years ago because we’d reached a point where there were too many factors involved to leave it as part of the location management’s responsibility. We also realized it would be an advantage to our customers to have someone on our staff who is aware of all the regulations and able to interpret those regulations for them. We have five locations, including a plant we built four years ago, so my role is constantly evolving.

Marilyn Dempsey (second from left) shows Tech Air employees how to read cylinder labels.

Marilyn Dempsey (second from left) shows Tech Air employees how to read cylinder labels.

Staying up on changing regulations is the hardest part of the job. I depend a lot on our GAWDA Consultants and go to the regulatory agencies’ Web sites on a regular basis. My background is in agriculture food science, and when you work in food science, you deal with the FDA. So this job was a natural fit for me as far as dealing with compliance issues.

I follow standards that are set down by the president of Tech Air: Safety, Courtesy, Quality and Efficiency. That’s exactly how we train our employees. I do cross-training as part of my safety training, so when I’m training someone on pumping safety, it’s in correlation with teaching them how to pump. I need to know how to perform the actual function of every job I come in contact with. I try to include a practical aspect in every training session. I give a lecture, followed by a practical demonstration where everyone can see or do something relating to the lesson, and then I give a quiz. That way, the lesson is in their mind three times.

I impress on our drivers that they’re the captain of their ship. They have ownership of their trucks, and they know they’re the ones responsible for their safety. Since 9/11, truck inspections have become much stricter, and drivers really have to know their stuff. Because we’re close to New York City, it’s pretty well embedded in our drivers’ minds what’s at stake.

Create A Culture Of Safety

Curtis Henson, Region Safety and Compliance Director
Cindy Grant, Region Risk Manager
Airgas Southwest (Corpus Christi, TX)
Locations: 84
Employees: 900

At Airgas, we’re trying to develop a culture where accidents and incidents are zero. Managers at every location in Airgas Southwest start every day with a morning safety meeting to let associates know what hazards they might encounter that day, and to emphasize to them that we want to do the job and expedite our business, but we want to be sure that safety is an integral part of that. Our branch managers and plant managers have ownership for their facilities.

Cindy Grant and Curtis Henson review safety procedures with Airgas Southwest drivers.

Cindy Grant and Curtis Henson review safety procedures with Airgas Southwest drivers.

We focus on our safety team as a support group. Yes, we do enforcement and make sure that we are compliant, but at the same time we’ve worked very hard to try to develop a rapport in the field where employees look at us as part of their team, not as the overseer or enemy. If there’s a rule or a regulation that needs to be enforced, we take the time to explain why the rule or regulation is there. If they understand why it was developed and how it pertains to them, employees are much more willing to change their procedures, even if they’ve “always done it that way.” Take the time to explain, and you get a lot more buy-in.

We try to visit each of our 84 branches at least once a year and all of our key branches semi-annually. We also do a lot of training with our line managers and corporate managers who are going to be out in the field. Several years ago, Airgas rolled out a safety management system, and all managers are trained in the system, so they understand from the time they come into a branch what is expected of them and why particular safety policies are in place.

The safety management system has the ability to look at each job and do a job safety analysis. It gives a basic set of rules and SOPs to everybody at Airgas, and yet still allows local management to have site-specific rules and SOPs where they’re doing unique business. It’s designed to ensure that everyone is capable of spotting unsafe conditions and has the ability to shut down the system if it’s unsafe. It also tracks near-misses, not just accidents and incidents. By spotting those near-misses, we’re preventing future accidents.

In our region, within five days of any accident, incident or unsafe action reported, it’s reviewed by a team made up of the region president, the vice president for that area, the safety team, the operations team, the supervisor of that location, the line supervisor for that employee and the employee himself. The team determines if any discipline is necessary or if we need to do something differently to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. If it’s something that could relate to all of Airgas, we put what we call a “priority communication” out to all of our locations, telling them this occurred and why, and every location does a safety meeting about that particular incident.

As a company we used to be reactive to accidents and incidents, but we’ve become more proactive, and we’re already reaping the benefits of that strategy. In 1999, Airgas Southwest spent about $1 million on accidents. In 2006, that figure was less than $100,000.

The best part of our jobs is knowing that we make a difference by assisting people with safety issues that could ultimately have a tremendous effect on their lives. It’s good to know that we’ve helped create a safe, compliant and profitable region.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association