Two Billings companies took top honors in the Governor’s Safety and Health Awards Program for 2008. Transbas Inc., a liquid herbicide production plant, located in Lockwood, won the “small private” category and Conoco-Phillips Billings Refinery received the award in the category for “large private” category. This tremendous accomplishment for both companies shows the commitment they have made to safety and health. Their award winning practices not only improves the lives of their employees, but positively impacts the local community and state. With this award these two companies have made a statement to the state of Montana: Healthy, safe jobs can be provided by companies committed to safety. And Montana needs it. According to the Montana Dept. of Labor, Montana’s injury rate is 57% higher than the national average and its workers’ compensation and premiums are extremely high relative to peer states. These two statistics do not make a great first impression when industries and businesses consider locating in the state. Winning the award for Transbas didn’t come overnight. It took an intense three-year commitment from plant manager, Lee Schwalenberg, the employees, and the ownership of Transbas. From top to bottom the company had to change.
Transbas is a herbicide manufacturing plant providing 36 jobs. They are one of three US agricultural chemical manufacturing plants owned by Agrium, a major retail supplier of agricultural products and services in North and South America. Transbas’ operations include amination and esterification of herbicides by working with a variety of active ingredients. They are equipped with two esterification vessels and a multitude of other tanks for mixing and storage of raw materials and finished products for their five different packaging lines ranging from quarts to 250 gallon totes.
Operating within 25,000 square feet of warehouse space on site and leasing 2000 feet of BNSF/MRL rail with full interline switching available, along with a laboratory for Quality Control, Transbas needs to be a tightly controlled operation.
Changing the culture was the first order of business. Schwalenberg brought the Montana Department of Labor & Industry Employment Relations Division Safety & Health Bureau in to address the regulations and standards required in Montana. By involving the State they addressed each problem on the laundry list and found solutions.
Safety Culture became the company’s GOAL – defined as a group of people who value each others’ and their own safety and implement standardized practices to achieve that safety and: it’s what the company does when no one is watching.
State Safety & Health Specialist, Dan Toney, remarked, “The work Transbas has done and the award they have received is an example to the state. It keeps the momentum of change going to provide healthier, safer jobs.”
The facts show that the changes have made a difference. Schwalenberg is straightforward in his remarks, “When I first came to Transbas, our OSHA DART (Days Away from Work/Restricted Duty) was 38. That’s tough to deal with when you depend on employees to produce. Unemployment was 2% in Billings when I arrived in 2005 so to get a handle on turnover and be more competitive in hiring, we had to raise wages. I did and it worked and the culture began to change. Our DART rate is now 2.” Not only was the investment in wages made, but changes were made around the plant to help support the new culture, as well as training and education in workplace safety and health.
Management was and is quick to credit employee buy-in. Employees began to see the benefits and work with the changes. They understood the value of having a healthy, safe environment to work in and accepted the daily challenge given by Plant Manager, Schwalenberg: ‘Not just Compliant, but the Best.’ “Agrum’s corporate philosophy is to exceed all regulatory requirements at each location,” states Bill Pirkle, Director EAS, Agrium Retail, US. Currently, Transbas has gone over 600 days without a lost time incident.
So why is winning this award so important? If a business can demonstrate a safe, healthy work environment, it returns benefits such as positive job recruitment, low employee turnover, and quality production which is advantageous not only for Transbas, but the community at large. According to Schwalenberg, the best result from creating a safe work environment is that employment turnover is less than 10% and Transbas now has a very good reputation as a great place to work. He explains, “Here at Transbas, we know that 99.99% of all accidents are preventable. Our priority: Send each employee home each day, safe and healthy exactly the way they came.“
But it doesn’t stop there. What Transbas has done environmentally is equally impressive. Their hazardous waste water is down by almost 80%.--from 200,000 gallons a year to close to 10,000. This team approach of management and employees working together has them in the running for the 2008 Eco Star award sponsored by Montana State University for their commitment to pollution prevention.
Schwalenberg is also quick to compliment and congratulate Conoco-Philips on, not only receiving the Large Private Award, but the Governor’s Cup as well. This special award recognizes safety and health initiatives which have gone above and beyond--an award he hopes to bring back to Transbas next year.