Imagine you’re taking the stairs at work and you cross paths with the company president. She’s clearly in a hurry, taking two steps at a time and typing feverishly on her mobile device.
Now, you know distracted walking is dangerous. You might even know you’re accountable for your co-workers’ safety, as well as your own. But are you really gonna call the president out on her unsafe behavior?
Probably not. And chances are, she’ll get where she’s going in one piece.
But the oil field is a different kind of workplace. Out here, one unsafe move can have fatal consequences. That’s why employees at Odessa-based Chaparral Industries don’t hesitate to hold owner Chris Johnson to the same safety rules he expects them to follow.
“Chris was grinding something in the shop one day, and he was only wearing one form of eye protection,” said Chaparral safety manager Felipe Rodarte. “One of our employees pointed it out, and Chris immediately stopped working and corrected it by grabbing a face shield and using it to continue grinding.
“We tell our employees it doesn’t matter if it’s Chris, me or anyone else,” continued Felipe. “If they see something unsafe, we expect them to stop work and correct the issue.”
That’s the type of employee empowerment that drives successful safety programs and saves lives. It’s also a big reason the Texas Department of Insurance, Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) recently recognized Chaparral with its Lone Star Safety Award. The award recognizes Texas employers that maintain model safety programs.
To qualify for the Lone Star program, employers must have a proven safety program, injury incidence rates below the national average for three years prior to application, and no work-related fatalities within the prior 12 months.
The Lone Star award is the latest in a long line of recognition Chaparral has earned for its workplace safety efforts. The company’s safety record is especially noteworthy when you consider the nature of its operations.
Running out of wall space
Chaparral is an oilfield services company that sandblasts, coats and paints tubular tanks and vessels. Employees operate in two-person crews consisting of a painter/sandblaster and a helper.
Chemical and paint fumes, confined spaces, poisonous hydrogen sulfide and respirable silica are just a few dangers of the job. Despite its hazard-rich environment, Chaparral has built its reputation on safety, and people are noticing.
Besides earning the Lone Star award, Chaparral is a 15-year participant in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration SHARP program. The company also boasts multiple safety awards from the global oil companies, collectively called the majors.
“We display those awards around the office so employees can see them,” said Felipe. “We’re actually starting to run out of wall space.”
In addition to the hardware it has picked up for preventing workplace accidents, Chaparral has earned multiple individual dividends from Texas Mutual based on its safety record. It has earned additional dividends as a member of the Texas Construction Safety Group.
Chaparral reinvests some of its dividend in the safety program. The company sends employees to offsite training to supplement in-house training. It also provides gloves, eye protection, respiratory protection and other personal protective equipment.
Plaques and monetary rewards are nice validation that your safety program is paying dividends, but Karen Puckett, director of workplace safety at the DWC, says the Lone Star program is about more than recognition.
“Recognition is one part of it,” said Karen, “because people need to know there are employers out there doing it right. More importantly, this is an opportunity to harness Chaparral’s success. When the DWC gets requests from employers who are struggling with safety, we connect them with Lone Star Award winners like Chaparral so they can share their experiences.”
When it comes to engaging employees in safety, Chaparral has plenty to share.
Solid safety programs like Chaparral’s are built on a handful of core elements, starting with management commitment. Simply put, safety starts at the top, but Chris knows it doesn’t end there. He and Felipe partner with employees to drive continuous improvement in the safety program.
Management encourages employees to report hazards and, more importantly, suggest corrective actions. We’re not talking about the standard-issue employee suggestion box that sits in the break room and gathers dust. Chaparral employees actually submit suggestions.
“When we went to Odessa and presented the award, we sat in on a safety meeting,” said Karen. “They went over the suggestions from the previous week, and I was surprised and pleased with the level of engagement among employees.”
Of course, accidents happen, even in workplaces with enviable employee engagement levels. When they do, Chaparral thoroughly investigates. The goal is not to assign blame, but to uncover the root causes and correct them so the accident doesn’t happen again.
“We share the results of those investigations with our employees,” said Felipe. “We explain what caused the accident and how we plan to correct it. We also follow up to make sure the corrective actions were effective.”
More time spent investigating accidents and correcting root causes means less time spent doing things that generate income. That’s okay with Chaparral’s management team. The company puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to promoting safety. In fact, employees can earn year-end safety bonuses.
Steve Perry is a longtime Texas Mutual senior safety services consultant. He says safety bonuses are a common, often effective, means of driving results. After working closely with Chaparral, however, Steve knows its safety culture is built on something impossible to quantify.
“Chaparral employees work safely because it’s a value they hold in their hearts,” said Steve. “They don’t do it for a bonus, because someone told them to or they think they’ll get in trouble. When a company gets to that level of engagement, safety is a permanent part of their culture.”
Don’t make safety a budget casualty
When Chris launched Chaparral in 1984, oil prices had been stable at then-historically high levels of nearly $30 per barrel, and oil accounted for more than one-quarter of Texas’ gross state product. True to the industry’s boom/bust cycle, however, it didn’t take long for the picture to drastically change. Perhaps we should have seen it coming.
From big hair to big deals on Wall Street, the 80s are known as the decade of excess. So it seems appropriate that an oil glut triggered the industry’s drastic yet temporary demise. Simply put, the world had more oil than it needed. Thanks to the immutable laws of supply and demand, the price of crude predictably plunged by 67 percent between November 1985 and March 1986.
Today’s slowdown is giving industry veterans flashbacks to busts of the past. Many companies are responding by trimming the fat from their budgets. Safety, with its monetary and time commitments, represents low-hanging fruit to the number crunchers charged with keeping companies afloat until the next boom.
After three decades in the business, Chris has an insider’s view of the oil industry’s fickle nature. He knows things will pick back up. In the meantime, his commitment to safety will never waver.
“Safety is a very important part of every industry,” said Chris. “And it’s not just papers to be filled out. Safety is important so everyone can go home safe to their family at the end of each and every day.”