Depot marks five million safe work hours

Depot workers move HD mustard ton containers in an underground storage container known as an igloo. <BR><I>Photo contributed by UMCDF</I>

Workers at the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility are celebrating this week after reaching a milestone in safe work hours: 5 million.

That's 1,067 days, or nearly three years, since the 830 contracted depot workers last had a lost time accident. A lost time accident is any sort of injury that would cause a worker to be unable to work for a day, such as a broken arm or a head injury.

The 5 million hour milestone is the same as 100 workers working safely for 25 years, touted Plant Manager Tim Morton.

The plant's rate for medium-sized injuries (called the recordable injury rate, or RIR), those needing stitches or some medication, is also low, Morton said. The RIR is at .34 for every 200,000 work hours.

The Umatilla Chemical Depot is a unique place, where safety is more culture than protocol, said workers. Earl Winebarger, plant operator under Operations and Keith Schmaljohn, munition handler under Operations described some of that culture.

Schmaljohn, who said he's worked in other plant settings like sawmills, said he's been impressed by the safety at the depot in the three years he's worked there.

"I've never seen safety management like there is here,"?he said. "The safety culture is bar none. Everybody buys into it from day one."

For starters, there are a lot of safety meetings.

Every day, if a crew of more than four people are getting ready to do a job, there's a meeting outlining what everyone needs to do and a "safety topic"?discussed. The SMART (Safety Management and Recognition Team) crews meet once a week, and individual crews meet once every four weeks. So at just about any time, a worker can bring up a concern he or she may have with safety. SMART?members and managers also routinely do walk-throughs of different departments, getting fresh eyes on the situations.

And problems are fixed soon, Winebarger said. Last week he said he saw oil dripping down from a door seal. In other places, the person who gets the problem report might say , "I need to talk to so-and-so" before the seal gets fixed. But because of the all the meetings, communication happens. "So-and-so" is sitting at the table, finds out immediately, and sends workers to fix the seal.

And it's not just meetings. Each worker has his or her own personal responsibility.

Part of it is their frame of mind, especially since they've been working with explosives, or working with dangerous chemicals, like destroying HD?Mustard in the current campaign.

"The fact of what we do, we bring it mentally in our thought process," Winebarger said. "this is dangerous stuff."

That eye for danger transforms the way people think of the workplace and keeps their mind on safety.

"Everyone who works here knows it's a different kind of work," Schmaljohn said. "They get here and realize, this is what everybody wishes they could see at different places they worked at."

Also, people know their job. They're extensively trained so if something isn't right, they can almost feel it. That's where those daily meetings come in. If someone notices something is off they say so.

Each person also has the ability to stop work at any time if he or she sees something wrong, though that doesn't happen very of often Schmaljohn said, but if it does people are usually applauded for it.

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