Solutia Plant Develops Award-Winning Chemical Safety Model

Article excerpt

Chocolate Bayou facility finds that sweet taste of success is not enough as safety team searches for injury-free workplace.

Lethal substances are found throughout Solutia's chemical plant at Chocolate Bayou, Texas. One of the most prominent is hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which can be instantly fatal in large doses. Smaller doses can lead to death in 30 minutes or less.

The facility, located near Alvin, may be next to a waterway with a sweet-sounding name, but don't be fooled. Solutia's Chocolate Bayou plant has the potential to be a deadly workplace.

"This isn't a candy factory, and the things we deal with have significant risks if you don't handle them correctly and follow procedures," said Rick D. Brown, the plant's safety operations supervisor.

HCN is a byproduct of acrylonitrile, a key raw material for five of the company's 10 businesses, used to make carpet fibers and acrylic fabrics. Other lethal substances found at the site include hydrogen fluoride, which can irritate the respiratory tract and eyes. Exposure to high levels can be fatal in five minutes.

Concern about these deadly chemicals would keep any safety manager vigilant in preventing exposure to workers or the community.

At Chocolate Bayou, safety is intertwined in every aspect of the facility, from the plant manager to contract janitorial workers. The plant's environmental, safety and health (ESH) department, which includes five people on the safety team, three industrial hygienists, five environmental members and a medical team, provides management of the safety culture, but the line workers must live it.

"We don't own the safety and environmental process," said Mike C. Murphy, senior safety specialist. "We have 600 people who own it. Our role is to facilitate change. The individual is responsible for his own safety and his department's safety."

"The safety team generally is the last to know about injuries and to respond, except in emergency situations," said Don L. Meade, the ESH team leader. "We purposely create a safe environment by driving it into the organization."

The safety culture has propelled the plant to numerous national and state awards (see Award Highlights) and produced one of the best chemical safety records in the industry. There has not been a fatality at the site in more than 20 years.

The Solutia plant is an OSHA Voluntary Protection Program Star site and has achieved International Standards Organization (ISO) 140001 certification for environmental management. The site has won nearly 90 awards.

Chocolate Bayou's total recordable injury rate (TIR) has been below 1.0 the past six years and likely will finish below that number in 1999. The TIR has been as low as 0.43, in 1995, and has been no higher than 0.56 since then. The industry (SIC Code 2869) TIR average for 1997 was 4.3, with a lost workday rate in 1997 of 1.8. The Solutia site has had a lost workday rate of no higher than 0.28 in the last three years.

Plant manager Steve Ward said the key to Chocolate Bayou's safety success is its safety culture, first developed when the plant was owned by Monsanto, and workers' attention to detail.

"We preach to our people that just about everything else in your life is going to change, but the value we place on safety and environmental compliance is not going to change," Ward said, adding that the culture was maintained when plant ownership went from Monsanto to Solutia in 1997. "We went through our spinoff, which was a traumatic time, without a major blip in our safety performance.

With all of the awards and low injury rates, Chocolate Bayou's management could have taken a status-quo approach. Instead, the safety team has set a goal of reducing its TIR by 50 percent in the next five years. Companywide, that would be a rate of 0.5. For Chocolate Bayou, the number would need to drop to about 0.25, which would be between one and two recordable injuries a year for a work force of 660 employees. …