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A Left Turn For Safety at UPS

Facing high injury rates, UPS departed from 90 years of management tradition and called on workers to help solve the problem.

February 28, 2005
Confronted with unacceptably high injury rates, United Parcel Service Inc. took a chance and flipped its traditional top-down management approach to a ground-up safety program fashioned by drivers and parcel handlers. It worked.

    Today, injury rates among the company’s 327,600 U.S. employees are tumbling, turnover is down and UPS reports that companywide attitudes toward safety have improved significantly. The company began implementing the new safety program in 1996. Committees of drivers and parcel handlers were given broad new powers to design and implement safety strategies under a company-wide initiative called the Comprehensive Health and Safety Process.

    Keith Jones, director of health and safety for UPS, says the goal of the CHSP program was to make safety a personal value of every UPS employee. "We challenged our employees," Jones says. "They rose to the occasion."

    When the program began, UPS workers were reporting injuries--mostly sprains and strains--at a rate of 27.2 injuries per 200,000 hours worked. By the end of 2004, UPS got the injury rate down to 10.2 for every 200,000 hours worked. By 2007, the company wants the injury rate down to 3.2.

    The company’s 2,400 CHSP committees are driving the improved numbers. Each group has at least five members, composed of both management and nonmanagement employees. The committees investigate accidents, conduct facility and equipment audits, counsel employees on how they can perform their jobs more safely and make a full report on every accident.

    Activities like loading and unloading packages and getting into and out of trucks seem like fairly straightforward jobs. But UPS’ safety program breaks down the mechanics of such things as bending the knees properly when picking up a parcel or backing up a delivery truck. Then it empowers safety committee members to make sure the jobs are done the right way.

    Nonmanagement employees on the safety committees are schooled in health and safety issues such as eating properly, stretching and getting enough rest. One manual alone has a checklist of 60 safety items. If committee members see someone engaged in an unsafe activity, such as bending from the waist rather than the knees, they are required to approach the employee immediately or face a reprimand themselves.

    Initially, management was reluctant to give up the reins. "We are talking about 90 years of culture," Jones says. "It was really a challenge for us culturally to give up some of our authority to nonmanagement folks."

    At the same time, workers on the loading docks wondered whether the nonmanagement safety committee members, with their distinctive T-shirts, were representatives of management. Committee members say they are now widely accepted, even among workers who have to be retrained in the proper way to do a job.

    "Most people react to it in a positive way," says Alberto Ruiz, who works in the UPS facility in Richmond, California. "Five years ago, maybe it wasn’t like that, but now it is part of our culture. They know we are working in their best interest."

    For its success at significantly improving its safety record and lowering turnover, UPS is the winner of the 2005 Optimas Award for Innovation.

Workforce Management, March 2005, pp. 49-50 -- Subscribe Now!