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USS Optimas® Award Profile

A unique training program that taught employees how their jobs contribute to the overall process has helped US Steel meet stringent environmental standard.

July 1, 1991
Related Topics: Basic Skills Training, Vision
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For 42 years, Andrew Tignanelli has worked in the gas distribution center at Clairton Works, a division of U. S. Steel (USS). As the main regenerator operator, he knows his job well. But until last year, Tignanelli didn't know how his job affected the rest of the plant. If a valve was leaking or anything looked out of the ordinary, he'd wait to see if the problem straightened itself out.

But thanks to an innovative training program established by the company in 1989, Tignanelli now knows that leaky valves or other malfunctions can result in environmental accidents that threaten nearby communities, as well as the financial health of the company.

"I'd never realized my job could have that much impact," says Tignanelli. "I'm now much more attentive and eager to work with others to keep this place clean."

The training program, developed by Clairton Works through a partnership with the nearby Community College of Allegheny County, may be the first large-scale effort by a steel manufacturer to address pollution problems by raising the awareness level of its workforce. By December 1992, all 1,600 employees will have undergone 40 hours of classroom training to increase their awareness of the environmental damage that can occur if their jobs aren't done properly.

For its efforts, USS has been recognized as one of Personnel Journal's 1991 Optimas Award winners. The award is given annually to companies that display excellence in human resources management in one of 10 categories, which range from managing change to global outlook. USS was the winner in the Vision category.

"I'm now much more attentive and eager to work with others to keep this place clean."

The company, located in Clairton, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, developed the program to correct persistent and costly emissions problems. At one time, Clairton Works was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the nation's worst industrial air polluters. Accidents allowed untreated coke gases (coke is a key ingredient in steel making) to escape from the plant 10 times between 1987 and 1989. The last emission came after an explosion and fire that was caused by an employee who incorrectly changed an oil filter on a lubrication system.

An internal review revealed that employee errors were a factor in several accidental emissions. As Eugene Harris, manager of general management development and training, explains: "There were already adequate safeguards built into plant equipment. It dawned on us that we needed to give employees a better understanding of equipment limits and how to do a job properly."

Further research by a team of employees from engineering, environmental safety, operations and training and development confirmed this suspicion. Under Harris' direction, the group spent six months developing the framework of an environmental impact training course known as CITE (Continuous Improvement to the Environment).

For training to be effective, company officials determined that the courses had to be conducted off-site, away from potential interruptions. As a result, USS asked the community college to become a partner in the training effort. Previous joint efforts had proven successful for both organizations.

Under the school's direction, USS applied for — and received — a customized job training grant from the Pennsylvania Dept. of Education. The grant program gives priority to companies located in economically distressed areas that require training to remain competitive. Clairton Works also qualified because it was increasing plant employment by 300 workers.

More than $450,000 was awarded to the CITE program during its first two years, according to Pat Gerity, director of continuing education at the Community College of Allegheny County. These funds, given to the college to administer on the company's behalf, were used for curriculum development, materials and supplies and teacher salaries and benefits. USS covers all other expenses, as well as the cost of employee wages during the week they are in class. By the time all employees have completed the program, the company will have spent almost $2.5 million.

One of the first things USS assessed when developing the environmental training curriculum was the demographics of its workforce. The vast majority of production workers had been on the job at least 18 years and were more than 40 years of age. Furthermore, most of them had no more than a 12th-grade education. "It was clear these people hadn't been in the classroom situation in some time," says Gerity.

To minimize any intimidation workers might feel, the college recruited retired USS employees to serve as instructors. The five individuals who were hired to be trainers were familiar with operations at the plant and could relate to the student's environment. Because of the perspective they brought to the classroom, their advise was solicited during curriculum development as well.

For all employees, the CITE program begins with a two-hour awareness course that covers federal and county environmental regulations; the impact of acid rain, global warming and the greenhouse effect; and the financial impact of environmental accidents. "This course creates a foundation of environmental awareness and explains why these concerns exist," says Harris. "It also stimulates employees to learn how they can have an impact."

Management is also required to attend the awareness course. But because managers understand plant operations and don't actually work in the plant "turning the valves," the company felt it unnecessary for them to participate in the entire course.

The remaining coursework is customized to meet the needs of three distinct groups of employees: those who work in coking operations, those who deal with chemicals and those who work in utilities. The courses help employees thoroughly understand plant technology and learn how facilities and operations relate to each other. CITE also helps employees understand how their jobs fit into the entire plant process.

For example, an employee in coal handling may have a tendency to think, "If I mess up the oil today, it won't matter." According to Jack Withrow, a manager in the engineering department, that's because the employee won't see any emissions at the time. "But when that coal gets to the coke oven, there can be problems," says Withrow.

The CITE program also reviews Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements, work practices and procedures, communications and teamwork. In addition, employees are trained in reporting and recording environmental accidents. Upon completing the course, groups of employees form environmental safety teams to audit the production process and look for ways to improve plant operations and environmental safety.

Under the direction of training and development, the CITE program was announced to employees through a communications program that combined personalized letters from the general manager with a series of stories in the company newsletter. The company also hung banners throughout the plant and painted the CITE insignia on one of the buildings.

"We wanted to gain a broad awareness of the program among all employees," says Harris. "This is our major training activity and we have to motivate employees to respect the program and — even though it's mandatory — become interested in participating."

"We can't operate with our eye's soley on cost, profit and quality. There is a new element in the American business equation: the environment."

Every employee who completes the course receives a certificate of completion and a steel hard hat that is about the size of an apple and imprinted with the CITE logo. Furthermore, employees who make suggestions for improving plant operations are featured in company publications.

New employees will also participate in environmental training, but when they do, it probably won't be in a classroom. Clairton Works is in the process of adapting the CITE program to an interactive video format. Using a touch-screen menu, employees can select categories that apply to their specific jobs and then review the pertinent work practices and policies.

The software, currently under development, will include plenty of flow charts, diagrams and procedures to give new employees a clear indication of how their jobs relate to overall plant operations and the environment. The program also will be used as a refresher course for employees who have participated in the 40-hour CITE program. Follow-up training will be provided on request of a supervisor.

As of March 1, more than 800 employees have attended the course and by all accounts, response has been overwhelming. "One employee went to his daughter's elementary school to explain the program," says Harris. "Other employees say they appreciate learning how downstream operations relate to their jobs."

More importantly, uncontrolled accidents have been substantially reduced since the program began. As a result, USS has implemented the program at its Gary, Indiana plant, and is currently investigating a similar program at a third plant.

"There have been a number of plants in the steel industry that have closed in recent years, and poor environmental performance and its associated costs are certainly part of the reason," says Ernie Glenn, a company spokesperson. In addition, the Clean Air Act is ushering in stricter environmental standards that coke plants will have to meet. If companies are unable to meet them, they'll have to stop operating, he says.

"We have to make other companies aware that we can't operate with our eyes solely on cost, profit and quality, important as each may be. There is a new element in the American business equation: the environment."

Personnel Journal, July 1991, No. 70, Vol. 7, pp. 26 - 28.

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