Contractor Excels With a Safety First Approach

Preventing serious injuries is a top priority at a South Carolina-based industrial cleaning company

Contractor Excels With a Safety First Approach

Interested in Safety?

Get Safety articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Safety + Get Alerts

On any given day, between 800 and 900 employees at Thompson Industrial Services fan out from 22 strategically located facilities, along with more than 100 wet- and dry-vacuum trucks, more than 80 hydro blasters, hundreds of service vehicles and an array of specialized cleaning equipment.

Their destinations: Dozens and dozens of oil and gas refineries, petrochemical companies, pulp and paper mills, power plants, steel mills and other industrial facilities located throughout Gulf Coast and Southeast states.

And as this large group of technicians and equipment heads out to clean evaporators, heat exchangers, storage tanks, reactors, pipelines, pits, vessels and everything in between — and perform air excavation and hydroexcavation work too — one thing is always top of mind: employee safety.

“Our business model is built on selling the value of our safety programs, plus the training we provide for our employees and the quality of our equipment,” says Josh Chambers, CEO of the company, headquartered in Sumter, South Carolina. “All these things combine to create better productivity and significantly fewer safety risks.”

Many safety programs focus on preventing small incidents that could lead to more serious accidents. But the company has flip-flopped that approach by focusing more on the factors that lead to serious injuries.

“If you prevent those from happening, the smaller things work themselves out,” says Dean Kuhlman, director of safety and quality.

The program consists of five tiers — or layers of protection — that start with personal protective gear, followed by advanced training and safety policies and procedures.

The third layer features a safety-observation approach in which front-line employees use an internally developed dashboard app called SafetyNet to audit their jobs ahead of time to make sure all protective measures are in place. Predictive Solutions, an occupational-safety software developer, created the platform that helps the company collect the data, Kuhlman says.

Company employees compile more than 35,000 real-time safety observations annually that help identify the highest risk factors for serious injuries and fatalities. These observations then help safety officials develop a customized safety plan for each job, using as many of the five layers as possible.

“We’re very data driven,” Kuhlman says. “We use data from the observation program to develop our current polices and improve policies and training programs. Ultimately, we empower our front-line employees to take safety personally every day through observations and stop-work procedures.”

Before a hydroblasting job, for example, a supervisor uses the app to call up the dashboard, which provides a checklist of the protocols for the task at hand. After a supervisor goes through the safety checklist and takes a photo of the job setup, that information is sent to a next-level supervisor.

“One, it ensures a job is set up safely,” Kuhlman says. “Two, it gathers data for what’s being cleaned and how we’re cleaning it. Gathering all this data helps us know what kind of equipment to purchase by division, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach across the entire company. It enables us to dive deeper into each division and provide them with the specific automated equipment and training for what they need.

“It’s the difference between a large university trying to teach everyone everything and smaller institutions with smaller classes that can provide students with exactly the kind of training and knowledge they need. That’s important because the work in Louisville (Kentucky) is much different than what’s done in Sumter, for example.”

During the past three years, more than 750 employees have entered in excess of 110,000 safety observations into the SafetyNet database. Those observations include more than 2.5 million findings, defined as safety measures that were either met or missing. Out of those, 200,000 unsafe findings were mitigated, Kuhlman says.

The fourth layer focuses on replacing manually operated machines with automated equipment that removes employees from hazardous situations. Automating the company’s hydroblasting equipment is a top priority because of the dangers inherent with operating machines that generate anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 or even 60,000 psi. The company owns hydro blasters made by Jetstream of Houston, Gardner Denver, NLB and Hammelmann.

“I’m pushing hard to automate 100% of our hydro blasters — get our guys off the guns,” Chambers says. “This keeps people out of the water blast line, and you can actually perform work at a faster clip. And the work that’s done is more consistent, too.

“We’re really pushing the envelope in this area. In fact, many customers now require automated equipment. It’s an expensive game to get into, but with a footprint like ours, we can leverage that equipment across all our divisions to help pay for it faster.”

The last layer centers on physically removing or replacing on-the-job hazards. For example, the company might be called in to clean “green liquor” (a byproduct of the papermaking process) from a dissolving tank in a paper mill. Instead of doing it manually, workers use an automated cleaning tool, which eliminates hazards such as manual waterblasting, exposure to chemicals, confined-space entry and heat exhaustion, Kuhlman says. 

Furthermore, the company takes a bottom-up approach to safety governance. This allows safety committees at each of the 22 divisions to provide constant feedback to regional committees as well as an overarching corporate committee, Kuhlman says.

“The corporate safety committee puts policies, programs and procedures in place,” he says. “But we also need feedback from the front-line leaders — the boots on the ground. Some companies push policy only from the top and expect employees to buy into that. But we’ve found that our front-line leaders know and understand the business better than anybody, so we need their feedback about what works well and what doesn’t work well.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.