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October 2013

Oregon bootmaker taps into company's soul

A SHARP success story
By Melanie Mesaros

In the 1980s, the West Coast Shoe Company was faced with a wave of employee retirements and new, more inexperienced employees were hired to replace them. The handcrafted boots manufacturer in Scappoose saw injuries such as back strains and muscle pain begin to increase.

"I remember there was an article in the Oregonian about carpel tunnel and some of our employees were saying, 'That's what I have,'" said Roberta Shoemaker, who took over as the third-generation leader of the business started in 1918.

At that time, Shoemaker said the company was spending $100,000 a year in workers' compensation premiums and was in the high-risk insurance pool for its injury rate. She said the economic impact on the company was crippling.

It wasn't until Shoemaker started working with Oregon OSHA consultation that things began to turn around. There was a new focus on ergonomics, management training, and employee participation. Employees were cross-trained to ease the time spent on repetitive tasks and the safety committee was provided training regarding ergonomic risk factors.

"We tackled the higher risk things first – workstation heights, use of hand tools and vibration, lighting, and stretching," she said.

The other key to building safety momentum came with grassroots employee involvement, said Jeff Jackson, an Oregon OSHA consultant who saw the company through the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) process. West Coast Shoe graduated in August after five years of continuous improvement in the program.

"Some companies drop out and don't have the commitment to see the process through," said Jackson. "West Coast Shoe was able to develop a positive and active safety culture that was integrated into their daily business activities. With staff and management working together, employees built trust and weren't willing to fail."

Factory supervisor Kris Oman said the company made sure employees were reporting injuries and asked them to be creative and honest with ideas for solutions. The business had a safety committee since the 1960s, but only in recent years had it become a group making a big difference.

"They started to realize slowly, 'We have a voice and we will be heard,'" said Oman. "They started seeing the changes."

Jackson said it's one of the biggest turnarounds he's witnessed as an Oregon OSHA consultant.

"The employees really took ownership of the safety and health programs," said Jackson. "This could not have been done without the company demonstrating a strong commitment by funding solutions and creating an open-door policy to voice concerns. The management empowered workers to find the best way to perform tasks."

Not only has the company reinvested workers' compensation savings, it has brought the total case injury rate down from 29.5 percent in 2006 to 4.9 percent in 2012. The company experienced two years with no recordable injuries during the five-year SHARP process. Employees had one day of restricted duty in 2012, with no time-loss incidents.

"It's self-fulfilling to me to see what the employees have accomplished," Shoemaker said. "It adds substance to the company and has led to increases in our production."

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