When I learned officials of the Frankfurt International Airport in Germany were planning to build a new runway right next to the 40-year-old original Celanese Ticona polyoxymethylene (POM) facility, I thought, "No problem, we'll just move."
Then the situation's enormity hit. We had to build a new plant and move operations there while maintaining production of the acetal copolymers at the original facility — all while adding minimal headcount. I realized this was a rare project that only comes around once in a career, and it wouldn't be easy. It would force everyone involved to deliver more than they thought they could.
In November 2006, after several years of discussion, we finalized negotiations with the airport officials and the state government for Celanese to move the plant. The new runway's construction permit was granted in 2008, and the first jet was scheduled to land on October 1, 2011. We had three-and-a-half years to complete the project. The race to the 2011 deadline was a marathon, and we crossed the finish line on September 26, 2011, when the new plant opened in the nearby Frankfurt Hoechst Industrial Park.
After the earliest stages of construction, Celanese assumed responsibility for all issues related to safety. In the more than three million working hours logged during construction and commissioning of the new plant since the safety responsibility change, zero serious injuries occurred.
The combination of size, quantity of materials and number of employees and contractors made this a complicated project. The plant required 40,000 m3 of concrete, 800 km of cable, 8,000 tonnes of steel and about 100 km of piping. In addition to the Celanese Ticona specialists, we employed around 1,200 workers at the construction site. About 400 engineers at facilities in China, Germany, India, Netherlands and Poland also were involved in the project.
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To successfully manage the vast complexity, we implemented new safety standards. These were stricter than government requirements and more stringent than our current standards. Then using these standards, we changed the safety culture by focusing on four key areas: 1) securing the right team and thoroughly training the team in safety; 2) maintaining constant dialogue among groups; 3) ensuring collaboration; and 4) conducting routine safety checks. The new safety standards established for this project set a benchmark for the European — and perhaps global — chemical industry.
CONFRONTING WORKFORCE CHALLENGES
Construction projects of this size typically start with a construction management contractor and then expand with several construction teams. In building our qualified teams, we brought together workers from 55 nations — representing multiple cultures and religions, speaking 25 languages and even more dialects, and displaying different attitudes toward work.
The different approaches to work and safety standards made safety training the most critical part of the project. Workers more familiar with the culture of construction than that of manufacturing operations accepted accidents as part of the job. This belief was especially true for personnel used to working in countries with lower safety standards. Our challenge was to bring their focus on safety up to Celanese standards.
One of our first steps was to collaborate with our construction contractor to establish our safety organization and programs. We agreed to form one comprehensive safety team involving all onsite parties rather than having separate teams for each contractor.
We required 100% participation in training and conducted sessions all day and in multiple languages or with translators. Everyone participated in site introduction training. Then, each person received training specific to his or her role — and also had to complete working-on-heights training, which instructors delivered on a specially built scaffold to simulate real-world scenarios.
"Safety began at the entrance to the industrial park with an induction available in multiple languages and an exam to pass," notes Ted Thorpe, project director for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a Celanese customer who spent time at the site during construction.
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We continued to improve the safety programs throughout the project — especially after four recordable safety incidents in May and June 2010. While the incidents themselves weren't serious, we were on the cusp of the peak of the construction workforce, with piping, electrical and instrumentation scheduled for the next eight months, so we needed to prepare accordingly.
We learned that people typically don't deliver if they're not accountable. So, with the goal to maintain safety, we created and implemented a new cyclical work process consisting of five elements:
1. setting and meeting expectations;
2. engaging all work levels in the field;
3. reinforcing safe behaviors;
4. recognizing good safety performance; and
5. measuring safety performance.
We went through the five steps and then started over, using metrics to initiate action and set and meet expectations.
"I particularly liked the way both Ticona and their construction manager went to lengths to ensure safe working by such a multilingual workforce. Exactly as we would expect a GSK construction site to be managed," says Thorpe.
DEVELOPING THE RIGHT CULTURE
On peak staffing days, up to 1,400 people worked onsite. To some, this scenario would have been a logistical nightmare but we were used to it. Starting on day one of this project, all the main project disciplines had to collaborate to change the safety culture. The teams representing environmental health and safety, operations, procurement and contract management, as well as project and construction management kept the information flowing regarding potential hazards.
Communication was a priority. Therefore, we talked about safety at every opportunity and shared information in multiple languages and media. Early each morning, a combination of Celanese representatives, our construction contractor and its subcontractor leaders hosted a mass safety meeting and a safety task analysis for all work groups. During these meetings, which were attended by as many as 500 to 700 workers, we reviewed the day's main activities and safety issues as well as discussed feedback. Senior construction managers also hosted crew lunches to gather feedback.
When customers visited the site, they wore appropriate safety gear and were escorted at all times. "The site was kept clear with good separation of personnel and vehicles," GSK's Thorpe recalls.
We learned that we had to drive hard to achieve a high-performing safety culture. To do that, we had to engage all workers. It took creativity and perseverance to attain the level of engagement we wanted. In addition to the morning meetings, we set up ten knowledge centers (Figure 1) as onsite safety havens for each of the main construction units. The centers were convenient locations for safety information, drinking water and safety equipment, and served as central points to hold meetings. We also added pedestrian walkways in vehicle-congested areas and better fencing and handrails on scaffolds to avoid falling objects and improve visibility; we also required workers to wear safety harnesses in all elevated areas including scaffolds.
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To reinforce the culture, we posted signage, posters and slogans. One of the most popular safety event guests was "Safety Johnny," our stuffed worker mascot, who constantly fell from ladders, scaffolds, stairs and pipe racks and found himself underneath moving trucks. After such incidents, we demonstrated and discussed the right way to be safe.
Another challenge was high turnover among workers during different project phases. When those specializing in civil engineering were finished, other workers such as the piping team came in and needed to be acclimated to the culture. The constant dialogue was a huge help in bringing new teams up to our standards.
Routine safety checks became commonplace. Various managers took informal safety walks throughout the day to watch for potential issues and reward safe behavior with small presents. These safety walks provided us with our main metrics and also helped us monitor progress using safety observation cards to detect and solve safety issues. We also had a monthly lottery with prizes for each month without an incident.
A POSITIVE MOVE
The unexpected could happen to anyone. We turned the unexpected into a new facility that will produce 140,000 tons of POM annually. In the process, we created an engaged safety culture and achieved a turnaround in safety performance.
We now are transferring safety tools and processes to other sites and businesses within Celanese and across the industry. Authorities responsible for supervising construction projects in Germany have requested the tools we used. IGR, the Community of Interest for Industrial Practices, which is a technical council of German chemical companies, has recognized our efforts, and the European Chemical Industry Council presented Celanese a commendation for our contractor safety practices.
Each day during the project, I reminded myself and the management team that the workers came to the site safe this morning, so let's get them home safe again tonight. It's how we should approach every construction project as well as each day's work.
KARL FRED WOERNER is European Union health and safety leader for Celanese, Dallas. E-mail him at K.Woerner@celanese.com.