Rome-based Southeastern Mills has been recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for its creation of, and commitment to, a work environment free of safety and health hazards.

Southeastern Mills has been designated as an honoree of the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program, SHARP, by the federal workplace safety watchdogs. Perhaps the most significant benefit of the designation is that it has earned SEM an exemption from OSHA program inspections for two years, with a chance to renew that exemption for another three years.

How significant is the program? Consider the plight of Truss Components of Atlanta Inc. The company, just this past week, was cited by OSHA with one failure-to-abate, five repeat and two serious safety and health violations. Proposed penalties total $92,851, with $36,960 levied for repeat citations.

Daniel J. Ortiz, manager of the Occupational Safety and Health Cooperative Programs Office at Georgia Tech, met with employee representatives of Southeastern Mills to present plaques and a flag recognizing the company’s efforts.

“It’s a very special recognition,” Ortiz said. “It recognizes a company’s injury and illness rates. It recognizes your hazard recognition and control program. But what sets a SHARP company apart is their safety and hazard management system.”

Ortiz said having a complete buy-in for safety is critical at every level. Whether it is the worker on the floor, the supervisor, maintenance, engineering — every facet all the way up through management must be involved in the process.

“Otherwise it fails,” he said. “So everybody has to contribute to it, be a willing partner through the process.”

The Georgia Tech consultant told SEM employees the program cannot stop with the SHARP designation.

“It continues to operate so that when new challenges you will be faced with arise, you have a system in place to respond to them,” Ortiz said.

A SHARP eye

Jason Marion, vice president for human resources at SEM, said the recognition is huge for the company.

“We set the highest of expectations in everything that that we do,” Marion said. “The operations team set out to accomplish this, and they put their heads down, worked diligently and were not going to give up until we reached this certification. If I know this team, they’ll be looking for what’s next.”

Steve Peace, safety manager at SEM, said what makes the recognition all the more significant is that the program honored all three of the Southeastern Mills facilities individually with the SHARP designation. The awards went to the mill at 100 E. First Ave. in downtown Rome, the corporate facility at 333 Old Lindale Road and the Custom Food Coating facility at 5 Douglas St.

“This shows that the company is committed to sending everybody home safe and uninjured every day that they come to work,” Peace said.

“We work in a high speed manufacturing environment and there’s a lot of moving parts, so there’s a lot of things that go into saying safety is important,” Marion said.

It’s something they live by, said Cody Holloway, a member of the safety team that led the effort to achieve the recognition.

“It’s our culture, and we’ll continue to raise the bar,” he said.

Mitch Cooper, another member of the safety team, said meeting the standards set by OSHA’s 50-item checklist has established Southeastern Mills as a benchmark for safety throughout the food industry.

“It’s hard to remember all of those things we did. We did walk throughs, we did programs, we did training,” Cooper said.

Marion said the employee safety team recognized the importance of addressing unsafe behavior.

“This team has gotten really comfortable with being confident — and having close-enough relationships with one another that they can address behavior,” Marion said. “We recognize and understand that 90 percent of all accidents happen due to unsafe behavior, and so we make that a top priority in our organization to address unsafe behavior.”

Tangible benefits

Apart from plaques that will go up on a wall and an outside flag that will make passers-by wonder at the symbolism, getting the SHARP designation does carry some inherent, tangible benefits.

Southeastern Mills has put itself in position to save money through lower workers compensation insurance premiums, enhanced employee retention — which reduces turnover and training expenses — and reduced days away from work, which keeps production running smoothly.

Ortiz gave employees of Southeastern Mills some context during his presentation of the SHARP awards.

He said the Georgia Tech small business consultation program typically assists as many as 175 companies across Georgia each year. His staff may make several visits to each facility and uncovers about 4,000 worker-safety hazards each year.

For all three SEM facilities to come through the inspections clean is extremely unusual, he said.

SEM safety team member Bennie Madden credits the honor to “years of hard work and dedication to meet a specific goal. We set the highest one possible.”

The Safety First culture has helped create a better working environment, boosted employee morale and quite possibly extended a culture of safety that has been transferred to the larger Rome community as SEM employees carry their workplace safety practices home with them, officials said.

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