Curtis Lumber Co. has long been a model of workplace safety. Now the company's loss control director, Phil Kniskern, is spreading that gospel through his involvement in an innovative program OSHA launched recently to assist companies interested in bringing their work sites up to standards set by the organization's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP).

OSHA started VPP in 1982 to promote work site safety and health through performance-based criteria and assessment. After a rigorous initial on-site evaluation process and acceptance into the program, participating companies submit annual self-evaluations, and their sites undergo biannual OSHA inspections. Roughly 800 work sites nationwide are VPP-certified, and they report lost-workday incidence rates 50 to 80 below the average for their respective industries. John Henshaw, OSHA's administrator, wants to expand VPP to 8,000 sites, which he claims would reduce annual workplace injuries by 96,000. To that end, OSHA initiated VPP Challenge, a mentoring program that uses existing VPP sites and their officials to provide other companies with “stepping stones” toward program certification.

Curtis' locations in Granville and Schroon Lake, N.Y., are the only retail lumberyards in the country in VPP, according to OSHA records. Kniskern planned to submit applications for two more of the Ballston Spa, N.Y.–based dealer's 11 yards in May, and another two by year's end.

Kniskern, who sits on OSHA's VPP Challenge subcommittee, also has been counseling Rhinebeck, N.Y.–based Williams Lumber on how it could make its seven yards safer. In 2001, Williams Lumber was uninsurable after years of escalating accident rates, according to its director of safety and development Ron Coons, who has been working to bring Williams' yards into compliance with the New York Department of Labor's Safety and Health Achievement and Recognition Program (SHARP). Williams' first SHARP-certified site, in Tannersville, N.Y., hasn't had a recordable injury in two-and-a-half years. Yards in High Falls and Hopewell Junction are SHARP-bound. Last year, insurance payouts for injuries at Williams Lumber declined 80 percent from 2001, says Coons.

Eight Curtis yards are SHARP-inspected, and numerous other pro dealers submit their sites to similar state-sanctioned safety and health checks. Under Texas' OSHA Consultation Program, R.E. Sweeney, a 200-employee dealer in Fort Worth, Texas, annually receives visits from inspectors who evaluate its workplace and identify safety problems the dealer can fix without threat of fines. In the past two years, R.E. Sweeney has had only one lost-time injury, says its president, Don DeGroot, chair of NLBMDA's Government Affairs Committee. An outside consultant, Dallas-based Holland & Associates, spends two days a month on Sweeney's premises conducting safety and health classes, surveying its facilities, and keeping its safety records current.

Casco, Maine–based Hancock Lumber conducts quarterly safety audits of its 10 yards, three sawmills, and millwork plant. Inspectors approved by Maine's Department of Labor visit regularly and make recommendations about procedures and equipment. Last year, Hancock, with 500 employees, had only four lost-time accidents, versus 87 in 1987 when it had 250 workers. Gregg Speed, Hancock's safety director, said some yards are “very close” to applying for VPP. He observed that “employee buy-in” is essential to this program's execution, to the point where “the inmates are running the asylum,” he quipped. Kniskern agreed, noting that VPP requires a “more intense” corporate culture where employees take responsibility for safety auditing, training, and accident reporting.

This type of support wasn't always so at Curtis Lumber, which OSHA cited for 25 safety violations between 1973 and 1992. Since he assumed the loss control position in 1991,Kniskern has rewired Curtis' safety mind-set, to the point where VPP's procedures serve as Curtis Lumber's safety manual. Last year, the retailer had 17 recordable accidents, and five yards were injury-free. Its incidence rate is less than half that of retail lumberyards tracked under SIC 5211.

VPP gives Curtis Lumber access to best practices of other companies in the program. For example, Kniskern recently consulted with General Electric about behavior-based safety. It also has given Kniskern a greater appreciation for the challenges OSHA's 1,123 inspectors face. “They can't be everywhere,” says Kniskern, who has signed on for OSHA's Special Government Employee Program, which deputizes officials from VPP companies to inspect sites on behalf of OSHA. In early April, Kniskern said his team had done audits at two U.S. Postal Service sites.

Now there's a role reversal. What goes around really does sometimes come around, and the benefits of looking at safety through the glasses of an inspector are destined to help more companies develop top-notch safety compliance programs.