Domtar’s Safety Journey

Over its 170-year history, Domtar has seen a tremendous amount of growth and change. Today’s Domtar is unified, in part, by an unrelenting focus on safety. It’s been an interesting and fruitful journey.


A dozen years ago, Domtar was already a leading pulp and paper manufacturer with a history stretching back more than a century—not the type of company typically associated with massive organizational change. Yet in 2007, that’s exactly what happened when Domtar Inc. more than doubled its assets by acquiring the Fine Paper business of Weyerhaeuser Company.

Today, Domtar employs 10,000 people, is the largest integrated manufacturer and marketer of uncoated freesheet paper in North America, and is one of the largest manufacturers of pulp in the world. Domtar’s 13 pulp and paper mills and 10 paper converting facilities total 3 million tpy of papermaking capacity and 1.8 million air-dried metric tons (ADMT) of market pulp capacity annually.

Domtar’s mill in Kingsport, TN, one of the fine paper assets “the new Domtar” acquired in 2007 from Weyerhaeuser. The Kingsport mill was awarded the 2017 Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration Governor’s Award of Excellence for Workplace Safety, after reaching 1 million hours without a recordable incident. Photo courtesy of Domtar.

Along with that tremendous change came tremendous opportunity. “It certainly was a unification of two different styles,” says Marty Barfield, pulp production manager at Domtar’s Plymouth, NC, mill. “Domtar was already made of several other companies; we really had a blending of different cultures into what we called ‘the new Domtar.’ It was a learning process to see the different ways people did safety, quality, or a number of other functions. For me, it was like starting with a blank canvas—we could craft how we wanted our safety process to be, using our collective experiences.”


The organization seized that opportunity to begin a safety journey that continues today. They began by developing an audit protocol that has been improved over the years into its current form, Barfield says. The goal: to create a culture of cooperation between Domtar’s safety professionals. “We started by establishing a monthly working safety call to bring everyone together,” he says. “We would work through important issues that needed to be shared from a corporate perspective, as well as providing a stage for mills to share their experiences so others could learn.”

These foundational days were important in that they established the implementation of progressive systems that resulted in a safer work culture, Barfield notes. “We needed to develop a leadership component, which meant focusing on the history of injuries and incidents from our different companies, and from that perspective put in place programs and systems to address the issues that were causing incidents.”

The strategy produced rapid results. “When the companies came together, our recordable incident rate was slightly over two. Today, our incident rate is .75,” says Barfield. “We were able to cut it in half pretty quick; we went from 2.14 to the 1.4 range within the first four years. But you know, as you improve, it gets harder.”

Since 2007, Domtar has reduced recordable workplace injuries by 66 percent, and has a company-wide goal of a 0.5 recordable incident frequency rate by 2020. Image courtesy of Domtar.

After the initial slate of systems was put in place, Domtar leaders knew they needed to maintain that momentum. “The Weyerhaeuser/Domtar deal benefitted significantly from senior leadership within the new organization that was very focused on safety, with high expectations for safety performance and the way safety is viewed in the organization,” says Larry Warren, senior director of Health and Safety for the Pulp and Paper Division.

Barfield concurs. “I personally don’t think you attain the results we’ve attained without the significant, actionable commitment of leadership. That means being visible, being a flag-bearer, driving those systems approaches. That leadership, combined with the focus, effort, and dedication of all Domtar employees, has resulted in the positive impacts on our organization.”

When Domtar was ready for the next step, its safety leaders began to look at Human Performance Improvement (HPI) and error precursors. “That’s been the systemic approach that has helped us move to the next level,” Barfield says.


Around 2013, several Domtar professionals attended a Pulp and Paper Safety Association (PPSA) conference in Williamsburg, VA, Warren recalls. “We heard safety consultant Shane Bush talk about HPI, and we felt Domtar was ready to undertake the initiative. Allan Bohn, senior director of health and safety for Domtar at that point in time, brought it back and presented it to the organization.”

HPI is based on work cataloged by the US Department of Energy. Much of this material was drawn from the work in the nuclear power generation industry in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of an unplanned event and the potential for a catastrophic result. The DOE makes HPI manuals available on-line, free of charge.

Still, Domtar’s safety professionals felt that attempting to undertake this effort without the support of a subject matter professional would not give them the results they wanted. “The learning curve would be too long to get to the point of beginning to make a positive impact on the organization,” Warren says. They worked with Shane Bush to get things started.

HPI involves three major areas: philosophy, investigation, and error reduction tools. “Early on in our journey, the investigation tool was often mistakenly thought of as the most important portion; however, our evolution has indicated that understanding and applying the philosophy is probably the most impactful part,” Warren says. “That understanding partially came through training and partially flowed out of the results of investigations.”

At a very high level, the philosophy of HPI involves the following ideas:

  • All humans are fallible and even the best make mistakes
  • It’s not about “fixing” the worker
  • Errors—something you did not intend to do—are predictable, preventable, and manageable
  • Individual performance is influenced by organizational processes and values
  • It is possible to reduce future error occurrences and minimize the impact of those that occur
  • A just culture—how employees are treated, responding appropriately to errors, and becoming a learning organization—is critical.

The investigation process builds on HPI philosophy. If an error is something a worker did not intend to do, what was the context that resulted in his or her decision to act in that way at that point in time?

Part of the investigation process deals with determining the error precursors that were present that may have led to the decision that resulted in the unwanted outcome. A key part of the investigation process focuses on determining the gap between work as imagined—what leaders thought or expected to be going on—and work as actually performed, or what actually happened. The decisions around the event are analyzed through what is called “a Just Culture Decision Tree.”

The process forces leadership to take a hard look at the expectations they place on staff, Warren says. “There are numerous ways to fail with HPI, and I think the primary one is lack of leadership commitment. About 50 percent of the errors or events turn out to be organizational, so senior leadership needs to be committed to that path and willing to hear things about the organization that might not be pleasant.”

That leads to the final piece of the investigation process: the creation of effective corrective actions to truly eliminate the gap between work as imagined and work as performed, in order to reduce the likelihood of a future occurrence.

Workers at Domtar’s Windsor, QC, mill. In 2016, Windsor was one of three Domtar mills (along with the mills in Ashdown, AR, and Hawesville, KY) to log 1 million working hours without reporting a recordable incident. It was the second time in three years that the Windsor mill reached that milestone. Photo courtesy of Domtar.

The third major portion of HPI is error reduction and prevention. Since error-likely situations are predictable and a just culture allows employees to identify situations where there are concerns regarding the potential for unwanted outcomes, tools and practices can be deployed to reduce the likelihood of undesirable results. For Domtar, this has led to efforts to proactively prevent issues rather than reactively respond to issues.

“Domtar’s experience with HPI has been the most influential portion of our growing understanding of human behavior and the impact on our overall performance and, specifically, our safety performance,” says Warren. “This growth would not have been possible had it not been for the PPSA, Shane Bush, and all the employees at Domtar who have expended much time and effort on it.”


The journey will continue, Warren says. “Most people started thinking about HPI in terms of safety, but really it’s about overall human performance. We’ve actually begun to use these tools for supply chain issues, HR issues, environmental issues—many areas other than safety, as it becomes more and more engrained into the way we do business at Domtar.”

The safety success has become part of Domtar’s core values, says Terry Hughes, safety manager at Domtar’s Kingsport, TN, mill. “The caring attitude is evident in all we do. We’re agile—we can change as we see fit and we’re not afraid of it. We’re innovative, so people on the floor come up with ideas for improvement. That engagement in safety—from the guy working on the machine up to the CEO—is always evident.”

Barfield says that, for Domtar, safety has been “a journey in continuous improvement. That’s evidenced by the reduction of our incident rate, by the application of systems, by the addition of HPI, by our work with TAPPISAFE—it has not been a stagnant process. This journey has relied on many intelligent people who have great ideas, and have come together in a culture of understanding, learning, and application. It’s been great to see how we’ve progressed over the years.”

Larry Warren is senior director, Health and Safety, Domtar; reach him at [email protected]. Jan Bottiglieri is editorial director for Paper360°; reach her at [email protected].

Domtar’s mill in Kingsport, TN, one of the fine paper assets “the new Domtar” acquired in 2007 from Weyerhaeuser. The Kingsport mill was awarded the 2017 Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration Governor’s Award of Excellence for Workplace Safety, after reaching 1 million hours without a recordable incident. Photo courtesy of Domtar.

Want to Learn More? PPSA Offers Webinar, Workshop, Conference

As part of its journey toward safety improvement, Domtar implemented HPI, which stands for Human Performance Improvement. As more organizations express interest in the program’s potential, The Pulp and Paper Safety Association (PPSA) is working to help foster successful implementation of HPI in our industry.

On Tuesday, February 19 at 2:00 p.m. EST, the PPSA will host a webinar featuring consultant Shane Bush, a long-time trainer in the field of HPI. During the webinar, Bush will share his knowledge of what conditions must exist in order for HPI to take root and grow within an organization, and will identify the primary reasons for failure.

Also, PPSA is planning a workshop focused on how to implement HPI. Once you know what it takes to start and the things to avoid, how can you ensure a successful implementation?  This workshop is tentatively planned for June 26-27 in conjunction with the annual PPSA conference on June 23-26, in San Antonio, TX.

To register for the webinar, or to learn more about the HPI workshop and the PPSA 2019 Conference, visit

TAPPISAFE Works at Domtar Ashdown

Terry Hughes, the safety manager at Domtar’s Kingsport, TN, mill, brings almost two decades of experience from the fire and safety services to his current position. Hughes says that safety issues in a mill environment are not much different from public fire and safety—all present a 24/7 situation, with no chance to relax your vigilance.

Previously, Hughes served as safety manager at Domtar’s Ashdown, AR mill, the company’s largest mill facility. With nearly 1,000 employees and an annual production capacity of close to three-quarters of a million tons of paper, Domtar people sometimes say, “If it can work at Ashdown, it can work elsewhere.”

As Domtar advanced on its safety journey, Ashdown mill management felt that its old training methods were not achieving the necessary success levels. “Specifically, we talked about our contractor management,” says Hughes. “A large percentage of serious injuries and fatalities in our industry occur with contractors. So we looked hard at how we managed our contractors, and what other industry organizations were doing.”


In 2013, Hughes learned about the new TAPPISAFE Safety Orientation Program. “I liked it from the standpoint that it catered to the pulp and paper industry, the folks were easy to get along with, and they looked at some of the existing processes that we had, so we didn’t need to start from scratch,” he says.

Instead of one contractor team member taking the orientation and passing on information to the other team members, TAPPISAFE allows all contractor team members to take the TAPPISAFE Basic and Site Specific Orientation modules online and receive individual certification. The mill had the program in place about a year before a huge project put TAPPISAFE to the test.

“In early 2015, Ashdown began converting a paper machine to a fluff pulp machine, so we had over a thousand to two thousand contractors coming into our mill,” says Hughes. “TAPPISAFE really saved us by ensuring that the contractors coming on board were orientated to the hazards that exist in our mill, and what we do to mitigate them.”

In addition to an enhanced level of safety orientation, Domtar Ashdown challenged TAPPISAFE to develop the GateCheck Application, which can read each contractor’s TAPPISAFE badge and record information. This gave Ashdown a way to audit time card reports and create a list of workers on the mill site. Ashdown was the first mill using TAPPISAFE to implement GateCheck for a capital project.

Domtar now has representation on the TAPPISAFE Advisory Board and Curriculum Committee. Along with International Paper, which also uses TAPPISAFE, Domtar is working with TAPPISAFE to standardize four additional courses: lockout/tagout, hot work, confined space, and confined space attendant.

Says Hughes, “TAPPISAFE works, and it’s still in use at Ashdown today. We’re now in the process of bringing it to Kingsport.”