As the safety director for Universal Blastco in Sumter, SC, Reggie Epps is dedicated to the wellbeing of his employees. Long before the worldwide pandemic made remote work ubiquitous, Epps managed the distribution of safety information to employees throughout the US and its territories.
“While we have offices in four states — South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Michigan — our crews are even more spread out than that,” Epps says. “When we’re gearing up for outages, we can have people flying in from Puerto Rico, so when we say remote, we mean remote.”
In addition to the pulp and paper industry, Universal Blastco, which focuses on industrial coatings and linings, also serves the chemical and petrochemical, mining and minerals, and power generation industries. Safety is not just a passing thought; the corporate website calls safety the “most important part of every single employee’s job.” Each employee is given the company president’s cell phone number and is encouraged to call with any safety concerns. “We are absolutely committed to a culture that helps employees integrate safe practices in all areas of their lives,” Epps explains.
That extends to their training as well. In the past, Epps had to determine ways for his geographically dispersed teams to become oriented to not only his company’s safety policies, but also the policies for each mill they would be working at. “It was a huge undertaking to make sure that we got them everything they needed — from applications, to drug testing, to the correct safety orientations before they showed up on the job,” he says. “Even if you had a system onsite, or a supervisor, that was already too late. The optimum way to engage employees is to prepare them before they get to the jobsite.”
With more than 200 people passing through the company’s system each year, Epps said one consistent challenge was the possibility of not connecting at all with some individuals until the next outage. This prolonged absence of communication often meant gaps in their safety orientations and other onsite facility requirements. Trying to assemble that information into a cohesive record for every individual scheduled to work an outage became a real challenge. Epps decided there had to be a better way to facilitate Universal Blastco’s employee safety record-keeping and orientation program.
Epps says he stumbled onto his solution quite accidently about five or six years ago while attending a safety meeting at an Arkansas mill. He discovered that this mill, among quite a few others in the company’s portfolio, used an online platform called TAPPISAFE for both its own employees’ onsite orientation and for the many different contractors that visited the site. “What really caught my attention is that the program was built by the pulp and paper industry for the industry,” Epps says. “It had already been vetted by the big-name paper and tissue companies and, for a smaller company like us, that served as quite an endorsement.”
One of the benefits that Epps appreciates is that his dispersed employees are getting the same safety message. With the online platform, everyone receives and answers the same questions so it’s easier to see just how much and how well that information is being retained. Epps feels that type of consistency is important when you can’t be in front of each student all the time. Plus, the electronic recordkeeping makes checking orientation histories instantly accessible. In addition, TAPPISAFE also took Universal Blastco’s own employee orientation and made it specific to the pulp and paper industry. “That helped cement that going with this program was the best decision we could have made,” he notes.
Epps has integrated the TAPPISAFE information into Universal Blastco’s proprietary platform, which produces a daily report that he uses to review not only for employee safety information, but also to track what sites employees have worked at and the correlated training that must accompany any site visit. With an automatic alert at the 12-month expiration, he is able to coordinate with project supervisors to ensure everyone arrives onsite properly prepped and ready to work.
“We have taken the data and done so much more with it internally than just noting whether an individual has had required orientations,” Epps says. “It doesn’t matter if you are working at a mill or a power plant: understanding the hazards of confined spaces or scaffolding work, or learning fall protection, is important no matter what industry you’re working in. Being able to ensure that our employees can go in and take what they need, with or without prompting, is all part of the culture at Universal Blastco that says safe practices are important everywhere and all the time.”