Communication is Key to Safety in Massive Conversion Project

How do you complete 2.5 million work hours during a major mill conversion without a single lost-time incident? According to Charlie Floyd, vice president, Packaging Strategic Capital for Domtar, the key is communication. And lots of it.

For more than 20 years, Domtar’s Kingsport, TN, mill produced uncoated free sheet paper. Yet by 2018, the industry was facing declining demand, and Domtar leadership began developing a strategy to diversify.

Then came Covid-19.

Paper use, particularly uncoated freesheet, went downhill fast. The diversification plan accelerated, and the mill was idled to prepare for and eventually undergo an extensive conversion to 100 percent recycled containerboard. Dubbed “Project Smoky” in reference to the Smoky Mountains that straddle the North Carolina/Tennessee border, the conversion took more than two years and 2.5 million work hours to complete.

“Repurposing Kingsport enabled us to balance our uncoated free sheet capacity with customer demand and reposition the mill into a growing market producing sustainable packaging products,” explains Floyd.

It also meant bringing onsite between 50 – 70 different contracting companies and more than 1,000 personnel at peak who provided a myriad of services, from demolition to reconstruction to retrofitting equipment. Floyd says that each company, prior to coming onsite, must meet Domtar qualifications and achieve a satisfactory grade in ISNetworld® (ISN®) to ensure that their safety values and practices aligned with Domtar’s. Then, in addition to drug testing, each craftsman working onsite was required to complete online TAPPISAFE training.

“Prior to setting foot on site, each contractor also had to take a special half-day review of construction rules specifically for this job,” Floyd notes. “One of the major obstacles we had to overcome was hiring quality field contract labor, which has been challenging the last few years, and was amplified during the pandemic.” Many of the contractors, he says, had never been in a paper mill before and he credits their TAPPISAFE training for helping them work in this new environment without fear, and with a focus on safety.


Floyd outlines the distinct challenges faced with so many different contractors on site: “It’s almost impossible to influence the culture of contractors and craftsmen who will only be here for a brief timeframe—and it is very different than driving a safety culture in a group of permanent operations employees.”

Influencing the safety behavior of contract employees required specific emphases:

  • Keep each person focused on safety of the job at hand and resisting distractions (such as the pandemic).
  • Resist the temptation to take short cuts, especially when no one is looking—including on the night shift.
  • Emphasize tasks that are more common to construction safety (overhead lifts, caution tape use, uneven surfaces, working from heights, etc.).
  • Ensure that the workforce knows you care about them, getting in front of them regularly even though headcount exceeded 1,000 people at times.

“Getting in front of them regularly” was where communication played such a key role. According to Floyd, throughout the conversion, each contractor’s safety representative was required to attend periodic safety review meetings, while each supervisor was required to conduct a “Safety Tailgate Meeting” at the beginning of each shift. Additionally, at several points during the construction effort, if mill leadership felt the safety focus was slipping, they would do three things:

  1. Have Domtar leadership attend the Tailgate Meetings;
  2. Conduct a separate “Safety Stand-Down” meeting to drive home Domtar’s concerns; and
  3. Help the contract workforce understand the transition from construction to check-out and live operation (lock-out tag-out respect).

“The single most important message we conveyed consistently through our words and actions,” says Floyd, “was to let contract support personnel know Domtar cared about and valued them, and our priority was for them to return home safely to their families.”

Clearly, that goal was attained as Project Smoky now holds the distinction of being one of the largest and statistically safest capital investment projects Domtar has ever done. And that’s definitely worth communicating.

TAPPISAFE is a web-based orientation program that allows the workforce to take industry-specific training online so they arrive at the mill ready for gate entry. Learn more at