Safety first at John Deere

November 5, 2008   by Ron Richardson

The safety team at John Deere Welland Works includes Leo Walsh, Dawn Elliott and Shawn Finlay, director of health and safety and a member of the IAPA board of directors.

Photo: Rodney Daw

Achievement can bring recognition. Such is the case of the all-out safety effort that produced a big win for Ontario’s John Deere Welland Works in Welland, Ont. The plant achieved a four-year accident-free record to earn a President’s Award last April from the Ontario Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA)—the most prestigious honour the Toronto-based safety organization can bestow on its members.

Sadly, Deere & Co. announced in September that it’s closing the Welland plant, where it makes utility vehicles and attachments for agricultural, commercial and consumer equipment, by the end of 2009. Eight hundred jobs will be lost in a consolidation move that will send production of Gator utility vehicles to Horicon, Wis. Cutting and loading attachments will be transferred to Deere’s operations in Monterrey and Saltillo, Mexico.


Just the same, manufacturers can still learn from the Welland Works’ example, as part of a safety record that reflects Deere’s global reputation for protecting its workers from occupational accidents.

Operating in 27 countries, with more than 50,000 employees, the global company turns out agriculture, forestry, construction, consumer and other related products painted in its distinctive corporate colours of green and yellow, and its facilities are rated among the safest manufacturing environments in the world.

“You are more likely to have an accident in an office job or at home than in one of our plants,” says Laura Zelnio, Deere & Co.’s director of environmental safety and health. Under Deere’s Environment Health and Safety policy, the company’s global injury rates in 2007 were at the lowest point ever, and a 7% improvement over the previous year.

“We have a single, worldwide safety management system, whether you are working in Brazil, India or Canada.”

Employee safety
Ergonomics rate high on the list of plant safety considerations at the 171-year-old firm, with global headquarters based in Moline, Ill. Deere designs workstations and plant operations to eliminate repetitive and awkward movements, thus reducing injuries and disorders associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture and repetitive tasks.

The company considers this accident-reduction concern so important, it has built a virtual reality theatre dedicated to optimizing ergonomics. Located at its Waterloo (Iowa) Works, the facility allows engineers and others to immerse themselves in a computer-generated representation of a work environment to examine product and component designs for potential ergonomic hazards before manufacturing begins.

Ergonomics is also a strong safety focus at Deere’s Welland Works, a Niagara region factory that dates back to 1910. The facility has been running 24/7 in three shifts, with 820 employees (670 hourly rated and 150 salaried). Core products include front loaders, rotary cutters and utility vehicles that produce annual sales of more than $50 million.

As part of its ergonomic improvement activities, the plant hired co-op students in this field from Waterloo University. These keen-eyed observers were drawn from the university’s fourth year students in kinesiology—or more simply put, the study of the principles and anatomy in relation to human movement.

“Every term we [brought] in a different student and this onsite involvement has worked out really well for us,” says Shawn Finlay, the plant’s director of health and safety, who also serves as an elected member of the IAPA board of directors.

“We’ve had a great group of students with us and each one offered us a different outlook, observations and recommendations. They cover the entire plant, workcell by workcell. In addition to preparing a work safety recommendation report for management, they also discussed safety practices with each workcell group,” says Finlay.

As an example of just one element in the plant-wide quest for that possible but elusive zero accidents goal, Finlay says the practices include training schedules for all employees, accident root cause analysis is done by supervisors, and reporting all injuries and near-miss incidents. There are also weekly meetings with general manager Donald De Bastiani to discuss overall health and safety issues.

Computers located throughout the plant allow workers easy access to safety information and the latest safety manual updates are on the in-plant home page.

The Welland Works also uses the DuPont-developed “Stop” behaviour-based safety program. Also employed are the 5S plant housekeeping principals: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain.

“Nothing is stored on floors, there are painted floor line markings to direct and route traffic, proper lighting has been installed and there is workcell inspection each day to make sure machine guards and lockouts are in proper operating condition,” says Finlay. “As a result of this effort, there are very few injuries related to the physical condition of the factory.”

Other steps taken at the plant to make it a safer work environment include:
• Speed governors on forklifts to control operation at no more than 10 kilometres per hour. (“We have a policy that 10 clicks an hour is the limit, but without the governors it’s a hard rule to enforce,” says Finlay.)
• Proper clothing and the best safety glasses for eye protection is a must for operators in the welding area. Strict adherence to this rule means almost no burn injuries.
• Working to engineer out pinch points in the factory to reduce finger injuries. (“This type of accident you can’t eliminate by wearing gloves,” explains Finlay.)

There are about 26 John Deere plants in North America and the Welland Works was among the top five in avoiding injuries. “Everybody works to be the number one plant, so there is a lot of friendly competition among us,” says Finlay. However, the competitive spirit never interferes with the steady flow of helpful safety and health information interchanged between plants.

Print this page

Related Stories