Suwannee Lumber Company…Redefining Safety

Since 1954, the sounds of Suwannee Lumber saws have filled the air, pausing only briefly for weekends, holidays—and safety. The company’s loss ratio of just 12 percent is low for many businesses—but it’s hard to believe that a lumber mill the size of Suwannee could be this safe!

The company’s operations
Suwannee Lumber Company occupies about 90 acres with a sawmill, log deck, log-handling equipment, a debarker, a wood-planing mill, mulchers, a packing house, a soil plant, a drying kiln, an administrative office, a sales area and countless storage buildings. Conveyor belts, saw blades, cranes, chain runners, stackers, graders and other heavy equipment run in double shifts. It’s a huge, bustling arena where 18-wheel trucks rumble in and out, the sounds of saws pierce the air, open-air buildings echo with energy, and a sea of yellow hard hats flows. And one careless move could result in a lost finger, arm—or life.

Suwannee Lumber’s commitment to safety
According to Frank B. “Bump” Faircloth, CEO since 1992, employees and their safety are the most important part of Suwannee Lumber.

What makes Suwannee Lumber so extraordinary is their zero-accident goal—a goal that every employee believes in and works hard to meet—and management puts dollars and cents toward making happen. “That,” says Bump Faircloth, “is good business. And it’s the right thing to do.”

Tom Folsom, president and owner of Florida Insurance Consultants of Monticello, has been Suwannee’s insurance agent for years. Tom brought Suwannee to Summit for workers’ comp, because, as he says, “Nobody else would do for them what Summit does. My job is to help keep Suwannee’s workers’ comp premium as low as possible. That translates into fewer accidents, safer employees and higher profits. They do a great job on their own, but Summit pitches in to help—and that’s worth a lot.”

Paul Holley, Summit’s loss control consultant for Suwannee Lumber, is quick to praise the company, too. “They accomplish remarkable results because they believe that safety is important, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to make employees want to be safe. Suwannee Lumber allowed Summit to perform a risk analysis of their operations, and we provided recommendations to help with their safety efforts. We provide tools, information and another pair of eyes for support. From the top down, these folks live and breathe safety.”

How safety looks at Suwannee
For Suwannee, safety starts with a belief that people matter. Bump Faircloth knows the constant danger inherent in a mill. “We care,” he says. “If it rains hard enough to make the logs or equipment too slippery, we shut down. If there’s a potential for someone to get hurt, we shut down. That’s why we sweep constantly and maintain equipment. It’s easier, cheaper and safer to prevent accidents, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

When Bump stepped up to run Suwannee 18 years ago, he realized that one of the biggest expenses he faced was their workers’ compensation insurance premium. It seems simple when he explains, “Accidents just cannot be tolerated in the mill because they have the real potential to be tragic. And, when I knew we could also control the premiums by eliminating accidents, why wouldn’t we? We started out by asking our people what they thought they needed to do to be safe, and we put it into practice. We built on that. Our people are our greatest asset, and they deserve credit for buying into and executing our safety program because they are the key to its success.”

How do they do it?
Written policies make it real. Suwannee safety policies are clearly written—and talked about routinely. Ask any employee about any machine, and you’ll get the same answer. All of them know about the equipment and understand the safety rules for each. Signage is carefully marked and easily visible. Everyone from office staff to the heavy machinery operators understands the vital need to have lock out/tag out procedures posted strategically. It’s preventive safety that saves lives.

Each year starts with a slogan. Suwannee encourages employees to participate in safety planning. Each year, employees submit possible slogans for the company’s annual safety banner. Winning slogan-writers win $100 and enjoy seeing their safety slogans used companywide.

Weekly safety meetings keep it fresh. All year long, and department by department, safety is the topic of weekly, mandatory meetings. Supervisors discuss safety measures that directly affect the departments and the company. The key, says company president Daniel Dickert, is that “there is no room for complacency. Every day, every hour and every minute in a factory is a chance for an accident if you’re not aware.”

Quarterly employee meetings reward success. Each quarter, Suwannee Lumber closes for a few hours to celebrate safety with an all-employee barbecue lunch. They talk about safety, highlight it and reward it.

The rewards are worthwhile. Employees with no unexcused absences, no discipline actions and zero injuries or accidents earn a ticket to be used in quarterly drawings. When an entire department succeeds in the same way, the employees in that department earn an extra ticket. At the quarterly meetings, the ticket stubs are pulled for different prizes from cameras to gift cards. It’s a two-hour affair with thousands of dollars in prizes.

Annual safety meeting wraps up the year with a bang! Suwannee employees still talk about 2007 and 2008. Those were the years the lumber mill gave away a shiny new truck in the year-end grand prize drawing. This past year they spent the same amount, but decided to give away more awards, such as televisions, electronic equipment and $500 Walmart gift cards. The idea was to help ease the tough economy for more employees. Bump explains, “We had folks with spouses out of work, and times are just hard all over. It seemed like a good year to spread the reward money between more of our people for jobs well done.”

The right thing to do
In all, it’s a well-cultivated company culture with a firm belief that safety pays. And for Suwannee Lumber Company, it does.