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A Safer Workplace ... One Day at a Time

Since partnering with RCI Safety, Vita Plus has steadily streamlined and enhanced employee safety programs companywide

by Randy Happel

When Scott Hall was considering the offer to serve as safety director with Vita Plus in 2012, his decision to accept the position was influenced in large part by a framed poster listing the company’s seven core values. After reading the document in greater detail, Hall was delighted to learn that safety topped the list and knew he would be joining a company where the culture aligned well with his professional objectives. Vita Plus is continuously striving to create an environment where employees work in a safe manner — always — and are encouraged to proactively report and correct any unsafe working conditions in a timely and thorough manner.

Soon after he’d started, as Hall began pouring through the many filing cabinets containing Vita Plus safety records, he was even more encouraged to learn that all 13 Vita Plus mill/production/support facilities had earned the Safe Feed / Safe Food certification from the American Feed Industry Association.

The certifications underscore the commitment this employee-owned manufacturer of quality livestock feed and related grain services, headquartered near Madison, Wis., has to creating the safest work environment possible through the process of continuous improvement. The safety standard bar was set high from the very beginning when Vita Plus established one of many annual goals to consistently exceed federal safety standards — a goal that has been realized every year since. Yet, despite the third-party companywide industry certifications, Hall knew there was still work ahead.

"I truly believe safety is a top priority for all companies, but it’s been my experience that employee- owned companies have a greater commitment to creating the safest workplace environment possible," says Hall. "There is more ownership in all operations. And because we all really care about each other, Vita Plus’s employees are more aware, take less risk and greater precaution. Nobody wants to see their coworkers injured here and everybody looks out for one another. But, regardless of all the certifications and a very respectable safety record, we always strive to be better." 

Vita Plus was founded in 1948 by Lyle Hill and Wally Henderson in a small barn situated in a rural area near Madison, Wisconsin. Within a few months, the operation expanded to a modest 50-by 50-foot block building to accommodate production growth. A decade later, the feed manufacturing tower was built (still in use today), which represented Vita Plus’s commitment to supplying quality livestock feed products for the long haul. Later the same year, the company made another significant step forward with the hiring of a full-time staff nutritionist.

Early on, Vita Plus focused primarily on the swine and poultry markets before later expanding into dairy, swine, beef and forages as well as grain banking and merchandizing services. The company also owns CF Transport, the reliable and timely delivery component of the business. One of the most important events occurred in 1986 when Vita Plus became employee-owned. Vita Plus currently serves customers in eight upper Midwest states and a workforce approaching 400 employees.

While the consistent growth of Vita Plus was good for the bottom line, necessitating expansion and additional locations, establishing new facilities and increasing workforce also presented challenges for Hall as safety director. But with more employees and locations came more risk of incident and injury, along with additional reporting, recordkeeping and regulatory requirements. So, the company turned to RCI Safety for help.

Patience, Perseverance, Progress

When Hall joined Vita Plus in 2012, one of the company’s location managers had previously contacted RCI for assistance with streamlining recordkeeping and documenting incidents more effectively, and improving safety-related training programs. He felt the RCI proprietary Safety Management System (SMS) was a good foundation, but wanted to build on it by utilizing more of the system’s features and capabilities.

"The safety program was pretty much de-centralized at the time," says Hall. "Since employee safety stands at the top of Vita Plus’s list of values, I wanted to bring everybody to a more centralized focus by establishing a recordkeeping and reporting system that would allow us to track and record incidents more efficiently and allow all location managers easy access. In order for us to accomplish this, all information needed to be in one place and easily accessible, and that’s exactly what the RCI Safety system application allows us to do."

The proprietary Web-based SMS application allows a vast amount of information to be recorded from several different sources — all stored in one place. The information can be translated into easy-to-read reports that allow safety personnel to effectively analyze where additional resources should be allocated. There’s no software or subsequent updates to install on multiple computers and no maintenance as updates are reflected immediately once activated by RCI. Customers are notified of any updates immediately by email. 

What makes all of the RCI Safety system applications so effective is the ability to bring information together in one convenient, accessible and empowering database. The SMS application provides control, consistency and continuity for documenting safety processes, a formula proven to successfully lower incidents and severity of job-related exposures and injuries.

Hall readily admits the process of centralizing information and streamlining incident reporting among all Vita Plus locations has been a difficult journey. But despite temporary periods of impatience, Hall is encouraged by the progress.

"It is a gradual, day-by-day process," Halls says. "It takes patience, perseverance, encouragement and sometimes a bit of hand-holding. There is always some degree of resistance to change in any organization, especially when trying to implement a new system that is unfamiliar, especially for those who haven’t worked much with computers and the Internet. But once they become familiar and more comfortable, they start gaining an appreciation for the many capabilities of the SMS application and how it can reduce recordkeeping and recording time."

Although optimistic by the growing interest and enthusiasm among all 13 facility location managers, Hall is beginning to see more light at the end of the safety program tunnel. "The SMS is now something they see as valuable and are expressing interest in using more of the system’s capabilities. We’ve all come to appreciate the benefits of a Web-based system versus other software-based applications. There’s no software update to install and the information is accessible from any Internet connection."

"Now, when we have an opportunity to get another module in place, there’s no resistance," Hall says. "That said, it’s still going to take some time to get to the place where we are using the RCI system to its full potential. The progress we are making, however, can be attributed to RCI. In addition to being user- friendly and loaded with features, the customer service and response we receive from RCI is second to none."

No more searching through a myriad of file folders housed at several locations to access specific information, which Hall says was a very time-consuming and often frustrating process.

"Because of RCI Safety and the SMS application, it now only takes a couple of clicks and I can access desired information most efficiently. And for me specifically, the Web-based application is convenient since I can be anywhere and access a specific record, then forward on to the facility’s printer instantly. It’s been a real time-saver that has also alleviated a lot of frustration."

Although Hall hasn’t seen what he considers a significant reduction in recorded incidents and injuries companywide, he is also quick to point out that since the time Vita Plus has been gradually adopting SMS among all locations, the company has also added several more employees, which increases exposure to risk.

"The more employees, the greater risk of an injury or incident," Hall says. "All employee safety programs are a work in progress; nothing happens overnight. But since we have adopted and utilized more of the system’s capabilities throughout all of our 13 locations, we are experiencing respectable improvement. Our different facilities are learning from mistakes made by someone else and learning from it."

"We are learning to work more safely from each other, albeit gradually," says Hall. "And the safer we are and the fewer injuries we have, the more productive and efficient we are as a company overall."

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RCI Safety is a leading global safety-consulting firm that provides safer workplace solutions for companies representing a diverse collection of industries, including agribusiness, construction, food processing, hospitality, mining, oil and gas, and more. The Web-based safety management system and related services provided by RCI Safety have proven effective in altering safety behavior and minimizing risk; and have successfully lowered total incident rates and lessened the severity of accidents for companies both large and small around the world.