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Berks refiner is Pa.’s shining example of safety

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PHOTO/STEVE REINBRECHT
Global Advanced Products in Colebrookdale Township is a model for safe operations in Pennsylvania and beyond.
PHOTO/STEVE REINBRECHT Global Advanced Products in Colebrookdale Township is a model for safe operations in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Keeping workers safe helps a company make more money, say the safety chief and union boss for Global Advanced Metals, a rare-metals plant near Boyertown. The company refines prized elements from ore shipped from Australia.

 

The most important reason for keeping a workplace safe is “so people go home to the people who sent them to work,” said Gerald Setley, who worked at the Global Advanced Metals plant for decades and now is regional director for the 619 Chemical Workers Council of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

But a good safety program also improves profitability.

“It’s an investment that pays unbelievable dividends,” Setley said.

That’s why government safety inspectors are partners, not opponents, said Joseph Atkinson, safety director of Global Advanced Metals on County Line Road in Colebrookdale Township.

“We’re happy when they get here because they might find something we missed and help us improve our process,” said Atkinson, who has a bachelor’s degree in safety science and a Master of Business Administration.

Last year, Global Advanced Metals was one of five companies to earn a Governor’s Award for Safety Excellence. Sixty-five companies were nominated.

The plant has come a long way in preventing accidents since the early 2000s, Setley said.

“What it is today is what I would call a model of how a chemical plant should operate,” he said.

BETTER MORALE, PRODUCTIVITY

So how does safety save money?

As they do for good drivers, insurance companies give breaks to safe companies.

Along with better insurance rates, Atkinson noted, plants that maintain safe environments avoid expensive government fines and bad publicity.

And workers who feel safe have better morale, are more productive and produce higher-quality products, Atkinson said.

“That’s all true,” Setley said.

GOOD RELATIONSHIPS WITH INSPECTORS

Atkinson noticed that Global Advanced Metals workers were engaged in the safety program when he started his job in January 2016.

“You could tell everybody was involved in the program,” he said.

Atkinson, who has worked in the paper-manufacturing industry and for Kellogg’s, said Global Advanced Metals officials have good relationships with government regulators and inspectors from the state Department of Environmental Protection, federal Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

He said safety regulations are not burdensome and are necessary and effective in protecting workers and the environment.

FEDERAL ACCOLADE

On April 1, Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Teresa Miller and state Labor & Industry Secretary Kathy Manderino chose Global Advanced Metals as the place to announce that premiums for workers’ compensation insurance would fall 6.2 percent over 2016 rates.

Global Advanced Metals also has achieved federal recognition.

According to a news release, “a passion for safety, health and environmental protection” has led OSHA to certify Global Advanced Metals at the highest level of its voluntary protection programs, which recognize employers and workers in private industry who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national averages.

Managers, employees and OSHA staff work together to prevent fatalities, injuries and illnesses, according to OSHA.

500 INJURY-FREE DAYS

Global Advanced Metals’ state-certified safety committee, which includes management and union members, tours the plant twice a year and meets monthly, in part to review safety concerns that employees bring up and to review checkbooks that each employee completes every month to monitor ergonomic problems, housekeeping and safety.

Global Advanced Metals had a streak of more than 500 days with no injuries until an accident in August, Atkinson said.

Setley and Atkinson said ergonomics have been a focus. Setley said many jobs have been set up to be easier to perform.

An OSHA report states that in response to a concentrated three-year effort at the plant, the number of hand and musculoskeletal injuries have dropped to almost zero.

24-HOUR OPERATIONS

The plant runs around the clock, employing about 150 people. Trucks bring tons of ore in shipping containers from mines as far away as Western Australia.

The first safety step is an assay of the ore to make sure it has no dangerous contaminants or radioactivity – though those problems are rare, Atkinson said.

The metals are nontoxic, but workers are exposed to mechanical, chemical and high-temperature risks, common in any heavy industrial plant.

MANY USES

The plant uses electron-beam furnaces and chemical processes to produce tantalum and niobium.

Its special qualities make tantalum useful in electronic capacitors, surgical implants, equipment for handling corrosive materials, electrodes for neon lights and special lenses. Tantalum alloys can be extremely strong and have been used for turbine blades, rocket nozzles and nose caps for supersonic aircraft.

Niobium is used in alloys in jet engines and rockets, structural beams and girders and oil and gas pipelines. It is also used in superconducting magnets for particle accelerators, and medical imaging and spectrometry.

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