Elevating the Industry

"Audacious" goals' drive innovation for Campbell Award winner

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

When The Dow Chemical Co. released its first set of 10-year sustainability goals in 1996, executives were not sure if the company would actually achieve them. However, they knew the effort would yield a positive return.

“When we put these [goals] out, most people didn’t believe we would even broach this,” said Michael Gambrell, Dow’s executive vice president of manufacturing and engineering operations. “We’ve shown that if you have an aspiration that’s out where you don’t know how to obtain [it], that will drive creativity and innovation.”

“The payoff has come in the form of economic savings and environmental, safety and health improvements.” Dow’s EHS leadership also earned the company the 2010 Robert W. Campbell Award, the international award for business excellence through the integration of EHS management into business operations. Dow is the first chemical company to receive the award, which is funded by the National Safety Council and sponsored by Exxon Mobil Corp.

Safety and sustainability

Chemist Herbert Henry Dow founded The Dow Chemical Co. in 1897. Based in Midland, MI, Dow manufactures more than 5,000 products at 214 sites in 37 countries. In 2009, the company employed roughly 52,000 people and had annual sales of $45 billion.

Gambrell considers the 10-year sustainability goals to be a major part of the company’s success. The goals included reducing the following by 90 percent: injuries and illnesses per 200,000 work hours; leaks, breaks and spills; and transportation and process incidents. Dow also pledged to reduce motor vehicle accidents by 50 percent. As a result, personal safety and health incidents fell 84 percent and Dow’s solid waste output decreased by 1.6 billion pounds over 10 years. The initial $1 billion investment in the goals led to savings of more than $5 billion.

“We were not afraid when we set the 10-year goals of not obtaining them,” Gambrell said. “You had to put it out there to drive change. Continuous improvement is one thing, but continuous to me is kind of incremental thinking. This is not incremental thinking. This is getting out there.”

Gambrell pointed out that unlike many companies, Dow publicizes its goals. The next suite runs through 2015 and hinges on the integration of sustainable chemistry and EHS management. Promoting worker and environmental safety is part of Dow’s larger effort to develop solutions to global problems such as climate change and energy efficiency, contribute to community successes, and produce safe products.

Mei-Li Lin, director for the Campbell Award and executive director of research and statistical services at the National Safety Council, described Dow as a “learning company” that always strives for improvement. She noted that other companies across numerous industries benchmark themselves against Dow.

“Dow has a totally integrated system, and in so many ways [the Campbell Award is] another validation of their leadership in EHS among industries,” Lin said.

She emphasized that “Companies that truly understand and appreciate the human value will embrace EHS management as the core of their sustainability strategy.” She defines sustainability as “the ability and capacity to retain business vitality, continuity and competitive advantage.” From her perspective, Dow stands out from other companies not because of the goals themselves, but how the EHS goals drive the company’s operational strategy.

Gambrell drew a connection between the “audacious goals” – which include one-year milestones – and the company’s innovation. “Not only are we working on the innovation of our products and solutions as a manufacturer, but you have to drive the same innovation, if you will, through EH&S,” he said.

‘I commit’

Being in the chemical business, Gambrell is very familiar with the periodic table of elements. He believes an element of another kind is critical to the company’s vitality and sustainability – the “human” element. Dow brings safety down to the individual level by making it everyone’s responsibil- ity, from board members to line employees. Their commitment does not end with their own workers, either.

“We involve employees, as well as all contractors,” Gambrell noted. “When we talk safety, it is everybody who crosses our fence.” At Dow, employees understand they are expected to operate safely. “Fundamental to our company is we pay for performance, and I don’t pay people to be unsafe,” Gambrell said. “When we get into prioritizing resources and expenses and funding and capital projects, EH&S comes first, and then we fund. That is foundational to our company.”

To strengthen personal commitment to safety and accountability for EHS performance among employees, Dow started a program called “Drive to Zero” in the 1990s. The program has evolved with the company. Three years ago, Dow encouraged its employees to “recommit” and now the theme is “I commit” to being incident- and injury-free.

Another dimension to Dow’s safety culture is its companywide Operating Discipline Management System. The results are clear: Injury and illness rates have fallen dramatically since 1996. In fact, last year Dow had the lowest recordable injury rate in its 113-year history.

Indeed, Lin said EHS is “embedded” in Dow’s operations. “It sounds like a cliché, but the EHS beliefs are in Dow’s DNA,” she continued. “From inside their company to reaching out to the community, they have it all covered. Dow’s clear understanding and appreciation of the power and value of the human element is something many companies can learn from.” Now, the company’s biggest challenge is behavioral safety. “We’ve improved our safety performance down to the point that everybody has to be involved,” Gambrell said. “That’s why it has to be an integrated system for everything we do.”

Next stop

The Campbell Award’s rigorous evidence-based review and assessment process, consisting of site visits and evaluations by a panel of international experts, revealed a company driven to continuously improve, Lin said. Gambrell said receiving the honor further validates Dow’s ongoing EHS efforts, which span more than a century. “We didn’t build this overnight,” he added.

Gambrell believes Dow has a responsibility not only to push itself but also to help other companies in the chemical manufacturing industry be safer. His attitude reflects the spirit of the Campbell Award, which emphasizes sharing lessons learned with current and future business leaders.

“Coming out and helping the National Safety Council lead an integrated EH&S model is the next stop, and that’s what we want to do,” Gambrell said. “We want to help people … really get out of the box and be provocative and push people, because if we can do it, then they can do it. It’s just a matter of putting your mind to it.”

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