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By Barbara Grondin Francella
Carrying a 5-gallon bucket of ice, a store associate steps up on a milk crate to load an ice dispenser and crashes to the floor. A customer spills a fountain drink, walks out of the store, and another customer slips on it and goes flying.
It happens. But, in the past decade, thanks to better hiring, training, policies and practices, c-store operators have reduced the number of accident claims stemming from both in-store and outside mishaps.
"Reported losses have decreased significantly," noted Dave Cameron, risk manager of national accounts for Federated Insurance Co., an Owatonna, Minn.-based insurance company that works with thousands of petroleum marketers and c-store operators across the country. "But, to put it in context, there are fewer, but larger, companies in the industry and c-store operators are carrying higher deductibles to lower their insurance rates."
The higher deductibles have led to fewer petroleum marketing/c-store claims.
"It's common for larger companies to have $2,500 or $5,000 deductibles and smaller ones to have $1,000 deductibles," Cameron said. "If someone drives off with a gas hose, or an employee has a fender bender or a minor cut on a finger, some retailers don't turn it in as a claim."
But, insurance companies want to know about those losses. "A cut finger can turn into an infection and an amputation," Cameron said. "A fender bender can become a serious situation if the person you hit has a spine abnormality. A customer who falls could file a lawsuit two years later claiming permanent health problems from that fall."
Even setting those horror stories aside, preventable store-level accidents cost retailers millions of dollars in insurance rate hikes and hidden costs beyond what insurance companies pay out, Cameron noted.
"Insurance pays the direct cost of the loss, but the company eats the deductibles," Cameron said. "Plus, if an employee is out three months with an injury, a replacement may be needed. What if customer service suffers because a store is short-handed -- what is the cost of that? Few business owners keep track of those dollars and they are usually one to three times higher than the amount the insurance company pays."
Retailers that understand these indirect costs are the ones that save money. "Some retailers have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars just reducing turnover," he said.
The No. 1 loss, according to Federated's seven-year study of petroleum marketer claims (from 2000 to 2006), is accidents. Normally, the second-highest loss would be workers' compensation claims, but in recent years property losses due to major hurricanes have become more prominent.
Indeed, more than half of all losses reported by petroleum marketing/c-store companies insured by Federated Insurance are related to driving or workers' compensation. (Editor's note: These figures include businesses with bulk and transport operations.) Workers' compensation claims would be the No. 1 loss, Cameron said, except some states require operators to be insured by the state.
Outside of incidents involving transport and bulk operations -- such as truck accidents or injuries at bulk facilities -- the majority of workers' compensation accidents are store-level employee slips, falls and back injuries, Cameron said.
The third-most-frequent number of industry claims stem from customer slips and falls. At Cumberland Farms Inc., slips, trips and falls are the most common causes of customer injury, said Thomas Masiello Jr., director of risk management. About one-third of those accidents occur in the store, with the remainder happening outside, typically in the parking lot.
The Canton, Mass.-based chain of approximately 900 stores -- including Gulf and Exxon-branded outlets located in the Northeast and Florida -- makes the care, safety and well-being of employees and customers a priority, Masiello said. "Our goal is to be accident free, however, despite best practices, we recognize that accidents happen."
The chain is addressing these accidents, and employee injuries, through computer-based training (CBT) for new hires and annually thereafter. The CBT emphasizes reporting all incidents, even minor ones, in a timely fashion to the Risk Management Department. Employees are instructed to report all maintenance issues, such as potholes, leaking coolers, sidewalk defects, water leaking from gasoline canopies and roof leaks.
Accidents can be curtailed if employees focus on housekeeping, including spill cleanup, properly placing and maintaining entrance mats, using wet floor cones to warn customers and dealing quickly with winter weather conditions. A winter check list is sent to stores as a reminder to order and maintain ice melt, shovels and other winter supplies, and to check store conditions -- such as water leaking from gutters -- that may cause ice to form on sidewalks and parking lots.
Stores that pass a rigorous risk management inspection with a score of 90 (out of 100) points or higher are recognized with a Certificate of Safety Excellence and a company shirt with a Safety Award displayed on the sleeve.
Over the past few years, Cumberland Farms has keyed in on a few areas to reduce fall-down injuries. "We've gone with a more durable, more water absorbent entrance mat. We also use dry absorbent material to quickly clean up spills, rather than use a mop and bucket, because it leaves the floor dry," Masiello noted.
To ensure safe store conditions, any employee may place a safety-related work order; these receive the highest priority from Cumberland's maintenance department.
In addition, store managers perform quarterly safety inspections to keep a new problem from becoming chronic. The risk management staff and outside consultants inspect every store at least three times each year. The chain also distributes monthly safety calendars, to keep safety messages top of mind.
Nevertheless, keeping employees and customers safe is a never-ending job, Maisello admitted. "One of the biggest challenges we face is making our safety programs relate to line employees so that they understand and appreciate the importance of following the safety procedures," he said.
For example, some store employees were reluctant to use dry absorbent material for in-store spills. "But over time, they have found it to be a time saver, as well as a safer method," he said.
Safety First at BP
BP plc also is pulling out all the safety stops. Among the company's efforts is the annual Safety Games, running September through December, during which every store employee is quizzed on safety practices. Each store has a monthly winner, who goes on to regional competitions, collecting money and prizes won along the way. The games culminate in a final round at the Grove Theater in Anaheim, Calif., where each division's winning teams face off. The top team members walk away with $3,000 each.
"I can safely say the winners are experts on the safety manual and probably know more about it than I do," said Bruce Hanson, health and safety manager for the chain, which includes 13,000 BP- and ARCO-branded stations -- about 1,100 of which are company-owned and operated.
The c-store operator has created a multi-faceted program to lessen the risk of customer and employee injuries, especially slips, trips and falls and over-exertions, the petroleum marketer's most common employee accidents. For instance, Laminated Safety Process Cards, which bullet point safe ways to do common tasks and list the personal protection equipment needed for each job, are kept on a ring in each store.
To keep compliance as high as possible, policies are specific and straightforward. For example, no employee is allowed to ignore a spill while doing something else -- even if he is waiting on a line of customers. "If he sees a spill, he must tell the customers he has to take care of it, and, at a minimum, cone off the area and call another employee to do the cleanup," Hanson said. "We know cones aren't that effective. They become an obstacle and customers walk over them."
Employees must start with a wet mop and follow up immediately with a dry mop, so that a moist surface isn't left behind. Also, employees are instructed to only mop a small section of the floor at one time.
Other practices are designed to eliminate back injuries. For example, before lifting a box, an employee should first nudge it with his foot. "If it seems too heavy to lift, he should ask for help," Hanson said.
This attention to detail is threaded throughout the store's culture. Initial employee training is followed up with daily team huddles or weekly meetings where a new safety topic is addressed.
These same topics and other important safety issues are addressed on quarterly Site Safety Index audits, done by an internal audit team. Included are 29 specific safety points, such as "product should not being stacked more than 48 inches high in front of windows to provide a view to the forecourt, 60 inches high elsewhere." The audit also includes random one-on-one questioning of store employees.
"A random employee may be asked to demonstrate the proper lifting technique, or asked to name the safety lesson for the week," Hanson said. Each store's score affects that unit's bonus structure.
Like Cumberland Farms, BP has gone to great lengths to re-engineer processes to remove lifting and other potential hazards. It replaced 5-gallon, bag-in-the-box fountain refills with 2.5-gallon bags, for example. Deliveries, broken down so that no item weighs more than 25 pounds, now must be delivered to the cooler or locations where they are distributed. Garbage bags are to be tossed when only half-full.
Also, employees use box cutters with completed enclosed blades. Broken glass is kept in a 5-gallon bucket labeled "sharp objects," which is sealed and thrown out when half full. Also, there are dedicated broom, dustpan and leather gloves used when handling broken glass.
On the foodservice side of the business, carafes in the coffee urns are designed to be lifted out of a warmer so that employees aren't trying to lift 5 gallons of brewed coffee at once. As many sandwich and other ingredients as possible are purchased pre-cut to avoid the need for a meat slicer. "The increased cost of [pre-cut meats] is much outweighed by the risk of having everything cut in the store," Hanson said.
Most safety procedures are developed by people in the field to ensure employee buy-in, he noted. Safety Committee meetings, consisting of company account executives -- similar to district managers -- armed with feedback from store employees, are held at least quarterly.
"If we are trying out a new mop or cutting tool, we trial them in the stores and get feedback on whether it is more helpful or a hindrance," Hanson said. "The last thing we want is for employees to bypass a process or tool because it is a hindrance to their jobs."
Repeated violations or disregarding key safety rules may result in termination. For example, an employee bringing a sharp object or unauthorized cutting device into a store could be fired.
Another serious violation: failure to report an injury. Employees who are injured are required to immediately contact the store manager, who contacts the CAE. "The only extenuating circumstance is, maybe, lifting something and not feeling serious pain at the time," Hanson said. "But if an employee has any kind of bruise or cut that goes unreported, but he goes to his own doctor and tells us two days later [then] he's terminated."
To tackle one of its higher-risk areas of operations, BP's CAEs take a behind-the-wheel safety course, administered online by an outside firm. Drivers who tally more than 10,000 miles a year also attend classroom sessions. Each May, all employees who drive as part of their job sign a written commitment to one area of improvement, such as keeping a safe following distance.
Without its comprehensive safety program, Hanson said, BP would be paying millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements and lost work time. The company is best in class on safety issues, when measured against all the major oil companies and other major branded gasoline retailers.
"Our benchmarking shows we are first or second in key OSHA safety [measures]," he said proudly. "We keep our employees safe and if they have minor injuries, we alter their duties as they get better."