Ray Michelena is the safety director at T.J. Snow Co., a manufacturer of resistance welding equipment based in Chattanooga, Tenn. He’s also involved in the service side of the business and primarily conducts seminars about resistance welding technology. He’s also the company’s chief pilot, using the company plane to make service and sales calls that otherwise would be dependent on commercial airline schedules. He’s a busy guy.
Even with safety being only a portion of Michelena’s job, T.J. Snow has managed to report zero OSHA-recordable injuries or illnesses in 2021 (in 203,039 total employee hours worked) and in 2020 (in 189,515 total employee hours worked). That performance helped the company earn the 2022 Rusty Demeules Award for Safety Excellence. (Demeules was a longtime FMA volunteer and was instrumental in having the organization establish an annual awards program that honored companies that best exemplified a dedication to maintaining a safe work environment.)
The FABRICATOR chatted with Michelena to find out how T.J. Snow is able minimize injury risk to its employees without having a full-time safety leader. An edited version of the conversation follows.
The FABRICATOR: How would you describe T.J. Snow to a person that is not familiar with your company?
Ray Michelena: We are one of the leaders in the resistance welding industry. That’s everything from manufacturing, rebuilding, training, and servicing the equipment to providing parts for resistance welding. We usually have about 100 employees at our facility in Chattanooga where we do manufacturing and testing. The company has been around since 1963.
Anything that has to do with resistance welding, you can get it from us.
FAB: How large is your manufacturing operation?
Michelena: The manufacturing area probably has about 60 to 70 people. They all help to build the welding machines from the bottom up. We have a large shop area with machining, fabricating, welding, assembly, testing, and shipping.
FAB: What area has the greatest risk of injury in manufacturing?
Michelena: Each area has its own particular hazards. For example, in 2019 we had one of the machinists get his finger caught in a lathe as he was checking the threads of a large part. The machinist was using an all-thread and operating the machine in manual mode to turn the part, but the all-thread jammed, twisting the cloth glove, and pulling the hand around the all-thread. It resulted in the amputation of the first finger on his right hand.
The T.J. Snow safety team helped to create the environment that led the company to have zero OSHA-recordable injuries or illnesses in 2020 and 2021.
After that incident happened, we went back over our entire safety program, focusing on the training involving equipment. It’s important to make both our current and our new employees aware of the risks through recurring training. It reminds people of what they need to be aware of; it’s about preventing them from being complacent.
If you were to ask me what I think is the one thing that is the biggest contributor to injury, I’d say it is complacency.
We’re lucky that we don’t mess with chemicals, which is very good. We do have to deal with high voltages when we are testing the welding machines, so that’s a continuous hazard. It’s always stressed to those in every department that you don’t have to be in a rush. I tell everybody all the time, “You’re paid by the hour. Make sure that you’re not being pushed or forced to take shortcuts. It’s not worth the risk.”
FAB: Some of the T.J. Snow equipment can be very powerful. Can you describe the power that can be delivered by these resistance welding devices?
Michelena: Most of our welding machines use 480 V to power them. We also manufacture capacitor discharge welders, some of the newer technology being used in the resistance welding world, even though they have been around for a long time. This type of welding equipment stores a lot of electrical energy in capacitor banks. It’s like blowing up a lot of different balloons and having all those balloons release that air at one time. In a capacitor discharge welder, it’s still the 480 V going in, but the amount of current that it releases can be over 100,000 amps, where most of our welding machines are anywhere from, say, 2,000 to 25,000 amps. All of that stored energy can create a very big electrical hazard.
All of our welders are designed and built with safety in mind. We see how they are used in the industry, so we can design in workable safety measures from the very beginning—from the person operating the equipment to the person that has to work on the welders. We have that unique perspective because our service team works on all makes, models, and types of resistance welding equipment; we get to see the weak links in other equipment. We are able to incorporate this knowledge when we design and build our resistance welding products.
This also helps us as seminar instructors. We see what is happening on companies’ floors all across the world.
Our employees in the test department and our service people that go out to customers’ plants keep up on any new technologies and what they see out in the field. Then they pass around that knowledge with their peers, just to keep everybody aware of the potential dangers that are out there.
FAB: What kind of formal framework do you have within the company to foster that type of communication and knowledge-sharing?
Michelena: It’s interesting to look at bigger companies, their safety departments, and everything they do with programs to keep all of their people safe. It’s humbling to see the effort and work they do.
A clean shop floor helps to minimize injuries.
What we do is depend on our safety committee. We usually meet twice a month. The employees on the safety committee are from all different areas of the company, from the shop floor to the office. They bring up issues from their areas and perform the monthly safety audits.
Once a month we have a companywide email blast focused on a safety hazard. In fact, one that we recently sent out was about tornadoes and bad weather. They are things to be aware of.
Being a smaller company, we have that ability to have those safety-related discussions among ourselves. If we see a potential problem, we can work to alleviate it.
One of the things that I appreciate about our employees is they’ve taken ownership of their company and their work areas. That’s a big reason why we have the success that we do. They are the ones responsible for their own safety.
Have you heard about Mike Rowe [actor and television personality who hosted the television show “Dirty Jobs”] and the “Safety Third” concept? He would bring it up on his program, and he made the point that the constant reminders of “safety first” lose their impact and can create complacency in those that think others are responsible for their safety. Just because someone is in compliance, it doesn’t mean that they are safe. We need to be responsible for our own safety. It’s something that we've really adapted well here.
FAB: Would you say that this safety awareness is related to the general company culture as opposed to specific safety-related educational efforts?
Michelena: I think that it is because of our general culture. When we started the safety program years ago, people latched onto it and took it to heart. They are the ones that are responsible for being passionate for safety. It’s just commonplace now.
FAB: How do you integrate new hires into this safety culture?
Michelena: Our orientation process includes reviewing our safety manual. The program also includes going through the different safety practices. That is part of their primary training.
We use video programs that include actual instruction, such as forklift training. These programs make sure that they understand what’s happening on the shop floor before they actually go out and start working.
And when they do go onto the floor, we have somebody mentor them.
FAB: In describing why T.J. Snow is deserving of the Rusty Demeules Award, one of the judges said that the company has a “creative” approach to safety education. Can you provide an example?
Michelena: We have to give our people all of the credit. For instance, I teach our first aid class. We use lifelike scenarios where we have individuals who are very good at making themselves up to look like they have injuries or they pretend they are having a health issue—some of the common situations that we might see in life. We do these enactments, and then we discuss how it went and how we can make the response better.
It’s amazing how practice really does work. Going over your drills; it really does work.
T.J. Snow has a company airplane, and I’m one of the pilots. In aviation, one of the things that you do is to practice emergencies constantly. So, if an actual emergency does happen, your hands are doing things without you thinking about it. It’s just rote memory.
I really think the same thing applies when practicing how to respond to an emergency. You have to respond without hesitating. It has to be just something that is easy for you to do.
Another thing that we do that might be considered creative is the way we approach fall protection training. I actually suspend trainees in a harness. They have to know what that feels like. They need to make sure they don’t have stuff in their pockets and make sure the straps are tight. They need to know why it’s important that hook is placed properly on your back and actually feel the difference. That stays in their minds.
If we’re doing it right, people not only have to think about safety all the time; they have to live it. I tell people that you have to live safety, not only at work but at home. If you get hurt at home, we’re going to miss you at work, but your injury also is going to have a big effect on your family.
FAB: Do you think a custom manufacturing environment is a negative or positive to maintaining a safe work environment?
Michelena: We’re not a manufacturing operation that has a production line where we have to get a certain number of widgets out the door. We build specialty machines, most of them custom. It really does make it a lot easier to be able to maintain that safety.
Those people that are on a line have to produce so many parts per shift—that’s where production becomes the driver. Safety is second to that. Because people concentrate on production of so many parts per shift, they lose focus on keeping fingers where they are supposed to be.
We see it all the time when we go out to customers’ plants. That overwhelming push to get the parts made will lead people to take chances.
FAB: Do you have any advice for a company looking to improve its safety efforts?
Michelena: For companies that have production environments, we don’t do what they do. I respect them for the safety systems they have for their employees. We have a lot of families working here. It’s a different environment. It’s not a high-pressure environment that we’re dealing with. Giving advice to companies like that isn’t something that I feel I’m able to do.
I know what works here. I know what works with our people. I think that we have a tendency sometimes to really not give our people the level of respect they deserve for what they can do. The more that companies have to control a person, the more that person lets go of responsibility. They’ll think, “The company will make sure that I’m OK.”
It’s like raising kids. If you’re over them and micromanaging them all of their life, they’re never going to know how to handle things. It’s the same mindset with safety. Safety is just one of an employee’s many jobs. He or she needs to be dedicated to it.
I’m the safety director here, but I’m not here all of the time. I might be gone for two weeks sometimes. I do have to rely upon the employees to make sure that things are running smoothly and safely.
If there is a problem, they can bring it up to a supervisor or bring it to the safety committee. How can we take care of this? What suggestions does the employee have to resolve the issue? I’ll tell you, that’s where the employees shine. They come up with really good ideas.
See More by Dan Davis
Dan Davis is editor-in-chief of The FABRICATOR, the industry's most widely circulated metal fabricating and forming magazine, and its sister publications, STAMPING Journal, The Tube & Pipe Journal, and The Welder. He has been with the publications since April 2002.
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