Protection in the Pit: Valvoline Develops A New Face Guard

Working on the underside of vehicles presents unique hazards to automotive technicians. Quick lube technicians must navigate a constant stream of vehicles passing through bays and overhead. This significantly heightens the risk of technicians having their heads impacted by the bottom side of a car or truck, or worse. Then there are many hot chemicals and fluids and the potential of burns from these, as well as trips and falls, too.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports the in the U.S., 3.9 out of every 100 full-time workers employed in automotive repair and maintenance in 2011 suffered various types of nonfatal accidents. This rate of accident was much higher than other industries considered dangerous, like mining and chemical production.

Valvoline Instant Oil Change (VIOC) has made the safety of their shops a central component of their corporate culture. They’ve committed to a “zero-incident” mindset in their approach to keeping employees safe.

Speaking with Eugen Oana, VOIC’s senior manager of environmental health and safety, he explained how his company has moved from mere compliance to empowering employees to make a real impact, while managing their own safety.

“In the past, our company operated from a position of compliance. This isn’t uncommon in our industry,” Oana aid. “We did what we did, because ‘we had to do it.’”

Oana explained that over the past seven or eight years, there’s been a shift, which has been driving what he calls a “culture of commitment” in terms of safety at Valvoline.

“We’re looking to develop a mindset of employees who’ve bought-in to being safe, while making sure their teammates are working safely. It creates an environment of caring and supporting one another,” he said.

For more than a decade, Valvoline has been collecting and tracking data on safety and injuries. This began in 2006, when they mandated bump caps and safety glasses. These became the standard for safety in keeping technicians safe and free from injury, but Oana and other managers didn’t think it was enough.

Given the types of exposure that technicians have working below vehicles, it wasn’t uncommon for other injuries to occur. Burns and cuts and scrapes are typical injuries for technicians. Then, there was the issue of protecting the head and face.

Moving Beyond Bump Caps

Oana’s team began considering head protection that went beyond mere bump caps.

“With quick lubes, cars are coming in with engines that have been running,” Oana said. “Hot fluids, engine parts and unprotected edges are common hazards. We wanted something more that protected the faces of our technicians, while shielding them from bumps.”

He explained that this wasn’t primarily due to a large number of injuries, but it aligned with their commitment to fostering the company’s zero-incident culture. There was a recognition that they could do better.

First, Oana considered other industries that utilized head and facial protection: lumber and welding.

Both the welding face protection and the kind used in the lumber industry seemed like they might work. However, smearing from oil and fluids landing on the shield became an immediate problem when tested.

“No matter what we used to treat and clean the shield, it hindered visibility,” Oana said. “Also, our techs are wearing it for six to eight hours a day — overheating was also a problem.”

Because technicians use a system of “call-outs” from the pit to team members in the bay and vice versa, the lumber-style helmets impeded communication.

After testing a variety of off-the-shelf products, it became evident that Valvoline would need to develop their own prototype. They ended up partnering with a company that developed plastic injection molding.

Finding a product that met the company’s needs and didn’t impede their technicians involved a process and time.

“We went through several iterations, involving various resins and plastics,” Oana said. “We needed something that was impact-resistant, but didn’t have issues with oil and fluids causing the face shield to become smeared and cloudy.”

Oana also knew that it was important to involve the technicians in the process. He shared with them the goals in the prototyping process:

  • Protect team members
  • Issue-free
  • Looked “cool” (as in stylish)

“That final one was very important: if it wasn’t ‘cool,’ then they wouldn’t wear it,” laughed Oana.

The Roll Out

At Valvoline, managers would meet annually. Oana said that these meetings were called “safety stand-down meetings.”

“They tended to be much more formal, and in my opinion, they didn’t always communicate a positive message,” Oana said.

Oana knew he needed to shift the focus of these meetings. He said he wanted to effect change and facilitate buy-in from managers and front-line employees. It was the difference between getting employees to do it because they had to, versus doing it because they wanted to do it.

By involving technicians and assistant managers in what he began calling “safety tailgates,” Valvoline immediately experienced a reduction in injuries within two to three months. The only change was meeting one-on-one with employees, while removing middle managers. Oana said he also believes this helped streamline getting the new face guard developed and into their shops.

“We are communicating with our frontline employees, letting them know they are the ones driving safety at Valvoline,” Oana said. “Meeting directly with hourly team members communicated to them that they were just as important, and actually more important than, the store manager in changing and shifting our safety culture.”

Safety As a Culture

With safety and other major initiatives, the key is often getting the management team to buy-in and commit to implementing the program. Oana recognized that as long as he could validate a trend, he wouldn’t have pushback from above.

“To develop a face guard from scratch is a massive undertaking and costly. There could have been resistance to developing a face guard from scratch. Upper management could have said that our injury experience didn’t warrant the cost of doing this — but they didn’t,” Oana said. “First and foremost, they wanted the best solution, and they challenged me to find it.”

In terms of how well the face guard has been received, Oana indicated that criticism and pushback has been minimal.

“Humans don’t like change,” he said. “We’re now four years into this, and they know that we didn’t simply ‘push this downhill.’ Because we piloted this, we heard them and incorporated their feedback, they knew we were serious about including them — the end-user. That’s the only way we could have made this happen.”

In a culture committed to safety, Valvoline has created an environment that Oana indicated is self-policing.

“We don’t have to manage our people — they manage themselves.”

Jim Baumer

JIM BAUMER is a Maine-based writer who cares about people and the places that define them.