Teamsters Take Charge


Walking inside the Lyndhurst, NJ chemical production facility of Sika Corporation, one immediately notices the many colorful signs that brighten its white interior.

Stickers on handrails alert workers to hold on when using stairs throughout the plant. Posters caution employees to avoid potential hazards and remind them to wear safety glasses in certain parts of the facility.

This wasn’t always the case. Sika Corporation and Local 11 members are working together towards safety in the workplace, driving efforts to build a zero-injury culture. Until Teamster members started taking an active role in the plant’s safety procedures, a high rate of accidents left Sika workers injured, put on leave and in some cases disciplined for lapses in safety protocol.

The twelve rank-and-file members of Local 11 who run the Sika S.A.F.E. Committee are building a new workplace safety culture that empowers and protects all Sika employees.

“Establishing this committee is a turning point for safety at this plant,” said Patrick Basso, a 35-year Sika worker and former shop steward who works as a maintenance foreman and chairs the S.A.F.E. Committee – S.A.F.E. stands for “Safety Always for Employees.”

“We are reversing the rise of safety incidents here so that we can work and return home safely to our families,” Basso said.

“Our local has been pushing for better safety conditions by setting up worker committees at companies like Sika,” said Rob Gillman, President of Local 11 in North Haledon, NJ. “The goal is to empower our members to propose and implement safety policies. These committees mean workers can conduct their own investigation into incidents and production flaws, rather than just allowing the company to do its own investigation and take disciplinary actions without hearing the workers’ voice.”

Too Many Injuries

Sika is a global company whose Lyndhurst facility manufactures specialty chemical products and industrial materials for construction, transportation, marine and automotive markets. The 110 Teamster workers at the plant make products like polyurethane, windshield sealants and flooring adhesives.

Prior to the formation of the S.A.F.E. Committee, accidents were all-too commonplace. Workers were routinely at risk and had virtually no power to establish policies to prevent future incidents.

“I got involved in the committee because we had a lot of injuries – too many injuries – and something had to be done,” said Dave Malaniak, who is a shop steward and a member of the S.A.F.E. Committee with 27 years at Sika. “As a union, we got together with management to take action.”

Organizing the committee began last year after Sika partnered with an outside company to have a representative train union members on how to run the Sika S.A.F.E. committee. Management met with the Teamsters to discuss having union members run the committee and build a zero-injury culture on the shop floor.

Over the past year, committee members have met twice a month to develop a mission statement, produce informational materials, post safety signs throughout the plant, and identify safety hazards.

“Sika management has taken our members’ role in this effort very seriously by supplying our members with the education and tools needed to build an effective and inclusive safety culture at the Lyndhurst plant. Sika has supplied the S.A.F.E. Committee with their own conference room and is allowing committee members time during their work shift to conduct their own meetings,” said Local 11 business agent Liz Williamson, who has supported the members throughout the process.

“As Teamsters, our number one priority in any workplace is safety always. This effort between workers and management is already working to bring fairness, improved safety and a bigger voice for our members.”

Putting Teamsters In Charge

With the committee in place, workers recently announced that they were ready to appoint subcommittees. A kick-off event was held by the committee and Sika management on October 23. With much of production shut down for the event, Sika workers streamed into the warehouse to hear their S.A.F.E. Committee coworkers lead a presentation on the committee’s progress.

In a presentation given by the committee, workers looked at safety statistics showing a decline in incidents over the past year since the S.A.F.E. Committee got to work. Workers attribute these improvements to the heightened communication and awareness brought on by the committee.

In one example, a low-hanging air vent was recently identified by a worker and brought to the committee’s attention. Within a few hours the committee worked with maintenance to have the safety risk resolved by raising the vent closer to the ceiling. In another instance, the committee was informed of blocked electrical panels, which are now well-marked thanks to committee members who painted the areas around the panels.

One exception to the decreased rate of incidents at Sika was the higher number of falls from stairways this year. Teamsters on the S.A.F.E. Committee took swift action on this issue by marking all handrails with labels to remind coworkers to hold on when using the stairs.

“These might seem like small changes, but they will make a big difference for our safety. I am confident that we can bring Sika to zero incidents,” said Tom Post, a worker on the committee.

At the October kick-off event, S.A.F.E. Committee members convinced more Local 11 members to sign up for subcommittees dealing with fire and emergency procedures, personal protective equipment, environmental safety, ergonomics and process hazards.

Safe Work, Safe Home

Sika marks a major step forward for Local 11 and its broader efforts to improve the working conditions of its members, many of whom work in high-risk manufacturing and warehouse environments.

“We have companies like Nestlé with similar committees set up, but Sika is one of the biggest. Local 11’s priority is to establish safety committees for all of our members,” said Gillman.

For Teamster members at Sika whose products supply two other nearby companies also represented by Local 11, this larger vision resonates. But they see their safety efforts as both an important union achievement and a personal priority.

“For many of us, this is our home,” said Javier Matias, a shop steward and committee member who noted that many Sika workers put in a lot of overtime. “We have to take care of our home and keep it safe for everyone.”

This is the thinking that S.A.F.E. Committee Co-Chair Hamid Ordonez hopes will inspire more of his coworkers to get involved.

“When I was asked if I wanted to be part of a culture change at Sika, I said absolutely,” the 17-year employee said. “We need to continue raising awareness about how we work. At the end of the day, our priorities are security in our lives at home and our lives at work.”