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As the Director of Global/General Motors North America (GMNA) Health and Safety, J. Michael White oversees the successful implementation of GM’s safety processes and practices worldwide. In this interview, White describes how GM’s safety program and Safety 21 methodology have reduced employee injuries, accidents and lost workdays since 1993.

Please provide a brief overview of your position as Director of Global/General Motors North America (GMNA) Health and Safety.

My main role is to direct operational responsibilities for safety in four regions—North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific. The Regional Managers of Safety report to the Vice Presidents of Manufacturing and myself. I also oversee regional and global processes to ensure that safety practices and processes are working worldwide.

GM jointly developed its safety program with the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). What are the key components of this program, and how has is it reduced recordable injuries and lost workdays among GM’s employees?

In 1993, Paul O’Neil joined our board of directors. He asked us for General Motors’ safety report, but we did not have one that was consistent with what he had seen at Alcoa. Our top leadership challenged us to reduce accidents and injuries by 50% over the next three years. Our data showed that we were in the middle of the pack in industry with 28-29 total recordable injuries per 100 employees and an average of 4.5 lost workdays per 100 employees at the end of 1993. Although these rates were consistent with our competitors’, the Manufacturing Managers Council decided to embark upon a benchmarking process that included help from our unions. We believed that we needed to change GM’s safety culture if we were going to achieve these targets. GM and the UAW worked jointly together to develop the program and training materials that would be used to support a cultural change.

This leadership-driven process that was put in place to improve safety was based on four core elements, which has now increased to five. They are:

  • Plant Safety Review Board (PSRB).
  • Safety observation tours.
  • Safe operating practices.
  • Incident investigations.
  • Employee Safety Concern Process.

The Plant Safety Review Board is comprised of joint leadership from management and the union. This group functions as the “Board of Directors” with regard to safety within the plant. The PSRB holds monthly safety meetings to review and discuss safety issues in the plants. Items for discussion may include such things as a review of the top five injury categories, ergonomics, fall hazard control and the status of health and safety audit module compliance. They are charged with the responsibility to direct the long-term strategy for the plant health and safety process.

Various levels of union and management leadership teams conduct regular safety tours in each plant. They ensure that safety processes are working and that employees are following proper safety protocol, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and performing proper lockout procedures. The team takes time to talk to employees about the importance of safety on the job. They ask employees for feedback about the safety program in general, which demonstrates that joint leadership truly cares about employees working safely.

Safe operating practices refer to standardized work or what happens on the floor. When we remove ambiguity from the skilled trades and special projects, employees are equipped to perform their jobs in the right manner. We are also able to better identify risks and to provide the proper tools and protection for our employees.

During incident investigations, we identify the root cause of the incident so that we may develop proper corrective actions and eliminate any future injuries. The focus is on system failures and not on blaming the employee.

We instituted a fifth core element, an employee safety concern process in which we collect employees’ input on safety concerns and encourage them to identify hazards and risks. The basic premise of the process is that safety is our overriding priority. The items identified through this process help us to reduce hazards and risks well before someone is injured.

From 1993 to 2005, we reduced recordable injuries by 90% and lost workdays by almost 95%. This is equivalent to almost 48,000 recordable injuries avoided annually and almost 8,000 lost workdays avoided annually. We could not have achieved these results without the support, participation and leadership of our unions and management.

GM’s risk-assessment methodology, Safety 21, is used in the design of machine safety features. How does this methodology work, and in what ways has it helped to improve employee safety?

Safety 21, a proprietary system we established in the mid-1990s, is used in the development of new tooling, systems and processes, and it consists of a series of checks that are made during the design and build of tools and systems. Our goal is to eliminate or to reduce the safety hazards before we implement anything into our plants. If we can identify the hazards and design them out, then we do not have to protect against them. We also use a rigorous process for task-based risk assessment, which helps us to identify and to address safety hazards associated with every task performed for a specific process or manufacturing system. By addressing the hazards involved in workers’ tasks, we can reduce injuries overall.

How does GM use standardization to address safety, health and environmental (SH&E) issues in manufacturing environments such as GM’s?

Safety is an integral part of GM’s global manufacturing system. In a manufacturing environment, we must follow basic elements to maintain the same managerial process throughout our plants. There are18 core requirements with which our plants must comply. These elements establish the minimum levels that we must comply with for safe, standardized plant environments. And as we strive for common global processes, we look at laws and regulations in other countries to identify what we need to do differently. Since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) recording criteria are more stringent than other countries’, we use them as a basic definition for worldwide recordkeeping.

Throughout its history, GM has worked to establish quality SH&E programs that mitigate risks in the workplace. In your career with GM, which SH&E achievements do you believe have made the greatest impact on the corporation?

One of the most significant achievements is the leadership and culture changes that have taken place as a result of our Leadership Program, which consists of the five core elements previously mentioned. From top leadership on down, our attitude is that safety is everyone’s business. Achieving that mindset goes a long way in an effective safety program.

Secondly, we have made great strides in ergonomics. Our ergonomics program was originally developed jointly with the UAW and is world-renowned. Our program allows us to eliminate ergonomic stressors at the design stage as well as identify and eliminate the stressors in the plants.

Finally, Safety 21 has improved health and safety through task-based risk assessment, which helps us to design equipment and processes that reduce the risks and hazards for our employees.

How do GM’s specialized employee training programs and joint programs with trade unions help to reduce occupational injuries, accidents and fatalities?

This aligns with our core element of safe operating practices. Our joint training center in Detroit, Michigan develops training programs and offers them to employees at the plant. The training topics cover forklift trucks, ergonomics, lockout—energy control, fall hazards, confined space entry, design-in safety and industrial hygiene, just to name a few. We also develop monthly safety talks and programs where we basically say, “Here is the process to follow and the right way to do things. Follow these procedures, and you will reduce risks on the job everyday.” Through all of our training programs, we have reduced injuries, accidents and fatalities, and we have formed the basis for safe, standardized operating processes and procedures.

How does GM assess risks during the design of machine safety features?

Safety 21 uses task-based risk assessment to identify the hazards that employees face in their work and identifies ways to eliminate or reduce the exposure to injury for our employees.

What is GM’s view of SH&E investment, and how does it promote good SH&E practices among its employees and contractors at all facilities?

As part of our culture change initiative, safety managers from all regions share best practices with others through conference calls and regular visits. Safety is a value for us, and in fact, a 1994 policy made it a priority. We make investments where needed, and if we find a hazard or issue, we will spend the appropriate money to correct the problem. We analyze these problems and use the hierarchy of controls to determine the appropriate investment. These problems may require one of the elements we use to control or eliminate risks, but we work on a case-by-case basis as we analyze problems and find the most effective way to correct them.

How does GM ensure that its facilities worldwide comply with OSHA regulations or with international safety standards?

GM and unions in the United States jointly conduct self-assessment audits at each of our plants. The audits follow a series of questions against which plants rate themselves. An assessment team from UAW and GM then evaluates these plants against the same criteria. The other global regions conduct their own self-assessments to evaluate their processes. The Regional Safety Managers evaluate their plants on a regular basis. All plants are evaluated every two years against the core requirements for health and safety of GM’s Global Manufacturing System.

Representatives from audit services visit other regions of the world to ensure that we are compliant with laws and regulations globally, and in the U.S., we conduct quarterly audits of medical recordkeeping logs to make sure that we are OSHA-compliant.

Top leadership also regularly visits the plants to check if our safety processes are in place. I enjoy spending time in the plants as well to get a better feel for how the safety process is functioning. Safety is an operations responsibility, so our leadership includes this on all plant visits and scorecard reviews.

What is the function of GM’s Design-In Safety Center, and how has it helped to improve safety for GM’s employees and customers?

The GM Design-In Safety Center is a small group that leads the Safety 21 process. Issues are identified and corrected as they assess the equipment and tooling that go into our plants.

GM employees belong to several professional safety organizations, including the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and the National Safety Council (NSC). In what ways do such memberships benefit SH&E practices within GM?

These memberships enable us to network with other companies and to participate in sessions and workshops where we can share ideas and learn from others. We are not bashful—if we see something we like, we use it. Our managerial staff makes technical presentations at professional meetings such as the ASSE’s Manufacturing Safety Symposium, and we often submit articles to trade magazines. In fact, one of our articles appeared in the January 2005 issue of the ASSE’s Professional Safety journal.


As the Director of Global/General Motors North America (GMNA) Health and Safety, J. Michael White is responsible for GM’s health and safety processes worldwide. In his 35 years with GM, White has worked in facilities engineering, planning, maintenance, industrial engineering, manufacturing engineering, product engineering and production. He has also worked at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) facility in Fremont, California. Prior to his current assignment, White was the Assistant Director of Occupational Health and Safety at the United Auto Workers (UAW)-GM Center for Human Resources for seven years.

White holds a master of science degree in manufacturing management and a bachelor of science degree both from Kettering University in Michigan.