It’s not often a governor comes to Forest Park. Last time it was Gov. Quinn welcoming back troops. This time, it was Gov. Bruce Rauner congratulating employees on their safety record. Rauner roared into Forest Park on his Harley-Davidson, April 28, to present a safety award to the employees of Essentra Specialty Tapes, in celebration of Workers’ Memorial Day.

The plant is located at 7400 W. Industrial Drive, in the heart of union country. Though some perceive Rauner as anti-union, he received a warm welcome from the unionized ranks at Essentra. Besides manufacturing all kinds of adhesive tapes, Essentra makes the wicks for Sharpies, ink jets, cigarette filters and packaging for pharmaceutical products. Most Americans have at least one Essentra product in their home.

Besides being diversified, Essentra is a successful international giant with a world-wide distribution network. The British-owned company has 2,500 workers in the U.S. and 9,000 overseas. The facility in Forest Park serves as its U.S. headquarters. Apart from the profits, Essentra places considerable emphasis on safety.

There are only 30 companies in Illinois that have been certified in the Safety Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP). Essentra earned this distinction in 2006 and has kept it ever since. In fact, it was the plant’s health and safety manager, John Brunner, who served as Gov. Rauner’s escort.

Another dignitary also visited the plant, Illinois Department of Labor Director Hugo Chaviano. In his remarks to the assembled employees, Chaviano said, “It is an honor to be here at Essentra Specialty Tapes. I would like to commend their continued commitment to workplace safety. We encourage all businesses to follow in the footsteps of Essentra.” 

Gov. Rauner followed him to the podium. “The health and safety of our employees should always be a priority. But we also need to create a business climate where companies like Essentra can compete and flourish.”

After the speeches, Rauner mixed easily with the workers, speaking to individuals and posing for selfies. “Gov. Rauner was very down-to-earth, very personable,” Brunner said, “After his presentation, he held a little town hall meeting, with questions and answers about everything.” For example, Rauner addressed the problem of companies leaving Illinois and spoke of luring businesses to the state. 

“There were no controversial questions,” Brunner recalled. “He spoke of encouraging more companies to join SHARP, with a true commitment to health and safety.”

The name of the program is ironic, considering the biggest danger at Essentra is sharp surfaces. “Lacerations and back injuries are our biggest hazards,” Brunner said. They have battled this problem by installing guards on the machines and by providing portable lifts on the plant floor. But no matter how safe the environment, Brunner’s job is to continually educate the 130 employees about dangers and safety measures. 

A large imposing man, Brunner is a softy at heart and likened his job to being “Dean of Discipline.” He’s been at Essentra 33 years now, mostly in safety and personnel management. “It’s like a family here,” Brunner noted. Indeed, Essentra had been a family-owned business named Duraco before it was bought by the British firm.

Some years, Essentra has lost less than two employee workdays to injury. Brunner believes this starts with creating a culture, where employees and management are partners, not adversaries.

“Toxic management leads to workers not caring and unbelievable safety violations,” Brunner said, “They don’t care about the employee, just the product. There’s no partnership between workers and bosses.” Brunner acts as liaison between labor and management. He conducts contract negotiations with Teamsters Local 743. 

Safety involves more than keeping these workers from suffering cuts; it includes air quality, noise levels, even clutter. “Housekeeping is important,” Brunner said. “It’s important to keep work areas clean.” Air quality is not an issue, even though Essentra is using large quantities of adhesives. The machines that coat the tape and dry them are self-contained and don’t emit fumes. Because Essentra is in SHARP, OSHA tests their air quality for free.

There also isn’t much noise generated by the giant machines. Workers have no need for hearing protection. They are required to wear hard hats and high-visibility vests, though. Sturdy boots also help. Brunner wears steel-toed boots, because he’d be teased mercilessly if he didn’t.

“It’s a light-hearted atmosphere here,” he said. “The workers feel that the company cares about them.” It’s a multicultural work force, with whites, Latinos and Asians sharing the plant floor. There are three shifts. On the day of Rauner’s visit, meals were provided to the first two shifts in the company lunch room. Because the third shift could not partake, management provided them with gift cards for eating out.

Worker safety in the U.S. is overseen by OSHA and their investigators respond to complaints and severe injuries. Many companies see OSHA as their enemy. But Essentra partnered with OSHA to become eligible for SHARP. “We brought in OSHA consultants,” Brunner recalled. “They came to the facility and did a complete walk-through to identify the areas that needed correcting to meet OSHA standards. It was helpful, not punitive.” 

Essentra also schedules frequent safety meetings that are posted on a large calendar. For example, Mondays are Tool Box Day, when workers discuss safe methods of using their tools. There is a computerized system throughout the plant, where workers can post safety concerns so that maintenance can remedy the problem, such as reporting an oil spill at a certain location so it can be quickly cleaned up.

“It’s basically a behavioral program,” Brunner said, “to make all the workers think about what they’re doing. We need buy-in from the workers.” In addition to an enlightened management style, Essentra is environmentally conscious. The plant has also earned certification in this area. As for their location in Forest Park, Brunner and his buddies enjoyed watching TV coverage of Rauner’s visit, at a local establishment. 

After leaving Essentra, Gov. Rauner reportedly gunned his engine for a trip to visit a union hall in Mokena.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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