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Safety – A massive priority for underground infrastructure management work

Becoming the preferred underground infrastructure management partner for some of the world’s largest beverage and food processing facilities doesn’t happen overnight. And retaining that title isn’t a one-and-done job either; it takes ongoing work and continuous improvement to maintain a trusted, productive relationship, especially with the complexity of some of the underground infrastructure work required at large food and beverage manufacturing facilities.


A shared commitment to safety

Safety is an important part of that relationship. It’s huge to facility managers like Nick Lindstrom in his work for Nestle USA at its manufacturing plant in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In a massive production facility like where he works, safety is of paramount importance both during regular operations and when maintenance is required. He needs to know that when a team enters his facility to work — whether to fix an urgent issue or perform regular maintenance — its members will prioritize safety as much as he does.

“With so many tanks and pumps, along with so much piping that we have here, repairing piping and drains can be brutal,” said Lindstrom, E&S Certification Lead at the Eau Claire Nestle USA plant. “When we had drain or underground pipe failures 15 years ago, it would be dangerous to work in some spaces, and it would take a lot of time to dig up. The difference in working with Ellingson is that we can eliminate a lot of risk, work safely and have been more proactive about repairs and planning for future work.”

That shared safety emphasis was a big part of why Lindstrom enlisted Ellingson Companies for his facility’s underground infrastructure management. Though he was originally drawn to Ellingson’s experience and capabilities in conducting ongoing monitoring and maintenance work, his choice was quickly validated when he saw how much the Ellingson team prioritizes safety, especially in such a highly regulated industry.

“Our focus on safety starts well before a project begins. We work with our clients to understand their safety policies and procedures and integrate those into our own. We train our employees accordingly and clearly communicate our mutual safety expectations,” said Ellingson Environmental Health and Safety Director Shawn Helmer. “To me, this sets the foundation of a safe project, one in which we can send our employees home in the same condition, if not better, than they arrived for work.”


The depth of the Ellingson safety commitment

Though it’s always been a priority for his team, Ellingson Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Ellingson said the safety emphasis has grown in the 10 years since Ellingson began underground infrastructure management work. It’s a key distinction he noticed early on, especially compared to local contractors. It’s enabled Ellingson to secure long-term contracts with food and beverage manufacturers. And the proof is in the pudding.

“We’ve worked over 4 million man-hours without a lost-time injury. We monitor and maintain certain safety performance metrics beyond Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) certification,” Ellingson said. “Those are the types of things you want to talk about with a risk management person at a manufacturing facility. They want to know they have professional experts working in their facility and that they’re going to take every precaution necessary to ensure a safe working environment.”

To that end, the majority of the Ellingson underground infrastructure management team has completed 40-hour OSHA training versus OSHA 10 training that’s more common in the industry. That training contributes to Ellingson’s “A” rating with the International Suppliers Network (ISN), the global network that oversees safety and quality/regulatory control for contractors. On top of these certifications and given how much every jobsite changes while work is underway, Ellingson teams also work under strict internal policies that put safety front-and-center.

“We take a totally different approach. We make sure that our crews have safety meetings every day on the job in which they identify and discuss potential risks and anything that’s changed in jobsite conditions from the previous day or shift,” Ellingson said. “It takes a lot of work, but it’s about being very diligent on safety every day.”


Putting safety first on every underground infrastructure jobsite

From a practical standpoint, that different approach is clear out of the gate at each jobsite. Prior to beginning even the most routine infrastructure inspection, the Ellingson team’s first priority is clear communication, which contributes immensely to a safe working environment for everyone involved, including both the Ellingson team and the workers at the facility.

“We put a lot of time and effort into preplanning, communication and setting safety expectations with the customer ahead of time on each job. All employees receive annual training on general safety rules and requirements and task-specific safety training is conducted based on the type of tasks our employees will be performing,” Helmer said. “I would characterize this as more of mindset than a tactic. In my opinion, it’s all about the set-up prior to starting a new project. I’ve always been a ‘perfect practice makes perfect play’ type of individual.”

Helmer said that experience, ongoing training and certification and educational opportunities for workers are what keeps the Ellingson underground infrastructure management team poised to always put safety first, ultimately helping create confidence among the facility managers and operators with whom they work every day. Building that trust is a process that takes time, and continuous improvement is a key ingredient in the Ellingson safety commitment.

“We routinely train our workforce, provide task-specific training and encourage our team to pursue higher education or certification on safety procedures. We keep workplace safety at the forefront of our tasks starting every morning before we go to work,” Helmer said. “We also instill in our employees that it is an absolute expectation they deploy ‘Stop Work Authority’ if they see something unsafe, questionable or hazardous. Lastly, it’s about our safety culture. We have an engaged workforce who genuinely care for each other, and our customers, and that is a big plus when it comes to our individual and collective safety.”

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