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Volunteer teams make all the difference for New Berlin company

April 6, 2012

by Adam J. Blust, Editor-in-Chief,

April 3, 2012

Rich Bizek, environmental health and safety manager at ABB in New Berlin, believes he has found a cost-effective way to improve company culture, reduce costs and improve efficiency: volunteerism.

In 2006, Bizek was trying to secure an advanced safety certification from OSHA for the ABB plant in New Berlin, which assembles drive units for AC and DC motors. As part of that effort, he started setting up volunteer teams of employees: a safety inspection team, a first responder team, and several others. But unlike many employee committees, the ABB volunteer teams were exactly that – groups of people who signed up on their own to help with topics they were genuinely interested in.

That self-selection is one of the keys to making these teams effective, Bizek said.

“You want the true-blue people on the committees,” he said, “people with a passion to be a viable member of the team.”

Anyone who has worked in a traditional business environment can probably remember being on an employer-mandated committee, and how little those groups often accomplish, especially if they involve spending non-work time on a subject the members don’t care about.

“Teams can be like a bunch of people waiting for a bus, or they can be like a surgical team,” Bizek said. “You want your team to be the second kind.”

Since their beginning in 2006, the ABB volunteer teams have expanded to include subjects such as ergonomics, incident investigation, and environmentalism on the “green team.” The largest team is the first responder group, with 45 members.

All the team members commit to working at least an hour once a month, but many do more, depending on their mission and specific activities. But it’s not all work. For example, at the end of the season last year, ABB hosted all the volunteer team members at a Brewers game, including a tailgate, skybox seats, and custom jerseys made for the event.

Bizek said the teams’ work has fostered an improved culture throughout the organization, because employees see that their efforts really affect the day-to-day operations of the company for the better. And when the culture improves, costs go down, productivity goes up, and the image of the company in the community is improved.

Another benefit of the volunteer teams has been increased partnerships with local government and other businesses. The ABB first responder team has done fire extinguisher training with the New Berlin Fire Department for several years, along with both classroom and practical versions of medical emergency training. Lt. Jack Wergens of the New Berlin Fire Department said that when they were looking into buying an electronic fire extinguisher designed for training, Bizek agreed that ABB would purchase it, and let the fire department use it whenever needed.

“A lot of people sit around and think about these issues,” Wergens said. “At ABB, they actually do it.”

The ABB first responder team has also gone through Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training through Waukesha County, making them an available resource for the county should disaster strike.

“I’ve done a lot of these trainings,” said Linda Botts, who conducted the CERT training with the ABB employees. “You can tell the people who are prisoners in the room, and those who want to be there. This was a very enthusiastic group.”

ABB has also formed partnerships with local businesses who can help the volunteer teams execute projects, Bizek said. The local OfficeMax has advised the ergonomics team on the latest office equipment and how it can improve comfort and productivity.

“I try to do as much outreach with the community as possible,” Bizek said.

Wergens said he is impressed with all the effort ABB has made in preparedness and working with the community at large.

“If every business was set up the way they are for fire safety and medical safety, it would definitely make our job easier,” he said.

Adam J. Blust is Editor-in-Chief of WePartner is a statewide public-private partnership between public safety officials, businesses, and community organizations collaborating to manage risk, build resilience, and strengthen disaster response and recovery.

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