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For Al Rainsberger, Foss Maritime’s motto, “Always Safe, Always Ready” is more than a marketing slogan. It’s a battle cry.

By Hilary Reeves

The announcement last year of Saltchuk Resources’ company-wide goal of zero safety incidents across all lines of business no doubt struck many in the industry as overly ambitious — but not Foss’ Al Rainsberger.

“Safety is our number-one value,” he said. “I think the bottom line is the feeling that if it can be done once without injury or incident, it can be done each and every time.”

Rainsberger was hired as Foss Maritime‘s Director of Health and Safety in 2006 and charged with overhauling the country’s largest coastal tug and barge company’s safety program, including streamlining its data reporting process, the continued implementation and enhancement of its safety programs, and the establishment of regional safety committees.

“I have a passion for workers’ safety,” Rainsberger said. “I always have. I want to make sure everyone goes home in the same condition they came in, or better.”

A native son, Rainsberger has also had a long relationship with Seattle’s working waterfront. After graduating high school and earning his associate’s degree, he spent just two quarters at the University of Washington before the shipyards began calling his name. Rainsberger went to work full-time for Todd Pacific Shipyards at the age of 22.

“My intent was to save up some money over the summer so I wouldn’t be struggling as a poor college student,” he said, “but things happened and I moved up, handling basically all the materials in hazardous waste, which was my real introduction into the safety and environmental world.”

Hazardous waste led to industrial hygiene work and, in 1990, Rainsberger was promoted to Director of Health and Safety, a position he held until he was recruited by Foss.

“I was (with Todd) for 27-and-a-half years,” he said. “I felt like I had completed my goals. (The company) had a very terrible safety record when I took over, predominately because the contract structures were cost-plus jobs. So, the more mistakes you made, the more money you made. My job was just to ‘manage the damage.’ Soon after that, those contract went away, so then it was bottom-line. Now you’re injuring people, you’re hurting the best resource you have, which is the workers, and we’re losing out on the bottom line.

“There were improvements that were necessary,” he continued. “I was given the opportunity to put in a lot of safety initiatives, which improved the safety quite a bit. At the same time, I was doing a lot of environmental work, and I served as the project manager for Todd on the Harbor Island EPA cleanup for Elliot Bay. That project had actually finished up in 2006, and came in ahead of schedule, under budget, and the EPA signed off on the cleanup, which was kind of unheard of at that time. At that point, I just kind of hit a wall.”

Rainsberger said he made the decision to join Foss mostly predominately of the company’s forward-thinking vision and its desire to improve its safety program.

“Safety is our number-one value,” he said. “I think the bottom line is the feeling that if it can be done once without injury or incident, it can be done each and every time.”

“I joined Foss because of the vision of the company,” he said. “(Saltchuk) was going to grow. I wanted to be a part of that. At that point, I could already see some of the challenges and some of the things I could bring to the table. We’ve come a long way.”

Tim Engle, a former Foss director and current president of Saltchuk, participated in a number of marine-evolution observations conducted by Rainsberger while employed by Foss in San Francisco. He said he continues to be impressed by Rainsberger’s genuine concern for Foss’ mariners and patient-but-firm instruction.

“Allen brought a structure and rigor to Foss’ approach to safety which we didn’t have prior to his arrival,” Engle said.

The first order of business, Rainsberger said, was to improve communications between the company’s management and its mariners.

“The key, I think, is always going to be communication,” he said. “When I came onboard, the mariners and the shipyard workers really wanted to know what was going on at the corporate level, what it meant to them, what it meant for their future…I started doing a lot of hands-on communications, started riding the boats quite a bit, talking to the people to see what the issues really were, see what the mariners liked about the company, see what we could improve.”

Rainsberger said Foss underwent a rigorous assessment of its core initiatives — job-safety analysis, safety bulletins and alerts, lessons learned, corrective actions — before further developing its Shipmate Plus program, a behavior-based safety process that evaluates working conditions to mitigate risk.

“You identify the major tasks that can potentially injure you very seriously or potentially be fatal,” he said, adding that these “critical tasks” include those done in extreme weather conditions or at heights, in confined spaces, in the vicinity of the lines or electrical units, and those done in potentially harmful chemical atmospheres. And at sea, of course, gravity is rarely a friend.

“There’s a number of moving parts out there that you need to stay aware of,” Rainsberger said. “The key is knowing your surroundings and making sure you’ve got a good plan. When we started these programs, some of the mariners had the attitude of, ‘hey, we work in a hazardous industry.’ But at Foss, we believe the industry is only as hazardous as you make it. You may have set out a plan that looks really, really good, and half an hour later, things change. What are you going to do to mitigate the situation? We encourage all our mariners to use their stop-work authority. “Every Foss employee has stop-work authority for unsafe conditions,” Rainsberger concluded.

“There was definitely a buy-in period (for the mariners),” he said. “Once we got past the point where they understood what we were doing and why we were doing it, and the benefits of doing it, they gradually came onboard and wanted to participate more. Alongside communication, we needed to make clear that safety is part of our culture.”

Rainsberger said that with a renewed focus on Foss’ culture came professional pride.

“There’s always a comparison made to some of our competing companies and how they do work versus how we do work, or who has the most of the market share of the work, and how we can improve our safety process so we get our fair share of the work or even attract new work because of our safety record,” he said. “We want to be the company that says ‘Pick us because we are the best. We’re world-class.'”

Engle said it’s common for customers to vet safety programs prior to allowing companies to bid on commercial opportunities.

“More and more organizations are valuing a company like (Saltchuk) due to our commitment to keeping our employees safe,” he said. “We have realized more commercial success due to our safety rigor.”

“A company’s safety record is crucial to its decision to engage with and continue working with a company,” echoed Gary Faber, a senior Vice President and former Chief Operations Officer at Foss Maritime. “Customers want more than successful performance — they want their contractors be ‘zero-loss’ operations. Our safety professionals and employees deserve an enormous amount of credit for the success of our safety record. Our people-based programs mean that safety isn’t just a regulatory requirement or something we say, but something we put into action. I believe our safety program stands up to across the board comparison.”

Rainsberger’s methods embody results. With zero lost-time injuries during its marine transport operations in 2013 and just one in the shipyard, a number that has been steadily decreasing since he joined the company, Foss’ safety numbers are among Saltchuk’s most impressive. Rainsberger travels frequently, conducting quarterly safety training and audits at Foss offices across the country and at its sister companies, including Cook Inlet Tug and Barge, AMNAV and Young Brothers. He has even been asked to present to Saltchuk companies outside the Foss link, namely Interstate Trucking and Totem Ocean Trailer Express.

No more is the phrase, ‘It’s a contact sport, people get hurt’ acceptable. Allen was instrumental in leading this cultural shift.” – Tim Engle

“Foss’ safety success has been instrumental in sharing ‘what good looks like,’ Engle said. “Allen has been unwavering in his support of sister-company safety programs, and he’s the first person I have other company personnel talk to when they are wrestling with safety issues. Though they might not follow Allen’s direction, they have at the very least been given a framework to think through when creating their own safety protocols.”

“We just show them what we do, give them some ideas of what’s worked successfully for us,” he said. “I believe Saltchuk’s vision moving forward is that someday everything will be standardized so that you can move anywhere throughout the Saltchuk family and encounter the same safety measure and the same systems.”

Rainsberger said one of the major concerns Foss, and the maritime industry itself, is facing is an aging workforce.

“Our captains are getting into the senior part of their working careers, so we’re doing a lot right now to promote within the company so that our people who may be out on deck or in the engine rooms can someday be a mate or a captain,” he said. “It’s best to ensure that our senior people are training our younger people and sharing stories of the things that can and have happened out there (on the water).”

Looking forward, Rainsberger — who also currently leads the Environmental Coalition of Sound Seattle (ECOSS) and the Puget Sound Shipbuilders Association — said Foss will never rest on its laurels.

“We have to identify other opportunities to move forward with our safety program and to make sure everyone takes part,” he said. “The corporate office gives us the opportunities to take those next steps, those next changes to attract the next new customer that we have, or the next geographic area we can concentrate on.”

Engle said he commends senior management at Foss for supporting Saltchuk’s safety goal through the dollars spent and the commitment to get all parties involved.

“Money was spent flying personnel from one region to another to conduct marine evolution observations at all levels of the work force which created ‘buy-in’ throughout the organization, Engle said. “Without this commitment, we would not have had the success we enjoyed in changing our culture. No more is the phrase, ‘It’s a contact sport, people get hurt’ acceptable. Allen was instrumental in leading this cultural shift.”

“Saltchuk is a unique company,” Rainsberger concluded. “It’s very well run. Their expectations are clear: safety is the first, most important thing that we do, and the safety of our people stands paramount alone, aside from anything else.”