Internal Innovation Leads Gasser Chair to Kovach Safety Award

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As a company that’s celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, Gasser Chair has had its own share of innovation. The company has had plenty of new products to introduce to customers in the hospitality industry over the years and those items are often well received. 

But one thing that’s also contributed to the company’s success, President Mark Gasser said, is innovation in how it operates. On Wednesday, Gasser accepted the Mahoning Valley Safety Council’s Joan Kovach Safety Leadership Award for his company’s work in creating a safe workplace for all employees. 

It’s a trait that dates back to the company’s earliest days in a barn on the north side of Youngstown.

“My uncle Roger Gasser was in the plant overseeing all our manufacturing operations, back when we were still in the barn fabricating aluminum and wood products. He was adamant about safety, whether it was wearing safety glasses or having cleaner aisles,” Gasser said in a prerecorded interview shown at the safety council’s monthly meeting. “The culture was that everybody went home in the same condition they came to work in. We’ve been successful with that philosophy over the years.”

Everyone at the company is equally responsible for their safety and the safety of their coworkers. When Gasser is on the shop floor, he said, he’s always keeping an eye out for potential hazards.

“As big as our shop is now, there are lots of opportunities for things to be left unprotected or unguarded,” he said. “Not just myself, but [safety manager Rick Williams] and his safety team are vigilant about it. It’s not something that’s just a checked box. It’s a way of life and a way of operating.”

To highlight some of the innovations put into place by Gasser Chair staff, Williams joined Tony DeAscentis, a member of the Mahoning Valley Safety Council’s steering committee and the CEO of Ving. 

“I couldn’t help but recognize the sense of pride and ownership that Rick and others took in creating a safe working environment,” DeAscentis said. “As the CEO and leader of an organization, as someone who has to support safety culture, that’s a big thing we always talk about. You have to get your leadership team involved in safety culture.”

One of the projects was a custom-made gate on a mezzanine in Gasser Chair’s production plant. With a loading bay sitting about 20 feet off the ground, a worker lifts the gate on his side to block off the loading area while a pallet is brought in. Once he’s done, lowering the gate opens the open-air side of the area, where a forklift can then pull in to pick up the pallet. Because the gate is set up to rotate, only one side can be open at a time. 

It was built over about four days. Williams said, by project and tooling engineer Lou Gasser and metal shop manager Jack Oakes.

“It’s one of the biggest things I’m proud of as far as safety goes, with how it works and how they came up with it,” he said. 

Williams and DeAscentis also discussed safety efforts around Gasser Chair’s forklifts. At each hallway connecting offices to the plant floor are safety lights connected to motion sensors, so people coming out of the offices know if a vehicle is approaching. A yellow light kicks on when the vehicle is about 20 feet away from the intersection, before turning to red and then back to yellow as it leaves the area.

The forklifts are also equipped with blue lights that shine on the ground in front of and behind the vehicles. They were installed about five years ago after Gasser Chair hired a deaf employee. 

“There’s a light on the front or back, so if there’s a forklift coming as he’s walking out, he sees that blue spot on the floor,” Williams said. “He knows to stop before he walks out. It worked well for everyone else too.”

Gasser Chair’s commitment to a safe environment also extends into how it approaches everyday safety. New employees aren’t let on the shop floor until they’ve completed safety training, usually about three hours. Staff keep careful inventory of chemicals that are stored on site.Safety data sheets are kept on all materials, whether it be chemicals, metals or wood products.

In situation, Williams said, the data sheets led to a change in products Gasser used to clean its chairs before they were shipped out. An employee several years had a recurring rash and was eventually sent to a doctor. After providing the doctor with a list of what the employee was coming in contact with, it was concluded he was having an allergic reaction to the cleaning solution, prompting the change.

“That’s one of the biggest things we have safety meetings on, especially with new people. They have to know what they’re working on and how dangerous it is,” Williams said. “Thankfully, we don’t have anything that dangerous, but it’s still good to know what you’re working on.”

The company, which has two manufacturing plants on the North Side and a headquarters in Hubbard, also has its own 14-member safety team and conducts its own training seminars, which ensures all employees are getting the same information every time.

“We do all of our own training in-house when it comes to first aid, CPR and bloodborne [pathogens]. We have five AEDs on premises. We have a lady – along with another who’s about to finish – who’s gotten certification from the American Red Cross as trainers,” Williams said. “We can train as much as we want.”

And should the worst happen, DeAscentis observed, that training can ensure a smooth response.

“That training is important, especially when there’s an incident and people need to work together. If they’ve gone away for training at different times, the messages might not be the same,” he said. “This way, two first responders have been through the same training from the same instructor. Procedure and policy will be in step with the Gasser Chair way.”

Pictured: Mark Gasser, president of Gasser Chair, accepts the Mahoning Valley Safety Council’s Joan Kovach Safety Leadership Award from Claudia Kovach.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.