Safety Comes First for Thompson Industrial Services

Preventing serious injuries is a top priority at this South Carolina-based industrial-cleaning company

Safety Comes First for Thompson Industrial Services

Thompson Industrial Services superintendent Albertus Hampton (left) and operator Maurice Smith discuss the work and safety plan prior to starting a job. The company, based in Sumter, South Carolina, has about 1,000 employees and services the Gulf Coast and Southeast U.S.

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On any given day, between 800 and 900 employees at Thompson Industrial Services fan out from 22 strategically located facilities, along with more than 100 wet- and dry-vacuum trucks, more than 80 hydro blasters, hundreds of service vehicles and an array of specialized cleaning equipment.

Their destinations: Dozens and dozens of oil and gas refineries, petrochemical companies, pulp and paper mills, power plants, steel mills and other industrial facilities located throughout Gulf Coast and Southeast states.

And as this large group of technicians and equipment heads out to clean evaporators, heat exchangers, storage tanks, reactors, pipelines, pits, vessels and everything in between — and perform air excavation and hydroexcavation work too — one thing is always top of mind: employee safety.

“Our business model is built on selling the value of our safety programs, plus the training we provide for our employees and the quality of our equipment,” says Josh Chambers, CEO of the company, headquartered in Sumter, South Carolina. “All these things combine to create better productivity and significantly less safety risks.

“We differentiate our company from competitors by our safety culture and diverse service offerings, plus investments in equipment that does things faster, cleaner and safer,” he adds. “And we’ve been in our core markets for a long time, so we know our customers’ facilities well, which in turn reduces the overall management burden for our clients.”

Each of the company’s 22 divisions operate as independent business units. About 90% of the approximate 1,000 employees at the company work in the field at customers’ facilities, traveling to 60 or 70 different job sites each day and visiting roughly 700 plants and complexes annually. The privately held company is primarily owned by founder Greg Thompson and a private-equity investment fund, Chambers says.

About 95% of the revenue generated at the company’s facilities is recurring. This underscores how performing quality work and establishing a culture of employee safety helps build business relationships that keep generating repeat business, Chambers notes.

SAFETY IS NO ACCIDENT

Through May of this year, the company has posted a sterling safety record, with no recordable or lost-time injuries — even as total employee hours worked increased. “That’s a crazy statistic in our industry,” says Dean Kuhlman, director of safety and quality. “It’s all a result of the automated technology, policies and training we’ve put together.”

More specifically, the company in early 2019 began to sharpen its emphasis on safety by rolling out a program aimed squarely at preventing serious injuries and fatalities. This multipronged safety strategy reduced the company’s total incident rate to 0.48 as of early June, compared to 1.0 in 2019, he says. (A total incident rate measures the number of recordable work-related injuries per 100 full-time employees over a year.)

Many safety programs focus on preventing small incidents that could lead to more serious accidents. But the company flip-flopped that approach by focusing more on the factors that lead to serious injuries. “If you prevent those from happening, the smaller things work themselves out,” he says.

“It takes time,” Kuhlman adds. “We didn’t start to see results until the fourth quarter of last year. But that momentum propelled us into 2020, giving us the best start on safety in company history. The program has been a complete game-changer.”

The program consists of five tiers — or layers of protection — that start with personal protective gear, followed by advanced training and safety policies and procedures.

The third layer features a safety-observation approach in which front-line employees use an internally developed dashboard app called SafetyNet to audit their jobs ahead of time to make sure all protective measures are in place. Predictive Solutions, an occupational-safety software developer, created the platform that helps the company collect the data, he says.

Company employees compile more than 35,000 real-time safety observations annually that help identify the highest risk factors for serious injuries and fatalities. These observations then help safety officials develop a customized safety plan for each job, using as many of the five layers as possible, he says.

“We’re very data driven,” Kuhlman says. “We use data from the observation program to develop our current polices and improve policies and training programs. Ultimately, we empower our front-line employees to take safety personally every day through observations and stop-work procedures.”

CHECKLIST OF PROTOCOLS

Before a hydroblasting job, for example, a supervisor uses the app to call up the dashboard, which provides a checklist of the protocols for the task at hand.

After a supervisor goes through the safety checklist and takes a photo of the job setup, that information is sent to a next-level supervisor. Why? “One, it ensures a job is set up safely,” Kuhlman explains. “Two, it gathers data for what’s being cleaned and how we’re cleaning it.

“Gathering all this data helps us know what kind of equipment to purchase by division, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach across the entire company,” he continues. “It enables us to dive deeper into each division and provide them with the specific automated equipment and training for what they need.

“It’s the difference between a large university trying to teach everyone everything and smaller institutions with smaller classes that can provide students with exactly the kind of training and knowledge they need,” he adds. “That’s important because the work in Louisville (Kentucky) is much different than what’s done in Sumter, for example.”

During the last three years, more than 750 employees have entered in excess of 110,000 safety observations into the SafetyNet database. Those observations include more than 2.5 million findings, defined as safety measures that were either met or missing. Out of those, 200,000 unsafe findings were mitigated, Kuhlman says.

PUSH FOR AUTOMATION

The fourth layer focuses on replacing manually operated machines with automated equipment that removes employees from hazardous situations. Automating the company’s hydroblasting equipment is a top priority because of the dangers inherent with operating machines that generate anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 or even 60,000 psi. The company owns hydro blasters made by Jetstream of Houston, Gardner Denver, NLB and Hammelmann.

“I’m pushing hard to automate 100% of our hydro blasters — get our guys off the guns,” Chambers says. “This keeps people out of the water blast line, and you can actually perform work at a faster clip. And the work that’s done is more consistent, too.

“We’re really pushing the envelope in this area,” he adds. “In fact, many customers now require automated equipment. It’s an expensive game to get into, but with a footprint like ours, we can leverage that equipment across all our divisions to help pay for it faster.”

The last layer centers on physically removing or replacing on-the-job hazards. For example, the company might be called in to clean “green liquor” (a byproduct of the papermaking process) from a dissolving tank in a paper mill. Instead of doing it manually, workers use an automated cleaning tool, which eliminates hazards such as manual waterblasting, exposure to chemicals, confined-space entry and heat exhaustion, Kuhlman says.

Furthermore, the company takes a bottom-up approach to safety governance. This allows safety committees at each of the 22 divisions to provide constant feedback to regional committees as well as an overarching corporate committee, Kuhlman says.

“The corporate safety committee puts policies, programs and procedures in place,” he explains. “But we also need feedback from the front-line leaders — the boots on the ground. Some companies push policy only from the top and expect employees to buy into that.

“But we’ve found that our front-line leaders know and understand the business better than anybody, so we need their feedback about what works well and what doesn’t work well.”

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

The company owns about 120 vacuums trucks made by Guzzler (a subsidiary of Federal Signal), Cusco Fabricators (Wastequip) and Presvac Systems.

In addition, the company runs about 500 service vehicles, ranging from semitractors to pickup trucks; roughly 23 trailer-mounted water jetters made by Jetstream; pipeline inspection cameras made by Aries Industries; dry-ice blasting equipment manufactured by Cold Jet; and sponge-media abrasive blasting technology from Sponge-Jet.

Both the geographic scope of the company, as well as its multimillion-dollar fleet of equipment, vehicles and machinery are a far cry from the company’s humble origins. Thompson started the company in 1986 with just a used power washer and a $1,000 loan from his mother. His first project was a cleaning and painting job at a stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, Chambers says.

About three years later, Thompson had generated enough business to buy a new hydro blaster and a used vacuum truck. Most of the growth stemmed from word-of-mouth referrals — especially within companies that owned multiple facilities, he says.

“Greg kept investing in the business and eventually opened a second division,” Chambers says. “Then he started to hire additional people to help him expand and scale the business.”

Most of the growth was organic for the first decade or so, but that changed when Thompson began acquiring small complementary businesses in states such as Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana. He also expanded into construction; he now serves as the CEO of that arm of the company, while Chambers heads up the industrial-cleaning sector.

SUCCESS FACTORS

What are the chief keys to the company’s success besides the emphasis on employee safety? Customer diversity; high barriers to market entry by competitors, due to the major capital costs associated with industrial-cleaning equipment; and service diversity, reflected in the company’s focus on so-called life cycle services, Chambers says.

“We’re unique among multisite competitors in that so many of our clients are diversified,” he says. “Most of our larger competitors rely on a single industry for their core services, such as refineries or petrochemical plants.”

As for life cycle services, Thompson Industrial Services prides itself on being a single-source provider of everything a customer might need, from the construction and precommissioning phase of an industrial plant to daily on-site services and periodic maintenance shutdowns to decommissioning facilities, he explains.

Looking ahead, Chambers says he expects the company to continue to grow, both by attracting new clients and selling more services to existing customers. “We’ll continue to push into refinery and petrochemical markets along the Gulf Coast because we already have a strong foothold in those markets,” he says.

In addition, the company will also consider acquisitions of or partnerships with companies that either provide similar services in areas in which Thompson Industrial Services doesn’t already serve or that provide services that augment its existing services, he says.

“We will continue to push for growth, but we’re also going to be thoughtful about the way we grow,” Chambers explains. “We’ll also continue to make our company an even safer place to work by automating where ever we can.

“But the most fun I have is getting additional work and putting more people to work,” he concludes. “Growth is a blast.” 



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