Following is the keynote address presented by Darrin Drollinger, executive director, American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, at the recent 2016 AEM Product Safety & Compliance Seminar.

“Protecting the health and well-being of our customers is not only morally right, but it is good business. In fact, in this era of increasing social consciousness, a manufacturer must commit substantial resources to preventing product-related accidents in order to stay in business over the long term. The rapidly escalating public awareness, political attention, media emphasis and liability pressures of the day demand that equipment manufacturers accelerate their efforts to contribute toward preventing injury and illness-producing accidents. Product accident prevention is everyone’s business!”

Sounds perhaps like the marketing information for this year’s program? Well, actually it’s from the 1990 program booklet. This was the first in our continuous series of events that have been held ever since.

In April of 1990, I started working for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers as a young staff engineer. Now technically, I was with the Equipment Manufacturers Institute or EMI. The Construction Industry Manufacturers Association or CIMA and EMI came together and created AEM starting in 2002. 

One of the first assignments I was given was to help launch a product safety seminar with the intent that it be held as an annual event. 

I had no way of measuring what was changing within the industry at the time, nor could I as a 25-year-old engineer appreciate what all influenced the creation of the seminar, but there was a lot going on. Regulations in the U.S. and worldwide were increasing, global markets were expanding and the Maastrict Treaty in Europe or EC-92 ushered in the framework for a unified Europe that was a game-changer. Companies desperately needed to manage and control product liability costs, but most importantly there was a genuine interest to advance the state of the art of product safety for the off-road industry.         

So the climate was right for a new way of thinking. Both CIMA and EMI held events prior to 1990 and had numerous safety initiatives; however, a great many of these tended to be academic and reactive in nature. What changed was a strong desire for the industry to work together. This happened with example after example such as rollover protective structures, lighting and marking, braking, operating training, safety signs and hazard pictorial communications, and openly sharing best practices with field modifications and safety campaigns.

This paved the way for establishing an annual event where the content was identified by the off-road equipment industry and most of the presenters were from the equipment industry.  As the staff contact, I was humbled to work with industry giants such as the first planning committee led by Bob Johanningmeier, John Deere; Brian Ahlschwede, also with John Deere; Dwight Benninga, Hutchinson Wil-Rich; Jack Brannan, General Cable; Jim Carr, Caterpillar; Tom Ihringer, Melroe; Jim Hawkins, Weasler Engineering; Richard Lowe, Lowe Manufacturing; Joe Pryor, Alamo Group; and Nigel Stansfield, JCB. 

Steve Burdette, I think forever a safety expert, joined the committee planning efforts in 1993, and has been engaged ever since. Most of these original committee members would stay actively involved for many years. A question often asked was why do the big companies share all this information with everyone else? The answer is simple … it’s the right thing to do.

The breadth and scope of the product safety seminar has grown tremendously over the years. The 1990 event was nearly completely focused on safety topics with the committee carefully viewing liability issues best covered in a separate event. That 1990 program covered 11 topics and was a day and a half event. Today’s seminars cover three and half days and include 39 discrete subject areas. 

It’s interesting to reflect on the subjects covered in the 1990 seminar.  A great many of the topics are still a staple of today’s program. Encouraging safe user behavior, safety risk assessment and developing effective safety communications are a few examples. Beginning around 1994, the subject of marketing product safety was introduced. An excellent presentation by Christine McKenzie with Chrysler helped us realize that safety sells. Today it goes without saying that customers will pay a premium for a perceived safer product; it’s hard to image a time when it was a little uncomfortable to talk about product safety.

It was never the specific intent of the safety seminar nor the planning committee to specifically alter standards work, regulatory actions or technology advancement per se, but the environment this event created over the years has done tremendous good in these areas.  

Perhaps for me, the greatest good this yearly program has offered is to provide a unique training and networking venue. There is nothing available quite like it. Roughly half of you are first time attendees, which is great.  Beginning around year five, we started to track the number of first time attendees and interestingly every year it has remained nearly half the audience. What does this mean? I think it shows how the industry values this event as an important training opportunity. 

Those who know me have heard me describe a clearly exaggerated scenario summarizing the networking benefit. So … say I’m a first time attendee, brand new in the product safety area, and during a session I put up my hand and I explain that my company produces a machine that crushes and grinds materials into smaller pieces. From time to time, chunks of material fly out of the machine. We are wondering … should we consider installing shields and guards and safety signs on this machine?

Well, it is at the AEM Product Safety Seminar where normally competitive companies in the marketplace will not only help this person and company by providing information and guidance, but often share directly how they would make this a safer product – all for the good of the industry!

It’s this theme of sharing for the common good that has fueled a passion for product safety – and after 25 years, it’s heartwarming to see that it’s still going so very strong!