When the Stillwater Mining Co.'s refinery started operating in Columbus in 1996, it had 10 employees.
Now the plant has 40 employees and bragging rights as well, having run for 590,000 hours without a worker lost-time accident. About 90 people, including employees, spouses and company officials, celebrated the 10-year safety record Saturday night with a dinner at The Granary restaurant in Billings.
Stillwater Mining operates two full-scale platinum and palladium mines at the Stillwater mine, near Nye, and the East Boulder mine south of McLeod. The smelter and refinery operations in Columbus further upgrade the concentrate of the metals extracted at the mines.
Speeches by company CEO Larry McAllister and Keith Kelly, Montana commissioner of Labor and Industry, accompanied the meal.
McAllister praised the culture of safety that is inculcated into the refinery.
"Safety is a way of doing business," McAllister said. "Safety first, no matter what."
McAllister said that for the 10 years of operating with no time lost to accidents, he and the board of directors "look on this operation with a great deal of admiration."
"We thank you very much," he said.
McAllister acknowledged that the mining operation, separate from the refinery, suffered three deaths in rapid succession in 2001. But he said that since then, changes at the mine have allowed it to move in the same direction as the refinery in terms of safety.
"We feel very good about what's happening at the mine," he said.
Kelly, who shared remarks on behalf of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, said the refinery's safety record "is the latest example of your culture of safety, and I'm proud of your accomplishments."
The refinery has already received a nod for its safety record through the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration's Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program.
Kelly contrasted that with the news that the state's workers' compensation rates will go up by $5 million.
"Between slips, trips and falls, rates go up," he said, adding Stillwater's record helped inspire him to redouble his efforts to improve the state's safety record.
Separate from his remarks to the group, Kelly said the Stillwater refinery's milestone is a noteworthy one.
"Ten years is a pretty significant record in a refinery operation," he said. "Any industry like that is risky."
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