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Environment as a catalyst for improvement

We systematically review processes and behavior in Hoboken, but we were surprised by increased levels of lead in blood of a small number of children when we renovated our lead refinery roof. We immediately mobilized the entire factory to identify improvement opportunities and average concentration of lead in fine dust (PM10) has once again decreased to acceptable levels. We are working hard toward further improvements with our research department and external consultants.

"The reduction of the presence of fine dust in the neighborhood was the top priority in 2017. Thanks to the efforts and the response of everyone in the Hoboken site this quickly resulted in measurable improvements. Investments were brought forward and hot spots for dust were eliminated, but also work practices were critically reviewed. All these measures led to a fast and marked improvement. We cannot afford to relax our attention at any time. A healthy working environment as well as a healthy living environment around our plant is and remains one of our main targets." - Luc Gellens Senior Vice President Precious Metals Refining, Umicore

Targeting environmental impact

We have invested €100 million in expanding our capacity since 2014. Ensuring that our plant operates safely and efficiently while at the same time further reducing our environmental impact was a major part of the plan. Over the years we have managed to drastically reduce the impact of our activities on the environment. We constantly strive to improve by systematically reviewing our processes and behavior. Air quality is continuously measured and children in the local community have their blood tested by the authorities twice a year on a voluntary basis.

Yet despite our vigilance, an unexpected incident occurred at the end of 2015. This wake-up call resounded throughout the plant. It sparked a constructive debate about how our organization should continue to operate as a responsible industry leader while renewing its approach to unforeseen events.

Increased emissions, increased blood lead levels 

We replaced the roof on our lead refinery. A series of well-intentioned procedures caused a sudden rise in atmospheric lead dust emissions. The effect of this was only felt when local blood tests revealed an increased number of children with lead in blood concentrations above the recommended level (5 microgram/deciliter blood).

We took immediate action: a comprehensive action plan was developed to systematically reduce our environmental impact.

A comprehensive action plan, immediate results

The whole plant pulled together to find improvement ideas, both big and small. The projects subsequently implemented took priority over other investments that had already been planned. The measured values fell sharply. In the wake of the incident in late 2015, the rolling annual average for lead emission returned to acceptable levels since the end of 2016. While average lead in blood level have decreased, continued action and follow-up will be needed to further reduce the number of children with lead in blood above the reference value. Therefore, we are working hard together with our R&D department and external consultants. The regrettable incident in 2015 was a wake-up call, a lesson that we have taken to heart: we will relentlessly continue our efforts to improve.

Shape Up – time to roll up our sleeves

We launched the “Shape Up” initiative to create clarity, to achieve alignment and to work on the culture. All Hoboken site employees were involved in developing the following targets aimed at addressing our environmental and safety performance and to improve operational excellence:

  • To ensure our company remains successful by adopting sustainable working practices
  • To consider their own behavior as the driver of success
  • To put into practice three core values: Passion, Caring, and Collaboration
  • To prioritize five key projects: emissions, safety, factory robustness, growth and optimize the organization

A total of 172 enthusiastic early adopters helped to spread the new culture to the entire group. Several Shape Up teams as well as many departments set to work immediately. In the area of safety, one of the site’s top priorities, a new and ambitious project is currently underway, addressing the challenges of safe working practices by focusing on the three core values.