Mine Safety Appliances
At MSA, Safety Isn’t a Slogan, It’s a Mission
Cutting-edge technology is great - up to a point. Take the case of Mine Safety Appliances Co., MSA, a world leader in advanced fire and industrial safety equipment.
“This is the helmet that was going to revolutionize firefighter head protection back in the mid ‘80s,” Mark Deasy, MSA’s Director of Strategic Communications explained as he plunked the futuristic piece of headgear onto the conference room table. “It was called the Brigade Firefighter Helmet. A revolutionary design at the time. Very functional. Very different. And a very, very good firefighter helmet. It even garnered a place in the New York Museum of Modern Art. But it completely flopped in the market in North America.” Why?
Tradition. There’s a powerful culture among America’s firefighters which, while it generally embraces new technology, also venerates fire service customs. One of them involves the shape of the fire helmet worn by generations of American firefighters. Its distinctive rigid brim and heavily reinforced leather shell have long been the signature headgear of both career and volunteer firefighters. And MSA’s Brigade Firefighter Helmet just didn’t fit that fashion requirement.
Even so, roughly eight out of ten U.S. firefighters today wear MSA’s traditional Cairns brand of fire helmets, and many of them also outfit themselves with other items from the company’s life-saving product lines including breathing apparatus, rescue belts, and thermal imaging cameras.
When the company was founded in 1914, its focus had been on protecting miners - workers whose rate of death and injury on the job at the time was horrendous. Mining is still dangerous work, although far less so than at the start of the 20th century, and industrial safety remains the company’s central mission. But as a market for MSA products, mining has declined to a minor role in North America. The oil/gas/petroleum industry has now emerged as its largest segment, with general industry, construction and fire service gear right behind.
At the same time, however, the growth of mining and manufacturing operations overseas has accelerated, driven by emerging markets in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. As a result, as of last year, MSA’s sales outside the United States represented 59 percent of its $1.17 billion worldwide total. And its investment in overseas offices, plants, partnerships and personnel reflects that growth.
But the company’s roots have always remained in the Pittsburgh area. In fact, it was a catastrophic 1912 mine explosion in nearby West Virginia that resulted in the company’s formation two years later. A pocket of trapped methane gas had ignited, killing more than 80 miners. For mine engineer John T. Ryan Sr., the tragedy led to a vow: that preventing similar disasters would become his life’s work.
Ryan recruited a colleague to help realize his vision, and together they approached Thomas Edison for help in creating an electric miner’s helmet lamp to replace the burning oil lanterns widely used at the time. Over the next 25 years, their lamp reduced mine explosions by 75 percent. And Ryan’s family has remained involved in the business. Today, his grandson, John T. Ryan III, chairs the company’s Board of Directors.
By the mid-‘80s, MSA’s fledgling business in portable gas detection instruments needed more room to grow, so the company bought a 327-acre wooded site in Cranberry for its electronic research, engineering and assembly operations. Then two years ago, its corporate headquarters also relocated to Cranberry Woods, bringing MSA’s total employment there to around 800. Last year, it was named by the Post-Gazette as one of the region’s top workplaces. And this year its CEO, William Lambert, received the region’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in manufacturing.
Over the years, the company’s customer and product mix have continued to evolve. But workplace safety has always remained at its core. Today, supplied-air respirators, safety helmets, gas and flame detection instruments and fall protection equipment are the pillars of MSA’s business line.
And in the future, high-tech innovations will continue driving its line of life-saving products, all of which are built, as Lambert puts it, to work on what is likely the worst day of someone’s life on the job. Even if they’re not always in high-fashion.