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Creating a Culture of Safety


Construction remains one of the more dangerous occupations, with 774 people dying while on the job in 2010. A large percentage of those fatalities were by falls, one of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Focus Four hazards. The others include electrocution, struck-by and caught-in/between.

“About 80 percent of the fatalities over the last several years have been a result of those items,” says Jim Miller, vice president of safety for JE Dunn Construction in Kansas City, Mo., a member of multiple AGC chapters and recipient of the 2012 AGC/Willis Construction Safety Excellence Award in the Large Contractors category. “We’re aware that those are the four big things and gear our training for our superintendents, foremen and our workers to cover those four hazards. We also track those hazards.”

JE Dunn takes a risk-management approach to identifying hazards and implementing policies and training to prevent them from happening.

Rodney Oliver, vice president of environment, health & safety at Flatiron Construction in Firestone, Colo., a member of multiple AGC chapters and recipient of the 2012 AGC/Willis Safety Excellence Award in the Highway Division, Over One Million Man-Hours category and with a 1.0 recordable incident rate, credits a culture of safety that pushes the responsibility for a safe environment to its foremen, supervisors and workers, believing workers who see foremen and others performing tasks safely will mimic that behavior.

“People have accepted safety as an overall part of work,” Oliver says. “It’s the foremen and supervisors that drive the success.”

When workers and leaders have an engrained value on safety, they will make the right decisions, adds Richard S. Baldwin, director of health, safety, and environment at PCL Construction Enterprises in Denver, a member of multiple AGC chapters and winner of the 2012 AGC/Willis Grand Award for Construction Safety Excellence and with a total recordable incident rate of 0.61.

“It’s an ethical responsibility to do everything we can to make sure employees are protected,” says Baldwin, calling a culture of safety essential.

JE Dunn, Flatiron, PCL and other AGC members and AGC chapters have stepped up to prevent accidents associated with the four hazards.

“We do proactive programs and behavioral-based programs, getting with contractors and letting them know preplanning and task planning are good things,” says Brent Miller, director of safety at AGC of Wisconsin in Madison. “We’re busy all of the time.”

AGC of Wisconsin safety professionals, including members of the chapter’s Safety Committee, conduct classroom and jobsite training and safety audits, focusing on frequent hazards, as a benefit of membership.

Other chapters, including AGC of Missouri, the Arizona Chapter and the Houston Chapter, have offered free Focus Four training to their members. And members can learn more about preventing those hazards at the semi-annual AGC Safety and Health Conferences.

While falls still represent a serious jobsite risk, with 264 deaths in 2010, the most recent data available from OSHA reports that fatal falls in the private construction industry have declined 42 percent since 2007. Primary causes include unprotected sides, edges and holes; improperly constructed work surfaces; improper use of access equipment; failure to properly use personal fall arrest systems; or slips and trips related to poor housekeeping.

“Falls are the number one issue in the construction industry, and we try to address that issue in the preplanning stages,” Miller said. “Before we turn a shovel, we are talking about how we will protect our employees from fall hazards.”

Preplanning involves brainstorming the “what ifs” and managing the risks to prevent incidents from happening and protect the public.

PCL also asks employees to plan the work and to check with a supervisor to ensure tie-offs are made to something strong enough to hold the worker.

Flatiron and PCL require double lanyards on personal fall arrest systems, so they always are protected, even when moving from one point to another.

“You have to be tied off 100 percent of the time,” Baldwin says. “We’ve been doing that for decades and haven’t had any serious falls.”

Brasfield & Gorrie, based in Birmingham, Ala. and a member of multiple AGC chapters, has adopted a zero tolerance policy for tie-offs. Not abiding by this policy can lead to dismissal of the worker. The company – with a 2011 recordable incident rate of 2.15 – trains everyone, including subcontractors’ workers, and ensures the equipment is readily available and in good working order. Tom Garrett, chief safety officer for the company, recalled a recent incident in which a worker wore the fall-arrest system while working 5 feet above the ground (considered a company best practice). He fell, the equipment engaged, he landed gently and went back to work.

“That’s part of the culture — I have the equipment and am going to use it,” says Garrett.

Workers die of electrocution due to contact with overhead power lines or live circuits in panels or from poorly maintained cords and tools and lightning strikes. OSHA requires ground fault circuit interrupters or an assured equipment grounding program, with crews checking tools every three months. PCL and JE Dunn ask employees to do both.

JE Dunn also preplans major electrical installations with the subcontractor, who is responsible for coming up with a hazard-prevention plan.

Cupertino Electric in San Jose, Calif., a member of AGC of California, reports a corporate recordable case rate of 1.48 for 2012. The company uses lockout/tagout procedures when a line is energized. The lock on the nearest disconnect has one key, which cannot be passed to anyone else, and the site is tagged with the name of the person with the key. The company evaluates performance annually and regularly trains employees on any changes in its requirements.

Every Cupertino employee, including local union electricians brought in for a project, receives training in the company’s policies and procedures and is given a pocket-sized handbook with its injury protection program to carry with him or her.

“We use the green book as a tool,” says Tom Boutwell, corporate safety manager for Cupertino Electric. “If they have a question, for instance, on fall protection, they can go to the book.”

Cupertino’s Energy Alternatives Division has worked 131,000 hours without a recordable injury, and its Energy Infrastructure Division, which works on substations and power plants, has worked 181,000 hours without a recordable injury. That requires teamwork.

“Every employee has the right and the authority to stop any unsafe act,” says Boutwell. “We expect and encourage them to be active members of the safety program, not just someone who does their job and goes home.”

Brasfield & Gorrie has brought in electrical experts to conduct a five-hour course about avoiding electrical hazards with supervisory employees. When a near miss occurred, Brasfield & Gorrie held a company-wide stand-down call with every employee and supervisor to review lockout/tagout procedures and other electrical safety recommendations.

On the highway side, Flatiron always calls out a service to identify where power lines are buried, but it also hand- or hydrovac-digs potholes to expose utilities, since the markings may be off by as much as 3 feet. The company also sends a supervisor to verify the utility has turned the power off on a line before letting any workers near it.

Flatiron has installed proximity indicators inside all of its crane cabs. Sensors will alert the driver if the boom reaches a set distance from a power line.

Struck-by fatalities occur due to falling objects, vehicle strikes and flying objects. Caught-in/between deaths result from trench collapses, catastrophic rotating equipment failures, unguarded parts, equipment rollovers and maintenance. Although these two categories have different causes, contractors often approach them similarly.

“They are difficult to separate, because many hazards fall into both categories,” says Miller.

Garrett added that the similarity is that something is striking the body. Brasfield & Gorrie developed a hazard recognition program and plans ahead to assess the dangers of the tasks to be completed for that day.

PCL has focused its struck-by and caught-in/between efforts on hand protection, since that’s the body part most often injured. It puts messages on the back of gloves to watch for pinch points, conducts toolbox talks and places new posters around the jobsite on a monthly basis.

“On our projects, a person has to have gloves at all times,” Baldwin says. The company posts the type of glove to be worn for each specific activity.

In addition, PCL invites workers to lunch and then asks the person to duct tape his or her thumb to the hand or tape two fingers together to simulate an injury and provide an understanding about what could happen after a hand accident.

“It’s powerful, an eye opener, so people realize the potential effects,” says Baldwin.

Flatiron calls its campaign “Line of Fire,” teaching people what tools to use in place of hands, such as forklifts to separate beams before attempting to attach shake-out hooks, and to be conscious where their hands are and where other people’s tools could reach. The campaign includes education and live demonstrations.

While campaigns to address individual issues can prove successful, most of the companies who shared their best practices for this article subscribe to creating and maintaining a culture of safety.

“It requires continual improvement and a culture that makes safety an everyday part of work,” says Oliver.

Garrett reports that the industry has shifted to a more professional, evidence-based approach to safety, rather than simply following OSHA rules. Brasfield & Gorrie monitors research and plans strategically and tactically, training on avoiding the Focus Four hazards and other risks.

“Leading companies are moving to best practices, using the rules, but moving to exceed OSHA standards,” says Garrett.

Recognizing employees for safe work practices must take place, Baldwin says. Discipline alone does not work.

“When we express appreciation when an employee has done something properly, he or she returns that in kind and are more likely to respond in the future with safe behavior,” Baldwin says. The focus is on the positive, minimizing the negatives.

Brasfield & Gorrie also takes a positive approach, providing spot recognition in which supervisors compliment employees performing work safely.

“Research shows that early, frequent recognition is better than infrequent recognition,” Garrett adds. “A monthly and quarterly safety lunch, research shows, has some impact but does not have as much impact on what I am doing today.”

The company also shares success stories, such as the worker tied off at 5 feet who survived the fall with no injuries.

JE Dunn rewards workers and subcontractors for reporting hazards and near misses, so the company can investigate and come up with a plan to mitigate moving forward.

In addition to focusing on hazards and how to avoid them, PCL also teaches behavioral safety and treating everyone with respect. It uses a coaching approach, Baldwin says. If someone knowingly does something wrong, he or she may be disciplined, but first leadership will check that the worker received proper training.

Flatiron also embraces what in some fields is called a just culture while aiming for zero incidents and zero lost time.

“It’s getting away from the blame game,” says Oliver. “We are not trying to find fault; we are trying to find facts when investigating incidents, so we can get to the root cause and take that factor away and prevent it from happening again.”

Flatiron uses mistakes as a learning experience, sending out flash alerts company wide to let everybody know what happened and the lessons to prevent it from occurring again.

“Once employees see it’s not about the numbers, but about protecting them, they buy into the program,” Oliver says. “Safety has become so natural to us, it’s at the forefront of everything we do.”

Safety and avoiding incidents involving the Focus Four hazards have become a way of life for many AGC members.

“When construction is done right, safety is an integral part,” says Garrett. “The right way to do the task is the safe way.”