BY JAY OLSEN
On a busy jobsite, there are subcontractors everywhere — from carpenters and glaziers to bricklayers and ironworkers — all getting along with their own jobs. The carpenters don’t know the ironworkers, and the ironworkers don’t know the bricklayers. They might have seen each other around on other jobs, but they’re not on first-name terms with one another.
If someone were to ask one subcontractor what the other guys were working on, he probably wouldn’t have much of an idea. It’s not his job to know, so why should he? It is, however, the general contractor’s job to know this, and this kind of poor communication can lead to huge inefficiencies and even fatalities.
In 2012, the construction industry accounted for 16 percent of all workplace fatalities in the United States. That’s 775 construction workers killed on the job, with the majority being caused by the “Fatal Four” — falling, getting hit by an object, electrocution, and being caught in or between objects.
The industry is moving in the right direction. Workplace fatalities are down 35 percent since 2006, but there still is room for improvement. Here are five ideas to help general contractors coordinate subcontractors and make sure that their sites are as safe and efficient as possible:
1. EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY FOR EFFECTIVE INTERACTION
Contrary to what some may believe, most construction industry professionals are college graduates. Construction is a chosen field like any other — and a majority of the guys are smarter than they’re given credit for.
One way to start using these smarts is for the industry to embrace technology. General contractors shouldn’t spend 20 minutes wandering around a site in search of subcontractors when they could just call or message them.
Of adults who are online, 73 percent use social media regularly, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Applications such as WhatsApp allow people to create groups so that they can contact all of their friends in one easy message. This method can easily be applied to a jobsite so that everyone gets to know one another.
Contractors can employ cloud software to facilitate conversations between different subcontractors. Even better, if confusion arises, people can always refresh their memory by going back to the pertinent message.
Technology also can be used to create and maintain a site directory. In the past, the site contact directory was a book held by the superintendent, who had to waste his valuable time handing out phone numbers to everybody. It’s not a bad thing to keep that book on-site, but it’s a lot quicker to make an electronic copy and share it with everybody.
Technology is an important aspect of society today, so the construction industry should use it whenever possible to increase safety and efficiency.
2. IMPLEMENT A JOBSITE HIERARCHY
When a subcontractor arrives at a jobsite for the first time, he knows what he’ll be doing. The specifics might change, but the general gist of his work has already been spelled out for him.
Furthermore, he needs to understand the channels of communication. Subcontractors should know the jobsite hierarchy, what to do in case of emergency, and where to report problems.
Every subcontractor must comprehend not only the structure of the building, but also the structure of the workplace. This means having a clear jobsite communication plan. General contractors ought to include the communications requirements in their contracts so that everyone knows what to expect on day one.
3. HOLD REGULAR GROUP DISCUSSIONS
When issues arise, people need to talk. Holding regular group discussions affords subcontractors the opportunity to get to know each other a little better. Some companies do these on a biweekly, weekly, or daily basis. The optimal frequency depends on the jobsite.
While they do improve communication, these meetings also can help build workplace camaraderie and create a better jobsite environment. Remember that poor rapport between contractors and subcontractors is a major cause of communication breakdown.
It also is important to ensure that everybody can communicate. Do all of the subcontractors speak English as a first language? If not, then contractors can consider introducing a solution such as the one pioneered by Fernando Aveiga for Associated General Contractors of Iowa. Aveiga developed a multilingual curriculum to help break down language barriers.
Anything that can be done to promote good relationships on a jobsite will help improve efficiency and safety.
4. GIVE EMERGENCY UPDATES
An alarm is sounding, but nobody knows why. People are standing around, scratching their heads, and looking to their colleagues. Is it a fire? Has there been an accident? Does the jobsite need to be evacuated?
It’s absolutely vital to ensure that teams know the correct channels for emergency updates. If an alarm is sounding, everybody should know exactly what that means and what to do.
If a team member finds a problem, he has to alert people. Is it by phone? If so, contractors must be aware of the people they have to contact. Establish a phone tree. This guarantees that information is spread as quickly and efficiently as possible.
5. EMPOWER EVERYONE TO CHECK IN AND CHECK OUT
Most hotels will ask guests to leave their keys at the front desk when exiting the building. This not only stops guests from losing keys, but it also helps hoteliers know how many rooms are occupied at any given time. Information like this ensures they can respond quickly in the event of a fire or some other situation that requires evacuation.
In the same vein, jobsite workers need to check in and check out. This helps the general contractor track progress and coordinate between multiple trades.
If the carpenters are waiting for the ironworkers to finish a task, but the ironworkers have left without telling anybody, then there will be a delay. Having an established system for identifying who is on-site at any one time will help avoid major headaches.
It can also potentially save lives. If bad luck strikes and an accident happens, nobody wants to look for the guy who forgot to clock out. Even something as simple as going to the restroom without telling anyone can cause major worry.
Misunderstandings waste time and slow down progress. Jobsite communication is key to ensuring everyone is safe, efficient, and on a first-name basis with every subcontractor on location.
Jay Olsen founded Jobsite Unite in 2012 after being frustrated by the lack of communication on construction sites. Jay, who has been around construction his entire life, built a career in the construction industry in Des Moines, Iowa.