Home » Features » It’s a Journey, not a Destination

It’s a Journey, not a Destination

Earlier this year, AGC of America held its prestigious WTW Construction Safety Excellence Awards (CSEA) at its annual convention in Grapevine, Texas. In addition to being awarded first place in the Construction Management Division for firms with more than 700,000 work hours, Choate Construction, an Atlanta-based commercial general contracting firm, took home the Grand Prize and was named the nation’s safest construction firm.

a journey not a destinationPHOTO COURTESY OF CHOATE CONSTRUCTION

Constructor sat down with Choate’s Corporate Safety Director Chad Hart, who shared details of the company’s safety program and the factors that helped them secure this prestigious award, in addition to insight into what other AGC members can do to enhance or strengthen their own safety programs.

CONSTRUCTOR: WHAT’S INVOLVED IN DEVELOPING A TOP-NOTCH SAFETY PROGRAM?

HART: Actually, it’s more about who is involved in building a great safety program. You have to have visible engagement from every part of your business, or you will have a hard time securing true investment. It starts with the CEO and all executives and includes project managers, superintendents, pre-construction, administrative assistants and craft-level workers and their trade partners. The buyin and visible participation from the top are essential elements to creating an effective safety program because they illustrate the idea of a company-wide mindset.

The key to developing your safety program is recognizing that it’s a journey, not a destination. Identifying where your organization is now and where you want to be will help you see the potential for growth in a new light. As you embark on the process, always seek ways for continual improvement.

When hiring people, you’ve got to hire the absolute best staff. While you can hire people with the right aptitude, you must hire people that also have the right attitude. They’ve got to be passionate about wanting everyone to go home safely at the end of the day. You can teach skills in the classroom, but attitude is difficult to teach.

CONSTRUCTOR: HOW HAS YOUR SAFETY PROGRAM EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?

HART: Like so many safety programs in the industry, we went from a compliantbased program that focused on enforcement of regulations, to a program centered around a commitment to sending folks home safe. It’s not a check-the-box mentality, but more of a partnership with everyone involved and a shared value of protecting oneself and their coworkers.

a journey not a destination

PHOTO COURTESY OF CHOATE CONSTRUCTION.

CONSTRUCTOR: WHAT TIPPED THE SCALE FOR CHOATE AND ITS SAFETY PROGRAM TO SECURE THE GRAND CSEA AWARD?

HART: During our presentation, we illustrated a safety process that demonstrated the buy-in not only from the safety management side of our company, but also from the operations and field management side.

We were able to showcase Choate’s safety innovations that really resonated with the judges, like our safety stanchion guardrail system developed by an assistant superin tendent on one of our projects. The system was created to provide a “passive” safety system when constructing external-facing elements of a building, like balconies. Usually, people settle for just being tied off in these situations but are required to move the tie-off as the area is built out. We asked ourselves whether there was a better way to give people a safety solution that offered protection during those brief moments in between tie-offs.

The assistant superintendent developed a steel guardrail system that slides over the embedded exterior posts and stays in place throughout the concrete placement until the permanent rails are installed. We had this system patented and manufactured for not only our use, but as an innovative safety solution that can be used on any jobsite across the country. Our OneLife safety identity and program is rooted in the belief that sharing best practices and new ideas with one another is how safety standards across the country improve for everyone in the industry.

Consistent, widespread training is also a major factor in our safety program. In our presentation, we provided an example of where we conducted a safety program for concrete truck drivers coming onto our jobsites. We went to their concrete plant and gave an orientation to every driver at the facility, so they knew what safety requirements to expect on a Choate site.

Our senior superintendent was also at the presentation and talked about how we get buy-in with workers. You have to make them true partners in the pursuit of safety, as you would friends and family.

First and foremost, you need to listen to them. Indeed, some of your best safety ideas come from craft-level workers on jobsites, as they see day in and day out what works and what doesn’t. For all aspects of a successful safety program, you have to explain the reasons behind your protocols, or the why, and not just the rule. You’ve got to give them a reason to believe in what they’re doing.

A simple example is why they need to wear a personal fall arrest system in a scissor lift. While OSHA doesn’t require it, we do. Without one, a worker may lean outside the guardrail and could fall outside the lift and suffer serious injury or even a fatality. Requiring people to wear proper fall protection equipment and utilizing the factory-installed anchor, we can ensure they will be able to go home safely at the end of their shift.

While it’s important to talk about accident prevention and hazard assessment in our training, we’re also focused on the mental health of our workforce. We’ve partnered with WTW and Suicide Awareness and Voices of Education (SAVE) on a pilot program, Ideal Body Environment and Mind (IBEAM), for suicide prevention in the construction industry. The percentage of people battling mental health struggles within the industry is mind-blowing, so we’re doing what we can to help identify and combat that through helpful resources, open discussions and a supportive environment.

We conducted informational training broken down by position groups, starting with our senior executives. For that group, we conducted an awareness training class to define what the true gravity of the situation is and what executives could do about it.

The next group involved our superintendents and project managers. We gave a level of training for them that included helping them recognize when somebody may be in a situation where they need assistance and what the managers could do about it. We let them know that most importantly they need to just listen, and if needed, direct those employees to resources where they can get help.

The last group were the craft-level crews on the jobsites. We gave presentations that included videos to raise awareness of mental health challenges in the industry. We’re working to break the stigma surrounding mental health, which starts by having more conversations about this on the jobsites.

a journey not a destination

PHOTO COURTESY OF CHOATE CONSTRUCTION.

CONSTRUCTOR: WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE TO IMPLEMENTING A SAFETY PROGRAM?

HART: Just continually bringing on new contractors onto our projects and getting them familiar with Choate’s OneLife safety program and identity. Sometimes those contractors are relatively small, maybe newer to the business who may not have all the resources that Choate has and are not as far along on their safety journey as we are after 30-plus years of building our program. To get these contractors up to speed quickly has been challenging, but it also has been extremely rewarding as well to see their growth.

CONSTRUCTOR: WHAT CAN OTHER CONTRACTORS LEARN FROM CHOATE THAT WILL HELP THEM ENHANCE THEIR PROGRAM?

HART: Our OneLife identity — that’s our safety mantra. Any contractor out there, whether large or small, needs to understand who they want to be when it comes to safety, and they need something to drive passion for the mission. That’s what we developed through our OneLife identity, with the intention to fully engage everybody who encounters it.

Far too often in safety we talk about the punitive side, the negatives, but we don’t talk enough about the positives. That’s what having OneLife has done for us — instead of always having to learn just from failures, we’re also learning from our successes as well. That way we can replicate success.

CONSTRUCTOR: WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THE CSEA PROGRAM TO OTHERS? IF SO, WHY?

HART: Without a doubt, yes, for many reasons. The obvious one is that it gives you a great opportunity to reflect — to look in the mirror and understand where you truly are as a company, and where you stand to improve. Secondly, any time you’re competing against the best of the best, high-caliber contractors from across the nation, you can’t help but improve your own organization.

Presenting in front of a panel of judges can be a little daunting and may be why some people may have some reservations about participating in the awards program. However, I think the judges are excellent. They are discerning, but they have a warm and welcoming way of doing their job that I found refreshing.