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Safety and Numbers

Eight years ago there was a spike in commercial construction fatalities in Kentucky related to the jobsite. In 2004, there had been four; the following year, nine. In 2006, that number jumped to 17. An investigation was launched at the direction of the governor’s office, setting in motion a series of events that would move Ronnie Perkins, then a Construction Partnership Program administrator for Kentucky OSHA, to research each of these accidents.

“A colleague and I were developing a Focus Four course and were granted access to some of the actual fatality information from the division of compliance for the preceding couple of years,” he explains. His findings?

“Sufficient training had not been provided to those people,” he says. And the lack of oversight in much of what he determined ran all the way to the top. “There was a lack of a competent person providing training.” His stress on “competent” is not poetic license. “There is a competent person requirement — 1926.32 (f) in the OSHA standards,” he explains. “It gives you a general definition of a ‘competent person.’” Perkins, however, has his own definition. “A truly competent person… actually performs all of the required tasks in order to prevent somebody from getting killed.”

Most of the fatalities he looked at were production-related, borne of a philosophy of “get it done, get it done, get it done,” says Perkins, who retired from OSHA in 2007. He is now the safety and education director for AGC of Kentucky. “Timelines, trades running right over the top of one another trying to get in and get their parts done, snags where one trade might take longer than planned and now there’s two [working in the same place] instead of just one. It created an atmosphere where people were not being as cautious as they should.”

Time may well be money, but, say the experts, safety should take precedence – always. Dedication to training, planning and empowering employees, meeting with colleagues and sharing ideas about safety – these are the factors that make the difference between a job done and one well done.

Many of those we polled had ideas about why the national numbers increased. More than a few cited the effects of a lagging economy. Mandi Kime, director of safety for AGC of Washington, had an interesting hypothesis, one that appears to line up with Perkins’ findings. Where safety was concerned, the boom may have been more dangerous than the bust.

“Many contractors were adding people to their projects at such a hurried pace; they weren’t always slowing down to take a careful look at the people they were hiring,” she says. “They needed work done and they needed people to do it.”

Conversely, the post-boom squeeze may have resulted in painful downsizing, but there is a glass-half-full way to see it. “One idea maintains that with an economic downturn, you downsize your organization to meet current demands,” says Kerry Soileau, safety manager for Ferguson Construction in Seattle, an AGC of Washington member, “leaving your core, long-term employees to perform the necessary work.”

Typically, these workers are more seasoned. “They have a safety culture that is better aligned with company expectations” (i.e., fewer accidents).

Washington state, Kime proudly noted at press time, has had no construction fatalities in 2013. And while her theories about hastily hired employees are based on the rapid-fire pace of building during the boom, she’s quick to counter those who claim her state’s fatality decline is directly related to downsizing.

“From the AGC building in downtown Seattle, on any given day you can see more than 25 cranes. During the downturn, worst felt in 2008, you could see only two. I say this because people want to attribute the fatality rate drop in construction to a lack of work, and that is not a fair assessment. In 2008, we had 18 fatalities, which was average. So in five short years we have seen a drop of greater than 20 percent each year.”

David Jackson, president of Hacker Bros., Inc., in London, Ky., an AGC of Kentucky member, from his perspective as a Trustee of the AGC-SIF, has noticed an uptick in motor vehicle-related accidents in the past couple of years. “Often it’s wrong place, wrong time,” he says. “You’ve got a delivery person, you’ve got a concrete driver, incidents that are construction-related but not among ‘the big four,’ – falls, electrical accidents, caught-betweens and struck-bys.”

Devices too, he believes, may play a role in incidents – motor vehicle-related and otherwise. “People are distracted,” he says, referring to the persistent presence of phones and tablets, “probably on the road as well.”

Often, he has found, accidents fall into two groups: “the newer hires, who have less experience, and the more seasoned workers who become careless. They’ve done something routinely year after year after year and they just don’t pay attention.”

The remedy, all agree, is keeping safety in the front of everyone’s minds from the start.

AGC of America’s safety and health services department has developed – and now offers – two safety and health management programs: the Safety Management Training course and the Advanced Safety Management Training course.

“Each is designed to provide attendees with the requisite knowledge to effectively manage safety and health programs in the construction industry with a focus on best practices,” says Kevin Cannon, director of safety and health services for AGC of America.

Additionally, they’ve run fall-protection training through OSHA Susan Harwood Training grants the past three years.

“Falls have historically been the leading cause of fatalities and serious injuries in our industry,” says Cannon, “so it continues to be a focus…thus far we have trained more than 1,000 construction workers.”

Education at the state level is essential as well. In Kentucky, each of the 5,000 members of the AGC-SIF must attend a mandatory two-hour training class every year – offered live and online. “It’s geared toward owners and managers,” says Perkins. “Our larger general contractors all have one or more full-time safety directors. The smaller firms may have a person who wears many hats.”

His chapter recently ran its fifth annual safety day conference; it was highly successful. “We had 16 professional workshops down four different tracks,” Perkins explains. Attendees also visit with exhibitors and attend special events. “This year, we had a fall-protection demonstration, a confined-space demonstration, and also heavy equipment and distracted driving simulators.” The latter, he says, echoing Jackson, is a biggie.

Kentucky has also held onto the AGC’s formerly national CHASE [Construction Health and Safety Excellence] program with great success.

“We have 13 companies that have gone through the process,” says Perkins, which has red, white and blue designations, “six of which achieved the highest certification: blue.”

Perkins says that CHASE develops a strong safety culture within companies, and those that maintain their blue designations are exempt from Kentucky OSHA programmed (general scheduled inspections) for a year-long period.

Hacker Bros. is among them.

“At the blue level you have demonstrated that you have an active safety and training program within your company, you’re stressing it on your project sites and you’re opening yourself up to unannounced visits by OSHA,” says Jackson, the firm’s president. “We invite them in! We want them to come!” The benefit is that should inspectors find anything amiss, we often have an opportunity to immediately remedy the hazard. “Being a part of CHASE is something we take a lot of pride in.”

The development of new standards – and, thusly, training programs to support them – is highly effective. The AGC of Washington discussed new cranes and rigging standards for two years, says Bruce McGaw, safety director for the Woodinville-based Mowat Construction, a member of multiple AGC chapters, “bringing in experts and facilitating discussions that clarified the new regulations. Because of this, we were able to create and implement effective Qualified Rigger and Signaler, Critical Lift, and Assembly-Disassembly training programs and Safe Power Line Encroachment procedures.” Undertakings such as these, McGaw points out, are always challenging, “but our in-house crane and rigging program was vastly improved…praised by the project owners and government agencies that have audited our programs and observed our practices. Our success is largely based on the resources and assistance the AGC provides us.”

Cupertino Electric, a member firm in California, went above and beyond to keep safety on the brains of its employees – literally – says Kate Smiley, manager of safety and regulatory services for AGC of California.

Research had shown that 43 percent of all recordable injuries happen within 30 days from placement on a project (this did not reflect the employee’s length of employment). “So they implemented a ‘First 30’ hardhat sticker campaign to highlight that fact to employees new to a project – and to provide greater outreach to those individuals during their first 30 days. This is an outstanding example of data mining to develop a leading-edge program.”

A good safety record, Soileau points out, isn’t just great for employees’ health and states of mind – it serves the bottom line as well. Her firm recently received its 20th year of acceptance in the AGC of Washington Safety Team program. “In that time Ferguson’s program has evolved from the basic and far too common standard compliance-based program to the award-winning proactive safety program that has seen continual improvement.”

Its value is almost inestimable. “First and foremost, there is great satisfaction that our employees and those of our partners go home healthy and uninjured every day. This translates into lower injury and incident costs with positive impacts on our EMR rates.” Lower costs, Soileau points out, help the company stay competitive in a tight market. “We can offer our customers a quality product at a reasonable cost – and the assurance that they will not have any undue exposure due to our work practices.”

If there was a common thread among our contributors, it was all about talk: meeting, communicating, developing and, above all, sharing.

“AGC Safety and Health Council meetings at the local, state and national levels have always provided takeaway information that safety professionals have been able to employ immediately on projects,” says Smiley. “The value of safety professionals getting together regularly is huge.” A favorite adage: nothing is secret with safety.

“It means that while our companies are competitors, we all agree that sharing safety best practices helps everyone and that’s okay…!” Solid leadership, she notes, can make all the difference. Her department has made it a multi-year focus.

“Our success has been in continuing the move away from the thought process that ‘construction is a dangerous profession and injuries will occur’ to a leadership mindset that says ‘construction can, is and will be a safe industry.’”

At monthly and quarterly Safety Team forums, accidents are discussed openly. “The goal is to share the critical contributing factors to incidents that are happening in today’s workforce so that we can all learn from each other’s mistakes.”

A 10-minute open mic presentation is standard as well. “We feature a member volunteer who presents a best practice or innovation in safety that has helped achieve better safety results.”

Kime believes that safety has transitioned from a goal to an unwavering core value for most contractors – and that it’s all about training and planning. “Safety takes work and dedication,” she says. “More companies are investing in safety training; proving their commitment through their hiring and firing practices; and empowering their workers, supervisors and upper management with the authority to stop work, spend money on protection systems and take the time to plan.”

Preplanning projects makes deadlines less difficult, makes mistakes less frequent and noticeably increases efficiency. “Not to say that deadlines don’t add more pressure,” she laughs, “but the pressure is manageable because the work is organized.”

Keeping employees in a perpetual state of training, learning, thinking about safety, says Jackson, is No. 1. Companies must live the policies they enact, and that flows from the top down. “Every person on a project needs to know their health and well-being is important to us. We’re serious about it. And an insistence on safety means that sometimes you’ll have to change the way you do things.”

Jackson says not to fear it. There’s no deeper value to a safety program than its role in making employees feel genuinely cared about.

“We have projects to do, we have to deliver them, but at the end of the day we want our workers to go home to their families. That’s what’s important to us.”

Photo: Mowat’s pipeline crew practices the company’s high-angle fall protection rescue plan. Practicing fall protection rescues is mandatory for all its crews working at any significant elevation especially where rescues from below, such as with a personnel aerial lift, are not feasible.