Building it safe

Posted on Oct 1, 2011 :: Industries
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

How some industry leaders rack up millions of hours without serious safety incidents

The construction industry faces some unique challenges when it comes to safety. Each project site differs from the last, and there are often multiple trades from multiple companies working on various tasks at the same time.

Some builders have embraced the challenge head on. The Boldt Company, for one, has some sophisticated resources to drive safety improvement, says Jim Lee, group president of Northern Operations for the construction services firm. Managers get daily safety metrics on their computers, the company has a professional safety staff and has been recognized for its safety-focused continuous improvement program.

These resources have all helped the Appleton-based company reach an important safety milestone: accumulating 4 million hours worked without a lost-time incident. But for a safety culture to really take hold, Lee adds, safety must be taken personally by every worker.

“As we bring our people on board, we instill this whole idea that it’s your family you are working for, and if you hurt yourself, you may not be able to support your family, or be able to go outside and enjoy playing ball with your kids,” Lee says.

A few years ago, recalls Lee, there was a worker at a large industrial site who struggled with making safety a top priority.

To drive home the issue to the worker, says Lee, his supervisor asked him to bring a family photo to the work site, and used that to personalize the importance of safety procedures.

The approach worked so well, says Lee, that the worker agreed to being photographed with his family for a safety banner that touted that safety is all about your family. “That become a mantra for the project,” says Lee. “All the workers could see that safety is quite personal.”

Ted Sommer, director of safety for Faith Technologies, a Menasha-based electrical contractor, agrees with the idea that the importance of safety needs to be made personal, rather than portrayed as a matter of compliance with rules and regulations.

“Everyone has an inherent desire to be safe,” says Sommer. “The trick is to capitalize on that desire and use it. We come across many alerts of real-life incidents, and we say to our workers, ‘look what happened here, and this is what we can learn from it.’ With that sort of approach, it’s pretty easy to get buy-in.”

Nationwide, construction safety has improved steadily in recent years. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, construction fatalities declined by nearly 10 percent between 2009 and 2010.

At Boldt, the company’s Continuous Safety Improvement program encourages all reporting of incidents and hazards. As part of the program, says Lee, workers are empowered to halt production if they see a hazard. The data gathered through the program feeds the safety metrics that Boldt’s managers – including senior executives such as Lee – see on a daily basis.

Both Lee and Sommer say their crews hold daily huddles to discuss safety concerns and plans for the day.

Both companies also do extensive safety planning, but daily huddles are a way to integrate safety with daily production meetings that discuss overall tactics for the day.

“We are talking about communication between the leadership and the crew, we are talking about preplanning and having the right equipment and tools on hand to perform the job safely,” says Sommer.

At Faith Technologies, says Sommer, the company uses Kanban-style carts to stage materials and safety gear for a particular section of a project, rather than having workers walk to a central storage area.

The carts reduce time spent on material handling and also help reduce strains and sprains from repeated lifting or stair climbing.

“The same basic elements that make a project safe also make it a high quality project, and a highly productive project,” says Sommer.

Smaller companies in the construction industry typically lack a safety director or safety staff to instill the importance of safety measures to crews, says Pat Kish, president of Fox Valley Safety and Training, so it may be up to the company owner to see to it that procedures are followed, and that new rules are adhered to.

For example, notes Kish, new fall protection rules for residential construction took effect this summer, and some crews still can be seen working without the proper gear.

“You have to have that management buy-in and backing all the way out into the field,” says Kish.