Jobsite Safety: Is It Worth It?
Ulf Wolf / January 2016
A safety directors sent us a photo taken at a large project run by a large general contractor. The photo shows a drywall subcontractor scrambling to meet a deadline: one end of the stepladder is resting on a stairway step while the other end is actually held up by a co-worker farther down the stairwell, as the man on the ladder precariously—he is obviously balancing and not a little concerned about his co-worker’s fading strength—goes about the taping. Keystone Kops comes to mind.
This is an image of an accident just begging to happen.
Reports from the field confirm that in many a GCs’ mind, jobsite safety does not even make it into the top three priorities, often superseded by deadlines, profits and plain convenience.
So, when it appears that, despite OSHA’s best efforts, many a large project still “gets away” with it, is it worth going to all the trouble of operating with a safety-first mindset?
We turned to some contractor members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, wanting to know, first of all, why should (or should not) jobsite safety be your highest priority?
Robert Coyle, operations manager and vice president at Dayton Walls & Ceilings, Inc. in Ohio, puts it succinctly: “It is our highest priority. It is way too expensive to think otherwise.”
Sarah Aird, safety manager at Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, seconds that: “Jobsite safety should always be a high priority. Without safe and healthy employees, we wouldn’t be in business. We want them to stay safe so they can go home to their families every night and come back to work the next day.”
Howard Bernstein, president of Penn installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, puts it this way: “No level of profit or production can justify putting a person’s life at risk. Do you want to be the one to call that person’s spouse or to have to tell their children? I don’t.”
Todd Lawrie, president of Delta Contracting Service, Inc. in Michigan, expands on the idea: “The main reason jobsite safety should be your highest priority is that the manpower you employ is not simply tools retrieved from a shelf and replaced when damaged, worn out or destroyed. Instead, they are, quite often, fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and have friends who rely on them.”
John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, adds, “Morally, keeping your workers safe is the right thing to do.”
Says Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York City—whose company, over the years, has received a host of safety awards from both AWCI and the National Safety Council, “Jobsite safety should always be your highest priority. A job that is well thought out and well planned will be safe, and will see your crew—your biggest asset—home safely. That is why safety is one of our core values. We care more about people than we do about money and profits.”
Adds Jonathan Heering, risk manager at F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, “Our overarching goal is to ensure that all of our employees go home each day to be with their families. Also, safety, as our highest-priority goal, has both direct and indirect impacts on the success of all other corporate goals.”
Kathy Coffey, an independent Kentucky safety consultant, puts it this way: “A safe job is a more productive job, and I can cite numerous examples of that—a safe company is a productive company.”
Josh Hamre, safety director at Prestige Drywall, Inc. in Minnesota, sums it up nicely: “In an industry where production is often the bottom line, the work cannot be completed without our number-one resource: people. If people are hurt, they can’t work. It’s that simple.”
Given a clear consensus among our contractors that jobsite safety does come first, what safety issues and concerns rank the highest?
Suggests Coyle: “Above all, the ‘it-will-only-take-a-second’ syndrome. Most accidents happen when employees feel they don’t need to protect themselves because ‘it will only take a second.’ After that, what concerns me most is protecting ourselves against lacerations and falls.”
From Aird’s standpoint, his greatest concern is “employees not using common sense and simply not stopping to think about what they’re doing or about to do. This does lead to accidents. After that comes keeping blade guards in place and following proper fall-protection procedures.”
Bernstein’s main concerns are “falls, as they can be lethal even from modest heights; lacerations, as metal track loves to bite you; and eyeballs, as acoustic ceiling debris is most fond of them.”
Says Lawrie: “At the top of my list comes complacency. Being too comfortable with the chore at hand can lead to safety shortcuts: using a chop saw without glasses, for instance, because they are way over there, or picking up scrap or demolition metal without gloves because they are out in the truck, just to name two.
“Another concern is an assumption of equipment quality, such as assuming that the scaffold they set up the day before or even hours earlier has not been altered or that all of the locking pins still are properly seated. Tools wear out, scaffolding wears out.”
In the experience of Timothy Rogan, vice president at Houston Lath & Plaster in Texas, “Scaffolding is my main concern. Fifty percent of construction deaths are from falls. Add to that ladders, for the same reason.
“Another crucial issue is eye protection because, whatever your job, it depends on vision. I almost lost an eye in 1976, which gave me a deep appreciation for sight.”
Kirk puts it succinctly: “Fall protection, safety glasses and hearing protection.”
On top of Zaretzky’s list comes housekeeping. “If the site is not kept well-organized and tidy, you are creating unsafe working conditions,” he says. “Another concern is live electric, as in working around other trades who may or may not have done their job properly. That and trade stacking, working crazy schedules with trades working on top of each other. This makes for unsafe working conditions as well.”
Jorge Vazquez, safety manager at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc. in Texas, has these main concerns: “Unrealistic schedules that not only affect effective and safe pre-planning, but also over-stress performance, which in turn tends to generate unsafe conditions and actions.
“Another concern is workforce skills that affect both safety and work quality. Also, I am concerned about how tablets and phones proliferate on the job. We now see far too often our workforce active on social media during work hours—selfies, texting, recording supervisor conversations, video recording and looking for the next viral sensation. In other words, they are not 100 percent attentive to the job at hand.”
Roger Olson, president of Sig Olson & Sons Plastering, Inc. in Minnesota, lists the following main safety concerns: “Personal protective equipment, fall protection, communication and lack of awareness of the jobsite surroundings.”
Heering says his first concern is “individual ownership and accountability. Every employee must have the authority to stop work and correct a safety issue. Making each employee responsible and accountable for the well-being of others at the jobsite will encourage employees to take action.
“Another area of concern is deadlines and the productivity demands they entail. This often conflicts with safety.
“A third, and major concern is a shortage of experienced employees, which inevitably results in hiring younger employees with little experience. While they are necessary to company success, we see a much higher incident rate with young and inexperienced workers.”
From Coffee’s perspective, her “topmost concern is a shortage of skilled labor—that’s the big one. The second concern is that those they do hire either have no training at all or improper training. Yes, there is a labor shortage, we all know that, but many companies don’t dig deep enough when hiring prospective employees. Right now they’ll hire anything with a pulse.”
“Another grave concern,” she adds, “is the compressed schedules, which always tend to put job and production first, people second. The days when we had a couple of years to complete a 10-story project are long gone.”
In Hamre’s experience, “Falls from heights is our main concern, and we guard diligently against that. After that, we take strains and sprains seriously. Our jobs require heavy lifting using various body positions. Without proper warm up, technique, and stretching, the body is susceptible to being over-exerted. As much as you work to encourage and educate about these practices, they are not always executed. Of course, here the responsibility lies with the employee—they know their own body better than anyone else. Also, we very much stress wearing PPE.”
Adam Nagy, safety director at Shields, Inc. in North Carolina, sees these main priorities: “First and foremost, fall protection, with falls being the leading cause of death in the construction industry. Use of a personal fall arrest system is sometimes overlooked due to convenience or unavailability of equipment, and because it tends to slow production when you constantly need to relocate the system.
“Another concern is a lack of, or failure to maintain, guardrail systems because they tend to limit access to the work area or run into height limitations on scaffolds.
“It all adds up to being lazy, or trying to save time. But it also adds up to life-threatening situations.
“Lastly, inspections are often overlooked. Daily inspections of all PPE, tools and equipment is mandatory in our company to ensure everything is safe and in proper work condition prior to use.”
Says Hamre, “I spend much of my energy on improving our safety culture. With a healthy safety culture, everything else seems to fall into place. Yes, there is a lot of stigma associated with safety—it takes too long, it costs too much, or it’s just plain stupid. Our goal is to change the perception and consensus view of safety to where everyone is on board and supportive.”
“It’s easy to say that being proactive regarding safety makes far more sense than being reactive,” he continues, “but it takes an established safety culture to become truly proactive in every sense. Until that is achieved, people will continue to bypass safety—until someone gets hurt. Then there will be a reactive safety stance for a while, which then fades over time. This goes on and on. Only a company-wide safety culture will put an end to this cycle.”
Muses Turgeon, “I can’t wait for the robots to show up. Much easier to keep safe, or to fix if they break.”
Perfect Jobsite Safety
Given these safety issues and concerns, what does the perfectly safe jobsite look like?
Suggests Eric Cusick, manager at DPR Construction in California, “I know that I’m looking at a project with the right safety culture when a craftsman is willing to speak up and correct a coworker when he or she is about to take an unnecessary safety risk, and instead of becoming defensive, the other craftsman is thankful.”
From Coyle’s point of view, “the safe site is clean and orderly all the way from material storage to tools to general cleanup. Employees are almost embarrassed to be the one who disrupts the safety attitude of the job site. This is a team that is working toward the same goal: producing quality work, safely. It should also be said that jobsite safety is an attitude, and I approach it as a means of showing our employees how much I care about them.”
Says Aird, “A perfect jobsite is one that, at the end of the day, every employee leaves safe and sound to go home to their families. “
Offers Lawrie, “Of course, there is no ‘perfect job site.’ When that assumption is made, you have fallen into the most serious of safety concerns—complacency. That said, for a job site to be considered safe, there must be awareness, diligence and teamwork. Remove one of these ingredients and you’re inviting disaster.”
Kirk concurs. “If you think you’ve achieved ‘perfect jobsite safety,’” he says, “I think you’re heading down the road of complacency.”
Quips Rogan, “Nobody knows because nobody has ever seen one. There is always something that can be improved.”
In Zaretzky’s view, “Perfect jobsite safety means a project where the GC walks the walk of safety. The project is well-planned and well-scheduled. It is a project where the GC coordinates with and accepts input from the subs, and also holds weekly safety and productivity meetings with them. Also, everybody on this project does his or her part in keeping the jobsite clean and safe.”
Says, Giles Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont, “The perfectly safe jobsite is one where at the end of the project there have been zero incidents or accidents.”
For Coffey, “My first impression of a safe site is this: It’s a clean job. If they keep it clean, they have a good workforce and good protocols in place. A safe jobsite also has a competent site manager who knows what he or she is doing, who enforces and implements safety protocols, one who always, always puts people first.”
Hamre suggests, “This is a site where every employee has a clear understanding of what it takes to make their job as safe as possible. They also have the autonomy to bring up anything that they don’t feel safe doing with the safety director and the general contractor.
“Also, site equipment has been inspected prior to use, any deficient equipment is reported and taken care of in a timely fashion. Every employee is looking out for their co-worker’s safety.”
Running through many answers like a thread is the sense that jobsite safety is an attitude, a company culture, shared by all from the top down and from the bottom up. That culture, whatever the circumstances, more than anything will create as safe a jobsite as possible.
Jobsite Safety Relationships
Does jobsite safety really get in the way of production and profits? And what bearing does it have on competitiveness, or on employee morale and loyalty?
Productivity. What is jobsite safety’s impact on productivity?
Cusick says, “Sincerely caring about our craftsmen’s well-being encourages a sense of respect, loyalty and engagement that you cannot buy. Engaged employees are more likely to speak up when something can be done better, which improves production and decreases re-work.”
Says Coyle, “The safest way is always the most productive.”
Adds Bernstein, “We bank on higher morale resulting in higher productivity to help offset time and money spent protecting people’s lives and well-being.”
Aird makes this observation: “While many people probably think that taking the time to be safe is a hindrance in production, once you have done it properly enough times, it becomes second nature to you.”
In Rogan’s experience, “Safety increases production substantially. If a guy feels safe and does not have to look down every step he takes, he can focus on the task and keep moving down the wall.”
Olson agrees. “I know from experience,” he says, “that employees are more productive when they are confident in their movements, not having to hold on with one hand and work with the other.”
And Nagy add, “While in the short term safety can seem to hinder productivity, in the long run, taking the time and extra steps to create a safer environment will result in a smoother-running and more-productive job.”
Profits. How does jobsite safety relate to profits?
In Coyle’s experience, “Good safety practices improve production, quality and attendance. We cannot be profitable without being safe.”
Says Aird, “Profits would diminish greatly were we to receive an OSHA violation fine, which can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, insurance claims would increase our premiums and also damage our good reputation.”
Rogan agrees. “Safety has a big impact on profits,” he says. “Any accident is always accompanied by higher EMR (Experience Modification Rate) on your workers’ comp. The premium increase can be significant, and it remains in force for four full years per occurrence.”
Zaretzky says, “Safety is directly related to profits. A clean and safe site is a productive and profitable site.”
Says Heering, “As a subcontractor, an unseen impact of safety—or the lack of it—is fewer opportunities to secure new work as many general contractors now implement EMR thresholds. The effect of injuries on profit far outweigh the cost of mitigation efforts.”
Competitiveness. Does jobsite safety make you more competitive or less competitive?
Lawrie says, “A poor safety record would exclude you from a lot of institutional work by virtue of safety standards that include a detailed review of your safety record. Today, many clients are reluctant to hire a contractor with a poor safety record.”
Aird elaborates: “The EMR compares your workers’ compensation claims experience to other companies similar in size that operate in the same industry. Some GCs will not hire a company with a high EMR.”
Adds Zaretzky, “Safety is becoming a major concern for owners and contractors. Our safety record speaks for itself, and it will always give us consideration at bid time.”
Hamre confirms this. “General contractors often require their subs meet certain safety benchmarks, whether it’s workers’ comp insurance rates, injury rates or having safety programs in place that prove the company is committed to working safely on their projects,” he says. “So, if you have all the safety items a general contractor is looking for, and the next company bidding work doesn’t, your company has a better chance of getting the work.”
Heering agrees, “We believe our forward progress in safety management will continue to lead to more opportunities with large general contractors who have now established EMR thresholds for subcontractors.”
Nagy does, too: “All companies have a safety rating that is included in and reviewed with every job submittal. This can make or break your chances of landing a job with companies that highly value safety. People want to know that the company they hire will work safely and look out for the safety of their employees as well as the safety of everyone on site and the health of the environment.”
Employee morale and loyalty. How does jobsite safety affect employee morale and loyalty?
As Coyle sees it, “An employee knows when you care about their safety for their sake and not just because you are trying to avoid an OSHA violation, and they appreciate it.”
Or as Lawrie puts it, “If you do not care about your workers and look out for them, how can you expect them to do the same for you?”
Zaretzky agrees: “Safety improves morale in that we prove that we care about our people, and people you care for tend to care for you right back and stay with you.”
Vazquez makes this observation: “You know that you have a loyal employee when he wants his kids to work for the same company he works for. Putting people first will achieve this.”
Adds Coffey, “If an employee gets hurt on a job site, it kills both production and morale. At one job on a military base involving about 400 tradesmen, there was an accident where someone almost lost both his hands. This was all they talked about for the rest of the day. And an accident like this—since people’s attention is no longer fully on the job—tends to lead to further accidents as well.
“An unsafe site speaks volumes about how people matter less than production and profit, and this, sadly, is the case on many job sites today. With good jobsite safety you prove that you put people first, and that will earn you a lifetime’s loyalty.”
Olson concurs. “When an employee is injured,” he says, “it casts a pall over the entire crew, management as well. Our company is like a family, and we care about one another.”
Rogan says, “People want to work where they feel safe to execute the job. I had a guy leave me last year for another company and now he wants to come back because he does not like the way the other guy unsafely erects scaffolding.”
While some GCs (and through them, the owners) still put profit, production and deadlines first, a growing number of GCs are now embracing jobsite safety. Here’s a case in point.
Jerry Maxcy, executive vice president of Jesco, Inc., a Mississippi general contractor, comes down squarely on the side of jobsite safety and says it is definitely worth it.
“Safety is a critical aspect of our business philosophy and an integral part of our business plan,” he says. “Every month our executive committee meeting starts not with financials, but with safety results for the month and year to date. Our safety program is vitally important to our success.”
That’s a GC walking the walk.
California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.