Digesting a Culture of Safety

Don Procter

March 2008

Wall and ceiling contractors turn down lucrative jobs for a lot of reasons. I recently heard of a case where a contractor chose not to bid on a job because the safety policy imposed by the general contractor was simply too strict.

The contractor, who chose to remain anonymous, told me that he couldn’t cobble together a crew easily for a job for PCL Constructors because boarders see PCL’s stringent onsite safety regs as an impediment to getting their work done quickly.

One of their concerns is PCL’s guardrail requirement on scaffolding. While Ontario’s and other provinces Occupational Health & Safety regulations require guardrails on scaffolding about 10 feet high or higher, he told me PCL requires guardrails on scaffolding only 6 feet high or higher.

Mike Freeman says while the company he works for, Excel Interior Contracting, won’t turn down an opportunity to bid on a PCL contract because of its safety policy, he understands why some drywall contractors do—particularly those that hire piecework crews.

Guardrails on scaffolding can pose an access/egress obstacle for workers and materials, says the assistant manager. "It is so tough to try and swing a sheet of drywall over top of a guardrail when you’re working over your head.”

Freeman says that crews used to residential piecework where "two ladders and a plank” serve as a scaffold are the least likely to be willing to work under PCL’s conditions.

Other construction giants—Ellis-Don, for example—treat safety with equal diligence. Safety has increasingly become a priority on construction sites over the past five or so years, and contractors are encouraged to go "above and beyond” OH&S standards to get the job done, explains Derek Petrie, health and safety instructor of the Interior Systems Contractors Association of Ontario.

Along with guardrails, these big companies often impose other fall-arrest and safe-work rules that go beyond the OH&S minimum. For instance, workers must be tied off with two lanyards to fixed vertical supports, rather than just one as stipulated under OH&S regs.

Rather than complain about a GC’s safety policy, Freeman suggests drywall contractors look to alternative solutions to get the job done. For example, if guardrails are a problem on scaffolding, consider a substitute—such as scissor lifts. Scissor lifts typically rent for about $1,200 a month—a small price when compared to the cost of labor assembling and disassembling scaffolding with guardrails on a big commercial job.

In his observations, young construction workers more readily adapt to higher safety standards than older workers.

"These kids grew up riding a bike with a helmet on or skateboarding with a helmets and knee pads. Safety is an easy sell to them because it has been engrained in them at a young age,” Freeman says.

Many older workers are more resistant.

"Maybe they made their own (safety) rules for many years and worked their whole career without an injury, so imposing these regs on them is a tough sell,” Freeman adds.

Murray Corey, executive director of the B.C. Wall & Ceiling Association, points out another reason why large commercial sites often require more stringent safety standards than small residential ones: "There are a significant amount of potential hazards in such projects. You have to be aware of what is going on from any and all sides, levels and angles. Any inconvenience arising from this position (of safety) is well within reason, given the stakes.”

What drywall contractor can afford to turn down a job just because of the safety policy anyway?

"If you get in with a big company, there’s a good chance you will be very busy for a while,” Petrie says. "There are change-work orders that no one bitches or complains about pricing on; it’s where a lot of contractors make money.”

Don Procter is free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.