Jobsite Safety: Can You Afford It?
Ulf Wolf / April 2015
The good news: You’ve just landed two more jobs, both of them sizeable.
The bad news: You don’t have enough crew to staff them, and now you have to scramble.
The worse news: Both projects carry schedules bordering on the surreal.
The question: Will you lose sight of safety?
Today, contractors in many areas of the country are scrambling to meet personnel demands as an increasing number of new jobs are bid and won. In this climate, can you afford to keep jobsite safety a priority?
In other words, how do you manage safety orientation and training when you have to man up fast to staff new jobs, and then often with unqualified and safety-inexperienced labor—a situation that will probably intensify as the weather warms up?
“My strong advice, of course,” says Joe O’Connor, safety consultant at INTEC, “is for you not to miss giving the new hire a good safety orientation, however rushed you are.”
Then he adds, “Also, when you hire green guys, a good way to approach safety is to assign him to an experienced partner with a good safety habit and record so the new hire can learn through modeling.”
Kathy Coffee, a Kentucky safety consultant, is seeing this daily, “One contractor just landed a huge job and manning up for it has become a problem. The manpower they can lay their hands on is for the most part unskilled, and in the rush to get them on the job, safety suffers.
“The sad truth is that, today, large GCs and, owners especially, often look the other way when it comes to safety. GCs run compressed schedules and in order to meet deadlines, they compromise safety.
“My task is to assess the safety records and experience of the new hires, and if they need training I work to first gain their buy-ins and then put them through safety orientation.
“It is about personnel shortage. I recently talked to a foreman about a group of employees who obviously were thumbing their noses at safety. How were they getting away with it? He told me that, yes, he could, and probably should fire them, but they were productive and how on earth would he replace them?”
Joseph J. Brazil, president of Brazil Inc. dba Mainline Construction in New York, sees the same trend. “This is a tremendous issue for us,” he says, “especially since safety is not something that comes naturally to the labor force. They feel they have to produce under any circumstance to keep their job. I’m glad they feel that way, but not at the expense of someone getting hurt.”
Meanwhile, John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, counts himself lucky. “Almost all of my crew have worked for me for years and have a ‘safe state of mind’ outlook that I always try to encourage, and new hires are told by me, on arrival, that safety comes first,” he says.
Larry Caputo, corporate director of loss control at Daley’s Drywall & Taping, Inc. in California, will not suffer any fools: “Every single person we hire is required to attend new hire safety orientation training prior to even setting foot on the job site. This training consists of a safety video followed by an interactive classroom session identifying the hazards at this particular jobsite and how to work them safely. Also, weekly, the job site foreman and/or the safety person conducts a mandatory tail-gate safety session to reinforce our safety policies and procedures.”
Dave Chaffee, president of E&K Companies in Missouri, seconds this approach: “Each new hire attends a five- or six-hour safety orientation training, generally with our safety director. This is also a good opportunity to learn more about the new employee and begin that relationship. We have removed any temptation to shorten our orientation, and it is standardized in all locations.”
To this Robert A. Coyle, executive vice president of Dayton Walls & Ceilings, Inc. in Ohio, adds, “We have also developed a mentoring program that pairs employees. The new hire is being taught by the experienced veteran and the veteran is, by mentoring, constantly reminded to keep safety in mind.”
(Sometimes the best way to learn something is, in fact, to teach it).
Howard Bernstein, president of Penn installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, refuses to suffer fools as well. He says, “Those with a blatant disregard for their safety or that of others are let go immediately.”
Then he adds, “Even with a dedicated safety person and an ingrained culture of safety, the faster any of us works, the more likely we are to make mistakes. In the best scenarios, the GC or CM is as committed to safety as we are and use a team-based approach to protect all the trades.”
Michael Taylor, vice president of Liddle Bros. Contractors, Inc. in Tennessee, observes, “Safety, regardless of cost, must always come first. Most good GCs in our area will not contract with a sub that does not have a good safety record. Many of them have paid the price for hiring these low bidders in the recent past.”
Sarah Aird, safety program manager at Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, adds this approach: “We have recently put into effect a safety disciplinary action system. This system is used much in the same way that safety is typically enforced, with the addition of monetary fines for those who choose to ignore safety directives on a job site.
“The fines vary based on the severity of the safety violation, and escalate to address repeated employee violations. We have noticed an overall greater safety concern since we implemented this.”
Jonathan Wohl, president of Wohl Diversified Services in New York, also counts himself lucky. “All our employees must have a minimum OSHA-10 here in New York,” he says. “We are union, so hiring safety trained workers is part of the package.”
Todd Lawrie, president of Delta Contracting Service, Inc. in Michigan, stresses that “no newbie is ever sent out alone. They are always under the watchful eye of one of our seasoned employees.”
It is clear that these contractors refuse to cut safety-corners, no matter what the temptation. They give good advice: Never, ever, skip the safety orientation for any new hire, and assign him or her to a seasoned and safety-conscious veteran to mentor in the arts of staying unhurt and productive.
Owners and GCs still operate with compressed schedules and often unreal deadlines. In such an environment, how do you keep safety in the forefront as high priority?
“Crazy schedules will probably stay with us until the owners and GCs have made back the money they lost during the recession,” muses Coffee. “They are still making up for losses and are still quite greedy. In this environment it comes down to the leadership in the company; safety will be stressed to the degree they stress it.”
At Brazil’s company, “We man the job with an adequate amount of manpower and communicate our production rates to GC supervision,” he says. “The GCs that consistently push us past this pace, who in effect push us to do substandard work, will not hear from us again in the future.
“I was once advised by someone with a very good finger on the market pulse, ‘There are enough guys out there for you to charge the right amount of money to do the right job. Don’t waste your time with the other guys because they’ll just hurt your business in the long run.’ This statement has come true on more than one occasion.”
Jorge Vazquez, safety manager at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc. in Texas, takes this approach: “In addition to safety meetings and jobsite audits, we run focus groups with our production managers, superintendents and supervisors to discuss what we can do to make a project safer, more profitable and a better place for our employees and customers. These groups boost the motivation among the field supervisors since it shows that their opinions matter. As a result, they take stronger ownership of safety, and ownership is key to making it work in every aspect, on every project.”
“What sees us through crazy schedules,” says Dale Keller, safety manager at Mader Construction Co., Inc. in New York, “is team effort and the company safety culture that we have been building over the years. For us, safety is simply part of the job/work process, no matter what.”
Adds Mike Heering, president of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, “We place it on our veterans to keep safety at the forefront at all times.
“I’m also seeing that GCs are starting to push safety harder as well, and in some cases even provide a full-time, on-site safety officer to assist safety among all trades.”
Travis Winsor, CEO of The Raymond Group Southern California, Inc., sees fast-track schedules as a constant challenge. “Unfortunately, this scenario is occurring more frequently,” he says. “Fortunately, most of our clients understand and support the need to keep safety as a high priority. Should we encounter ongoing lax safety among other trades, however, we will communicate with project management as far up as is needed in order to rectify the situation. That said, in my experience, it is more the rule than the exception that owners and clients are in alignment with the priority being placed on safety.”
“In a rushed environment, you need to identify who in the other trades, and who on the GC’s crew, you should keep clear of because they’re dangerous,” says Kirk. “It’s not very hard to spot problem guys on jobs when it comes to safety.”
If we encounter a potentially unsafe condition on a job site,” says Caputo, “our foremen will enlist my assistance to correct this condition by whatever means necessary before we allow our workers to proceed with work. Nothing we do is more important than the safety of our workers.”
Says Chaffee, “If the GC, for whatever reason, is asking something of us that will put our employees in an unsafe situation, we will not do it.”
Coyle’s take, “I have always found that the safest way is always the most productive. We cannot worry about what the trunk slammers are doing or not doing. It will catch up to them eventually, and they will be gone or change company names again. We build a better mousetrap and do it safer. The cream will always rise to the top.
“We have adopted a zero tolerance for safety violations—period. And we have found, through an anonymous survey, that our employees appreciate our company’s attitude toward safety.”
“Simply put,” says Lawrie, “we do not take on a project that sets unrealistic schedules.”
Again, these contractors are in agreement: Safety, whether threatened by new hires or unreal schedules, must never, ever be compromised.
Still, how do you compete with lower bidders that only pay lip service to safety? True safety is always going to cost more, so how do you win that bid?
Says Caputo, “We do not compromise our safety program for the sake of winning work. Fortunately, most of our clients are safety conscious and provide us with their manuals for review, so we know their requirements before we bid work.”
“We rarely, if ever, lose a job because of safety,” says Chaffee. “Yes, it costs more, but we also have greatly reduced costs of injuries. We would rather spend our money on prevention than injuries.”
Says Vazquez, “The truth is, we don’t always win, but often they call us back once the low bidder didn’t perform as expected. And this is where we shine. Although a lower bid is always attractive, we show our customers how much we invest in the quality of our work by training a true quality craftsman who delivers job safely and professionally.”
“Fortunately,” says Aird, “we have a reputation that precedes us after 40 years in business, and when we bid with a new company we are sure to include our safety program in the bid package so they understand how important safety is to us.”
Says Wohl, “If the competition doesn’t allow for safety and is the low bidder, there is no recourse, but the truth will come out in the end. The low bidder in this case is gambling with lives.”
In the experience of Giles Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont, “Try to maintain a good relationship with the GC, and they may well want you on the project more than the other guy, even if he’s lower.”
Adds Heering, “If we can’t convince them of the importance of the safety program, then we ask ourselves if we can really afford to do the project.”
Winsor agrees: “Typically, those jobs we have passed on for safety reasons are some of the best jobs we never won.”
Lawrie sums it up: “Safety should never be sacrificed in the name of expediency. Each worker who comes on site is more than a tool; they are family members and friends to someone.”
This is a sentiment Coyle seconds very strongly: “I personally am offended when companies make a joke about safety. Safety is about employees going home each day to their families, tired but not injured.”
The answer, then, to the original question above, is straight-forward and simple: Never lose sight of safety. You cannot afford to.
California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.