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More Lessons Learned: Peer Safety Reviews


Left to right: Jared Danstrom (Daley’s Drywall), Rafael Chavez (J&J Acoustics), Scott McMillan (Performance Contracting) and Jorge Vazquez (Marek). Photo by Don Allen


Safety lessons were learned when members of the AWCI Safety Directors Committee and other volunteer safety and health professionals conducted two reviews of the safety programs and cultures at two AWCI member contracting companies (see the Safety & Health column in the April issue), and the third review, conducted in June with J&J Acoustics, Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., garnered even more valuable information that can help all wall and ceiling contractors. This article presents some additional take-aways based on my perceptions and assessments.

    

Each peer safety review aims to share information about safety best practices and improve the safety performance of all AWCI member companies. This includes benefits to both the reviewers and the companies being reviewed. As someone with decades of experience in construction but no experience as a safety professional, it was eye-opening to see the amount of work and coordination required to develop and implement a successful program. Safety is not just what happens where the ceilings and walls are built, but at every step of every process: the product manufacture, transport, installation, getting workers and equipment safely to and from the site, tool and equipment maintenance and recordkeeping.

    

Members of the AWCI Safety Directors Committee made it clear to me and others involved that the peer safety review is not an audit. Reviewers were conscientious about avoiding the word “audit” during the preparation for and execution of the review and assured participants that this was more of an open discussion. After self-introductions, I started the meeting with the AWCI antitrust statement and carefully monitored the discussion to avoid noncompetitive behavior. But other than that, everything safety was on the table. We went to J&J Acoustics job sites. We went through their offices. We went through the warehouse and interviewed their warehouse manager. We looked at tools and equipment and discussed best practices for each. And we all learned some valuable lessons.

    

I know that some of these lessons will be familiar to construction veterans, but sometimes seeing a new perspective can help reinforce a message or be a catalyst for new ideas on how to communicate continuous safety awareness to your team.



Onboarding and Safety for New Hires

All companies involved in the review had a robust onboarding system that emphasized safety throughout the process. During the peer safety review opening session, the AWCI peer safety review team requested that J&J’s human resources manager participate and that the company provide information about their onboarding process. With the current labor shortages and work fluctuation, most companies require a basic amount of safety training before new hires are released out in the field.

    

One individual noted that his company has different policies for new hires and re-hires, although if a re-hire has been away from the company for more than a set time frame, they are treated like new hires. Various methods were discussed on how to identify new hires. One option was to provide a specific colored helmet or vest for the newbies, and after six months, they graduate to a standard helmet. They had an entire color-coding scheme, including a different color for supervisors and foremen, which helped the new hires, the GCs and other trades.

    

Another company had adopted a mentoring program that they called their “safety watch program.” This paired a new hire with a more seasoned employee in the same area to help avoid rookie mistakes that could lead to injury.

    

The onboarding process also led to a robust discussion of drug testing policy and the wave of marijuana legalization spreading across the country. Although this was an interesting safety topic, there is not a consistent answer across the industry since responses by legal, safety and insurance entities vary by jurisdiction. The bottom line: Check with your insurance provider on how they respond to incidents involving drugs and alcohol, and use that to help inform your company policies. For companies that work in multiple geographic areas, the solution may vary from region to region.



Contracts

Another hot topic was some of the verbiage in contracts with general contractors. Often the contract language will protect the GC from liability in most accidents involving the subcontractor or subcontractor’s equipment, even if the GC was at fault. A best practice from this discussion resulted: Read contracts carefully. If there are areas that are unclear, have your insurance carrier review contracts as well, and verify that your company is covered even if another contractor is at fault. Insurance companies can sometimes provide project-specific riders to cover these areas if there are gaps in coverage.



Estimators Consider Safety Costs When Bidding

Complex jobs require complex solutions. Reaching high ceilings, working over stadium steps and uneven surfaces, exterior work in windy or freezing conditions and sharing scaffolding with other trades all can have safety ramifications and costs associated with doing the job safely.

    

Seasoned estimators know that specialized equipment, fall protection and additional procedures may be required for a specific task. If these considerations and costs are not incorporated into the bid up-front, at best, the equipment and procedures will cut into profits; at worst, the decision may be made to perform the task using a reduced level of safety. The decision on whether or not to share equipment is sometimes made by the general contractor, so the safety ramifications of sharing must be considered, and the serviceability of the equipment must be checked before and after each use.



Working With, Above or Below Other Trades

The question of shared equipment also brings up the issue of working above or below other trades. GCs often mandate two trades work in close proximity, which can increase hazards such as dropped objects, tripping hazards or scaffolds or platforms being left in an unsafe condition. Different procedures will need to be implemented when equipment must be shared or when working in close proximity to others.

    

Some contractors are unwilling to work above or below another trade—period. If forced to do so, additional safety procedures may be required.



Tenure

When an organization has multiple key employees who have stayed with the company for many decades and, over that time period, have evolved and accepted the safety culture, it makes it easier to combat complacency and get buy-in from foremen and mid-level management. The experienced employees can honestly say, “I have been in your shoes and understand the issues you are dealing with, but it is better to use the safety equipment and follow the safety procedures because it will pay off in the long run, even though it may seem like it slows you down.”



Open Discussion and Dissent

Some companies embrace some aspects of safety programs while others avoid them. Although I will not get into specific examples here, it was interesting hearing conversations about specific safety solutions in group discussions and one-on-one conversations with participants.

    

The most notable example was a program one company considered a requirement for all new hires. To a safety neophyte like me, it sounded like a great program. But other companies did not even want to discuss the program because of potential legal liability. After listening to seasoned risk managers talk about why their companies chose not to use it, their decision made sense.

    

My take-away from this was that the peer safety review allowed this discussion to happen and allowed everyone around the table to hear the pros and cons and make informed decisions. During the reviews, several participants (both reviewers and representatives of J&J Acoustics) took notes, and I am sure they will discuss and consider what they learned long after the review is over.



Toolbox Talks

One of my personal favorite take-aways was toolbox talks. One of the reviewing companies had set up an entire year’s worth of toolbox talk topics, with specific items geared to specific times of the year. For example, talks about heat-related injuries happened in the spring, a few weeks before the potentially dangerous conditions were expected. Other talks were geared to match national initiatives from OSHA and other associations, such as Construction Suicide Prevention Week in September and National Work Zone Awareness Week in April. This professional noted that because they have different job types in different areas, the hazards may change, but he noted that you have four other days each week when site-specific and location-specific topics could be covered.

    

An example that happened during the review was smoke and air quality. Many East Coast job sites and communities were dealing with a hazard that was uncommon for their area: smoke from Canadian wildfires. While contractors in parts of the West Coast already had procedures to deal with smoke and air quality on job sites, East Coast companies had to scramble to ensure they had the proper PPE and responses in place. Although air quality safety may not have been part of their scheduled June toolbox talks, they could augment their weekly talks with a supplemental safety briefing during one of the other four days of the week.



Fleet Safety and Maintenance

When I think of construction safety, I immediately think of job sites. But much of the construction process occurs away from the site: prefabricating elements and transporting crews, materials, machinery and supplies. Driving and riding in vehicles are two of the most hazardous activities most of us engage in. In the United States alone, more than 100 people die daily from vehicular accidents.

    

The companies at the peer review had different ways of dealing with vehicular safety, but they all had a vehicle safety program. Discussion included the pros and cons of having video recording in vehicles.



Safety at Home

An injury that occurred to a worker at home a few days before the peer safety review sparked a discussion about safety beyond the workplace. No matter where an injury happens, it can affect a worker’s ability to complete tasks both at work and at home.

    

Several companies make eye and ear protection available for employees to take home and use with tasks around the house and yard. Thousands of injuries and even fatalities occur at home to workers in the construction industry—from some of the same issues we discuss and emphasize on the job. Thankfully this worker will fully recover soon, but he will miss several days and possibly weeks of work.

    

Safety programs and training should clarify that safety responsibilities don’t end when employees leave work. We don’t just want our employees to come home safe and whole. We want and need them to come to work safe and whole. Safety discussions and toolbox talks should include examples of safety everywhere: work, home and on the road.



Make It Personal

Many construction industry veterans have heard common themes like ladder safety dozens of times, so they tune out as soon as this subject comes up. But if presentations are tailored to the type of work being done and the unique hazards and challenges the drywall industry faces, it helps personalize the story and drive home the message.

    

One contractor mentioned falling from a ladder when a worker in the next room yanked an extension cord that pulled the bottom of the ladder sideways. He quickly grabbed the nearest wall studs with ungloved hands and got several lacerations on the way down. Telling this story during a tailgate or toolbox talk can leave an impression that workers will not forget, and it can be crafted to address several issues involved in this injury.



Reporting Injuries When They Happen

Sometimes a worker will trip and fall or get hit by an object and continue working without reporting what happened. Then, days later or the next morning, when the injured area starts to swell or feel sore, the accident will be reported.

    

Most of us are guilty of thinking that a minor injury will stay minor, but all companies need to engrain in their safety culture the importance of reporting injuries or potentially unsafe situations when they happen—without stigma or negative consequences. It is crucial that during the onboarding process, reporting is emphasized, and it is made clear that everyone has a voice in being safe. Procedures for accident reporting should be repeated often and be made available to workers at all levels and in all locations.

    

Note that GCs will often have site-specific reporting requirements, but drywall contractors need to make sure that their employees report unsafe situations to their company supervisors in addition to following any GC or site-specific requirements.



Stretch and Flex

Not only can this time be used to warm up and loosen muscles and tendons, but supervisors can take the opportunity to see if workers have a full range of movement. If someone appears to be having trouble with or not participating in the stretch-and-flex exercises, the supervisor may want to take him aside afterward to see if there is an underlying reason or condition.



Retaining an Injured Worker

Our industry is experiencing chronic manpower shortages and has been for decades. While companies continue to explore ways to recruit new talent, the best employees are the ones you already have and know and have trained. When someone is injured, companies try to find creative yet productive ways to keep that individual employed in a way that does not exacerbate their injury and falls within their areas of expertise.

    

Whether it is shredding old records in the office, pushing a broom, repairing damaged tools and equipment, or going through their OSHA 10 or OSHA 30 training and testing, keeping these employees engaged helps them stay a part of the team and allows them to still draw a paycheck. Checking with office and shop personnel on what jobs are available and what physical abilities are required to perform each of these tasks will help you be prepared when a partially disabled worker needs temporary work until he is cleared to perform his normal jobs.



The Biggest Take-away: Networking

In multiple conversations throughout the process, participants told me that the best thing about the peer safety review is networking: the opportunity to get to know (on a personal level) safety and risk management professionals within the wall and ceiling industry. As the peer safety review team mentioned repeatedly, it is OK to reach out. Everyone shared email addresses, and many shared cellphone numbers and encouraged others to call or text. In talking to a company president after one of the reviews, he told me, “The best money that I could have spent on [my safety guy] is sending him on peer safety reviews.”

    

Within the next few months, AWCI will produce a peer safety review guidebook with information for reviewers and reviewees. It will include templates and best practices for a peer safety review and give helpful hints on conducting a review. If you would like a peer safety review at your company, or if you want to volunteer for an upcoming peer safety review team, email me at allen@awci.org. We will work with our safety directors committee to schedule you and your company into the process. And if you have any suggestions or feedback on anything safety, feel free to email safety@awci.org.



Don Allen, PE, SE, LEED AP, is AWCI’s director of technical services.

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