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Recovering Safely

This is the scenario: You’ve just landed a large, profitable job. The schedule is tight, but you can commit to it, and you have. The next day—bless the chief estimator (and the recovering market)—you land another large, profitable job. It also has a tight schedule, but not impossible. It’s scramble time, though. You need 20 more crew, this week, to start next Monday. You find them. Two great projects pushing your company to the limit (with more on the horizon).

This is the question: In face of revived production demands, does safety take a back seat?

To find out, we asked several AWCI member company owners and safety directors how they are dealing with the recovering market and how they now walk the perennial fine line between safety and production.

Manning Up

With jobs returning, how are you manning up new projects?

Says Craig Daley, AWCI president and also president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, “We’ve been able to meet our growing needs mostly by re-hiring those laid off or temporarily loaned out to our competitors during the downturn.”

Joe Stevenson, owner of WhiteStar Enterprises LLC in Oregon, concurs, “Most of the time we are actually hiring back the old guys that we had to lay off during the recession. Since they are already safety trained by us, our monthly safety meetings soon bring them up to snuff again.”

Gary Dillman, owner of Titan Wall in Florida, is “bringing in workers with good work ethic who want to learn.”

Dave Chaffee, president of E&K Companies in Missouri, is fortunate in that his company has a great reputation and has a good share of work in their area.

He goes on to say, “Our biggest recruitment tool is word of mouth. I know that if we continue to run organized jobs, if we continue to treat our employees right, and sell good work, people will come.”

Patrick J. Landry, owner and president of George Landry, Inc. in Michigan, takes a prudent approach. “We are manning up slowly,” he says. “We are very selective about the work we take on relative to our manpower. We will not take a job that calls for hiring bodies quickly that will then have to be laid off again. Rather, we are rebuilding our manpower with the intention of keeping them working.”

Robert Aird, president and owner of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, has a different approach to the same end: “Our area sees a shortage of qualified employees for the enclosure, plaster, EIFS and SPF (spray polyurethane foam) construction market. We advertise in local newspapers, spread the word through our employees, attend job fairs, and cross our fingers.

“That said, we pay close attention to how much work we can undertake given the size of our workforce and do not take on more than we can do.”

On the other hand, at this time Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, has “not seen anything close to stretching our manpower capacity.”

Gerald Roach, owner of Forks Lath & Plaster, Inc. in North Dakota, has managed to hang on to his core crew and has not needed to take on new hires.

When it comes to manning up, Jeffrey Shearer, president of Fred Shearer and Sons, Inc. in Oregon, has this to say: “It’s currently a little slow, so we don’t have a heavy labor demand. But we do have a good union labor pool here, and we also have a great relationship with our competitors; we work people back and forth with them as needed. Yes, we do knock each other’s heads in at bid time, but once the job has been awarded we work well together with our competitors and often share the labor pool.”

Dusty Barrick, president of Diversified Interiors of Amarillo in Texas, has a pretty steady workforce. He says his company uses several labor companies to fill the labor needs.

Mike Heering, president, and Doug Lesley, safety director, of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, say that they are putting their emphasis on hiring young people into the trades.

Kirk Williamson, corporate director of safety at The Raymond Group in California, sees his company “bringing back the veterans, those who have been laid off over the years due to the economy.

“We are lucky in that Raymond has a very loyal crew, and most of those who had to be laid off will actually sit at home and wait for us to call them, or at the least they will check in periodically to see if work is available again.

“Most of the guys we now bring back have been with us for 15 or 20 years, and they are already concerned about safety, already part of our safety culture.”

It is clear that wherever possible, AWCI member contractors turn to past employees who might still be out of work. This, of course, brings back experienced and, hopefully, safety conscious employees.

Safety Focus — A Culture

Given greater workforce demands in the face of crew shortage, how do contractors retain their safety focus, including the integrity of safety training and certification?

Daley says, “We are maintaining our safety focus, and still require every new hire, or re-hire, to attend our safety orientation class before stepping onto our job sites. Also, we continue to stay abreast of new safety regulations to ensure that our workers are trained on the latest safety procedures. This is difficult at times when you have jobs screaming for help, but you can’t expose yourself to accidents by compromising safety policy.”

Stevenson has “at least one safety meeting each month, and sometimes some tailgate meetings as well, to keep safety issues up front and center.”

Dillman will make no exceptions. “Safety is, hands down, our first priority,” he says. “I know that if we are proactive with safety, we will create a profitable work environment. Really, it’s a pay-me-now or pay-me-more-later scenario. Invest in safety now, because the alternative is not only costly but can be devastating both to the individual and to the company.”

For Chaffee, safety has always been a major factor. “Today, we are more focused on safety than ever. It helps that GCs now demand safety in their contracts, which allows us to be more competitive on projects. It may take longer to be hired by us than by most of our competitors. We focus on making sure our people safety trained before they hit the job.”

Landry says his company’s “safety director stays current with new rules and makes sure our guys have current certifications in place.”

Aird reports that he has “a tiered management system of project manager, superintendent and foreman on all projects. They all have responsibility for ensuring the safety of the men and the project. Now and then we also hire outside safety consultants to inspect our job sites and to train and update our employees.

“We fully recognize that lack of safety (citations and fines or worse still, injuries) can rob the project of profit just as much as poor-quality work or low production rates.”

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Shearer reports, “These days we are very safety focused. In fact, over the last seven years we’ve lowered our EMR from 1.20 to 0.65.

“One thing that really helped this effort was a five-year Oregon State OSHA program called SHARP (Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program). Our management really bought into this program and worked with it diligently, which helped us lower the EMR mod factor so nicely. In fact, we just completed this program in January of this year. Both management and labor realize that safety is important, and not only that, they realize that safety is a state of mind, a culture.”

According to Barrick, “There is no alternative: Safety is the number one priority moving forward in this business. That’s why we employ a full-time safety officer who is certified to train employees on anything from new hire safety to heavy equipment operations.”

Brian Allen, president of Precision Walls, Inc. in North Carolina, shares his approach to keeping safety front and center: “I can happily say that in the recovering market, we have not lost any focus on safety. We track not only incidents but also near-misses. If we have an incident on any of our projects, I get the report personally, and if an employee is hurt, I’ll call him or her myself to find out what happened, and to see how we could have prevented it.

“We have a corporate safety officer, plus a safety officer in each branch office. Also, for any larger job, say 30 or more employees, we also deploy a site safety officer who is not involved in production at all but only monitors safety.

“The big issue in our industry is management’s commitment: Safety has to start and be maintained from the top. That is the way to create a safety culture.

“When you were younger it used to be cool to take risks, to jump down from high scaffolds, to drive fast—now the definition of ‘cool’ has shifted from taking risks to coming home to see your wife and kids at the end of the day. That’s the new cool. The cool of a true safety culture.”

Allen does another thing differently at Precision Walls: “We charge any safety cost directly to the job, not to general overhead. That means that small jobs can take a big hit financially. A $30,000 job that incurs a $100,000 accident will actually end up $70,000 in the red, and that’ll hit all involved, from the project manager, to the superintendent, the foreman and crew. If you charge accidents to general overhead, the only ones who see it are senior management.”

Heering and Lesley say they have become even more safety-focused over the last year. They realize that their younger hires require more training simply because they have never been exposed to safety on the job site, and that the safety training provided by F.L. Crane will save the company a lot of money over the long haul. Also, improving their safety culture has improved their safety record, and the result is lower insurance rates that help their pricing when it comes to bidding.

Shelley Sigurdson, safety director at Expert Drywall, Inc. in Washington, works at a company where everyone observes the safety messages. He says, “Our senior management is fully committed to safety. During the bid process they make sure to review the safety expectations of our clients. As a company, we are determined to prevent all injuries and to maintain a safe work environment.

“Of course, we depend on our unions to deliver educated workers that carry certifications, and we encourage workers to complete training through the union training programs.”

Williamson reports, “As a company, our safety culture has never wavered. In fact, I’ve just increased my safety team by hiring two more people, one of which is a project-specific safety director for a project in San Diego.

“We have set standards: a minimum certification for every employee before they ever set foot on a project. The foremen then add to that as needed.

“Also, our safety culture is top-down, all the way from our CEO Travis Winsor. We all have a 100 percent buy-in, and that makes my job a lot easier. I never have to fight uphill battles to maintain safety standards.

“Now, safety versus production has always walked a fine line. However, our EMR reflects that, in a showdown, safety will win over production any day. We want the guys to go home in the same or better shape than they arrived in the morning.”

The bottom line is that when it comes to safety, it seems to be that it’s not a job-by-job, hurry-up-and-be-safe issue. It’s a company culture, a top-down, bought-in-by-all atmosphere that keeps everyone as safe as possible, 24/7.

New Hires

When it comes to bringing about safety awareness in new hires, what have our contractors found to work the best?

For starters, many use a mentoring approach.

“When it comes to new hires,” says Stevenson, “we always put them with an experienced crew member—they are basically mentored by the experienced guys. Also, the foreman is always there, keeping an eye on them.”

Landry’s approach is similar. “We team them up with our journeymen,” he says. “Our older guys watch out for the younger ones.”

Aird says, “Our long-term, senior employees have been with us long enough to know what safety standards we require. They also recognize that young, inexperienced employees—not recognizing the hazards to their health and well-being and that being out of work recovering from injury or illness puts their families at risk—might take chances that they don’t. So they keep an eye on the new ones.”

Bernstein has found that “the safety attitudes of the more senior workers, who they will work alongside long after our safety man drives away, is what instills the safety culture with the new hires.”

Others get personal.

In Daley’s experience, “there is no better way to move someone into our safety culture than a face-to-face safety orientation. In our safety training, new hires watch an in-house video that is then followed by a personal presentation from our safety director, followed by a test to make sure they were paying attention, with a review of the answers before they are allowed to work.”

Dillman’s company lets “new hires know that we care for their safety and well-being and that we want them to work hard but to also work safe and smart, so at the end of the day they can go home to their families.”

Chaffee says, “We take the time to give safety training a personal touch. How many times has a carpenter sat down in a trailer and watched a safety video? It’s much better to take the time to explain expectations to the person and to get to know that person.”

Shearer, “Every new hire goes through our orientation when they arrive, and that includes, right up-front, a briefing by either our safety manager or VP of operations about safety on the job.

“By stressing safety right up front, we show new hires that safety is very important to this company—it sets the safety stage right away. They see that safety is a culture here.

“Also, in all the time I’ve been here (since the 1970s). we have never lost any production due to safety programs and training. For example, we stretch and flex twice a day, first thing in the morning and then again after lunch. It does take some time, but it never loses us actual production (most likely the reverse since we’re preventing injuries).”

According to Barrick, it comes down to “simplified and direct instructions. Throwing a book or PowerPoint full of information at a new hire is a waste of time. Be thorough, be personal, but don’t overload.”

At F.L. Crane, Heering and Lesley spend time with new hires personally, emphasizing safety and explaining how their safety incentive program benefits them directly. And when it comes to some personal protective equipment, which can come in various styles and colors, they have found that allowing employees a voice in the selection of these items, within the parameters set forth by OSHA, has improved employee cooperation in wearing the PPE.

Allen’s company incorporates various methods. “We have a training program that includes mentoring,” he says. “We also stress OSHA 10 and 30 education. At least half of our new hire orientation is dedicated to safety.”

Sigurdson literally puts them to the test at Expert Drywall: “We have improved our hiring procedure, which now includes pre-employment interviews, acquiring a complete work history and checking references, and we are currently in the process of building a mock construction station in our warehouse to test skills.

“Once hired, we pair him or her with senior foremen for mentoring. The foremen then work directly with the new hire for the first week to determine if they have the skills and the safety behavior that we expect from them.”

Williamson’s program, which has earned multiple safety awards, also incorporates several methods: “New hires have to go through an initial safety orientation: first a safety video, and then, and more importantly, I speak with each of them personally (or if not me, then one of the regional safety directors), letting them know what our purpose is and that we are a resource for them. We then provide continuing mentorship with journeymen and foremen.

“Even people who lateral over from other companies without our safety awareness are eager to join our culture. We don’t try to be the safety police; we’re more coach and educator.”

When it comes to bringing new hires into the safety culture of the company, an impersonal video or PowerPoint presentation alone are just not going to cut it. Personal contact and communication, along with long-term mentoring, are effective strategies.

Old Hands

Sometimes it can be hard to teach old dogs new tricks. How do you keep the old hand up-to-date and safety focused?

Repetition is key—for some.

Says Daley, “Having tailgate meetings every week is the best way to keep safety on everyone’s mind. We also have quarterly meetings where safety is the first thing we discuss.”

Stevenson’s answer is short and to the point, “Ongoing meetings.”

For Dillman it’s all about “creating a culture of safety and reminding them constantly, especially via statistics that show that complacency with safety is one of the leading causes of injuries and/or death.”

According to Chaffee, “You must have the involvement of all office employees. You must provide constant reminders, such as stretch-and-flex, daily huddles, T-shirts, posters, etc., and you have to give everyone a voice in safety. You also must NOT tolerate employees that ignore safety rules.”

For Landry it’s also constant reminders. “If you have been around long enough,” he says, “you have heard the stories of men getting hurt. Older guys—they work safely out of self-preservation.”

Not everyone subscribes to the repetition method. Thankfully, there are alternatives.

Aird says that “simply repeating the same information time after time runs the risk of putting the workers to sleep. Having a supervisor or project manager or safety consultant walk the job with the crew, pointing out what is good and what needs improvement. is an active training that is more likely to have relevance for the workers and to keep their attention.

“I once had a safety officer at a local contractor ask me how I connect with my employees to get the message across. I suggested that in his next safety meeting he invite one of his workers and that man’s wife and children. Then send the man out of the room and have the foremen—one at a time— approach that man’s wife and children and say, “I’m sorry, but because I didn’t manage my job for proper safety, your husband and father will not be coming home—ever.

“That is sure to grab the men’s attention.”

Bernstein’s approach is to “share with the crews the financial benefits to be had for companies that work to send their people home safely each night, and the unbelievable costs that can be incurred by a single accident.”

Roach’s pragmatic view is to simply “fire the one who is dangerous and the rest tend to straighten up quickly.”

In Shearer’s company “it was the older guys who took on the Oregon SHARP program and really ran with it. They were the ones who saw that seven years ago, we had far too many accidents and that we had to do something about it in order to stay in business. They saw the handwriting on the wall and ran with it. It’s their efforts that have cut our EMR mod rate in half.”

Barrick takes and keeps a firm stance. “The older guys will buck and argue as much as they can but they respect anyone who sticks to their guns,” he says. “State the rules and the consequences for breaking them, then follow through.”

A personal approach works best for Allen. “What works best for us is to turn to them individually,” he says. “If it’s an old hand who people look up to and follow, we make him or her a safety champion.

“At meetings, we then have the foremen ask them to tell the crew about near-misses or accidents, or how things can be prevented. We ask the old hand to be a true champion for safety.”

Heering and Lesley say they continually talk about safety at every meeting. Their employees hear the safety messages all the time, so they believe the message is something that doesn’t fade away just because things are going well.

Sigurdson keeps the old dogs safe with “constant communication and educating them on all the new methods and means we use for safety and production. As an example: We try to perform as much work as possible using cordless tools, which minimizes the trip hazards on the projects. We also use preloaded strips of screws, which creates a cleaner project minus the spilled screws on the floors. They appreciate that we give them the tools they need to be successful and to stay safe.”

Williamson, “Realistically, of course we run up against the old dogs who have been doing this for 20 years—who am I to tell them what to do? I give them examples so that they see that safety has to do with them. If they still do not get it, we help them find employment elsewhere.”

Constant reminders and constant communication are what build and maintain the safety culture. And, realistically, if someone does not want to work safely, he or she has no place in your company.

Words of Wisdom

Any final words of wisdom?

Chaffee again stresses communication: “Make sure people understand what you are trying to accomplish and motivate them to buy in to your program. The police mentality scares people, and that, in turn, causes accidents.”

Landry: “Nothing hurts profits and attitude faster than an injury.”

Aird: “It is easy and common for us to curse the police and OSHA and safety officers. But their mission is to keep us safe and alive. We need to acknowledge and appreciate that.”

Roach: “Safety is here to stay because families depend on it.”

Shearer: “Safety is a group effort that you have to continue to work at. You can never relax about it.”

Barrick: “Safety takes continuous involvement. Once you begin to let safety slide, it’s hard to reel it back in. So, stay on top of everything and deal with problems as soon as possible.”

Allen: “It starts from the top.”

Heering: “It is quite an expense to run a first class safety program, but the rewards—both monetarily and that all of your employees can go home to their families each night—are worth every penny of it.”

Sigurdson: “Communication is the key.”

Williamson: “When it comes to instilling a safety culture, personal touch and communication are still king.”

Los Angeles–based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.

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