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Safety Complements Production

An Omaha, Neb.–based wall and ceiling contractor that places the importance of its workers’ health and safety on a par with their production levels has adopted a number of progressive health and safety initiatives—perhaps none that sets the contractor more apart from competitors than its early intervention program: a preventive plan targeted at workers with strain-related injuries.

Anyone with muscle aches and strains is sent to a physiotherapist for treatment before the strain becomes serious, explains John Falewitch, owner of Falewitch Construction Services Inc. After an initial treatment, the patient is referred to a doctor, if warranted.

Strain-related injuries are among the most common injuries in the wall and ceiling industry. At Falewitch Construction over the past five years, they represent about 63 percent of all injuries reported. The owner, who employs more than 100 people and is one of the two largest wall and ceiling contractors in Omaha, knows that those injuries—if left unchecked—can eat into the company’s budget deep and fast.


But for the early intervention program to be successful, workers have to tell their boss when they feel unusual aches or pains. Falewitch cites the case of one worker “who heard his shoulder pop” but remained silent. Two weeks later he sustained a major shoulder injury. “It’s the kind of thing we are trying to prevent,” he says. “We want to catch an injury before it gets worse.”


When Falewitch started the early intervention program about a decade ago, there were concerns that workers would abuse the program and line up in droves for free physiotherapy treatments. That has not been the case. Last year the company spent less than $1,500 on physiotherapy treatments—peanuts compared to what one serious strain injury could cost the company.


Serious strain injuries often stem from workers untrained in the proper mechanics of lifting and helpful stretching exercises. It is why Falewitch developed a “stretch event” to start the work day. The short session covers the back, arms, shoulders, knees, legs and hands. While the idea of limbering up workers prior to the work day might not be unusual in the world of general contractors, Falewitch says it is novel in the wall and ceiling sector.


“We want to train our people in the ergonomics of doing things on the job like lifting properly, to know how to stretch,” explains Falewitch, who started the company in 1995 with a small staff and a lot of passion for the industry.


Before starting work at Falewitch Construction, all new hires must go through pre-placement physicals to ensure they can do the most rigorous tasks, says Falewitch. “We even show them some of the basics—how to properly pick up a sheet of drywall, and we make sure they can lift the weight they will be required to over their shoulders.”

Full-Timer Needed

Developing what Falewitch calls “a culture of safety” is a top priority. He hired Jim Steele, the company’s first full-time safety director, about a decade ago to employ a number of H&S strategies/initiatives to build on that theme. Why more wall and ceiling contractors aren’t initiating similar strategies is surprising, says Falewitch. “Maybe companies think that it (safety initiatives) means they are opening up their wallets,” he says, “but we have seen that is not the case. We (owners) are sometimes too focused on getting the job done, getting the work, keeping it going and having a cash flow.”


Falewitch, who works primarily in the commercial sector in Omaha, says developing a culture of safety takes time and starts with getting everyone on the same side, from the top down. And he emphasizes the importance of having a safety expert on the payroll. After going several years without a full-time safety director, he hired Jeremy Groves last year to fill those shoes. “You can see in the last few years when there wasn’t a safety director in place that the numbers (accidents) were elevated,” explains Groves.


In 2012, for example, when Falewitch relied on a third-party inspector, injury claims were about $175,000; by comparison, in 2015, with Groves in place, claims were only $1,500. “I think part of it is having someone out there showing they care about the workers,” says Groves. “They know they can come to me if they have a safety concern.”


He says it is important for safety directors to be visible—on site regularly and meeting with workers. Groves visits large projects at least twice a week, smaller jobs weekly. During an inspection, he interviews or tests the knowledge of some workers on best practices with materials.


The safety director also provides training on-site—anything from scissor-lift operation to Infectious Control Risk Assessment. New employees are identified by hardhats with red stripes and are teamed with seasoned employees to ensure they are properly trained.


Groves says he gets positive feedback from other trades and new employees on the company’s training and safety initiatives. “We have actually seen some workers leave the company for another and then come back to work for us because they prefer it here,” he says.

The Mod Rate

One of Groves’ goals is to cut the company’s workers’ compensation experience modification rate, or “mod,” an insurance term that measures past cost of injuries and future chances of risk. A lower EMR translates to lower workers’ compensation insurance premiums.


There is another reason, however, for cutting the EMR. “We’re finding that more contractors are looking not just at your mod rate but also your total case incident rate on some prequalifications to get jobs, so we want to keep those numbers in check,” says Groves.


He adds that some owner-clients in Omaha request Falewitch largely because of the company’s safety record. Even some GCs have turned to the contractor for advice on safety initiatives.


Falewitch stresses that many employers need to re-examine how they do business and scrutinize parts of their operation, which can cost them dearly, other than the cost of production. “You can be making all kinds of money and have a mod rate of 1.3,” Falewitch says. “That will cost you a lot more money than if you were at a rate of only 0.6.


“Safety and production go hand in hand. If you have a worker who is productive, he is typically good at safety. The flipside is that if you have a guy who is not good at safety but you think he is productive, you might be kidding yourself.


“We found that the guys who are bad at safety are not so organized. They might be producing on a tangible level, but if you really start to dig down, you might find they are cutting corners and not keeping an eye on other workers. What is the risk these workers are putting you under?”


As an example, Falewitch points to a worker the company released for inadequate performance. They found out later through other employees that he had “horrible safety” practices. “That pattern of conduct, too, can be carried on by other employees, based on our experience,” Falewitch says.


“The industry focuses so much on production and doesn’t realize how safety and production complement each other,” he adds. “It makes for a well-rounded employee—the kind of employee we want.”


Among other safety initiatives Falewitch employs is a housekeeping campaign called “No More on the Floor.” The objective is for workers to throw material/refuse (wood and metal scraps, for example) into trash carts as they are working, rather than letting them pile up and become tripping hazards. “Working this way also saves the worker time,” Groves points out. “If you clean up as you go, you will be more efficient.”


The safety director holds weekly talks called “Safety Matters” on a range of subjects, including fall protection and housekeeping. With many years’ experience in health and safety, Groves recognizes that “a learning and teaching company” will do better than a “reactive or compliance-driven company.”

Other Tactics

Before Falewitch started the company 21 years ago, he was a carpenter. Safety practices were often inadequate at previous employers. That was motivation for him to take a different approach when he formed Falewitch Construction Services. By the early 2000s, as Falewitch’s employee payroll grew from 15 to well over 100 (in some years it peaked at more than 200), so did the owner’s emphasis on safety. Steele, his first safety director, helped Falewitch obtain the prestigious “Star” level accreditation through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Voluntary Protection Program, which promotes health and safety in the workplace. Falewitch was only one of two contractors in the United States to achieve the Star safety mark.


During the recession, Steele’s position was eliminated and Falewitch turned to a third-party inspector for site inspections on an as-needed basis. “That is when we really started to see things change,” Falewitch says. “Our mod rate increased and our accident incident ratio went up.” It was “very difficult” to meet safety goals with a third-party inspector, explains Falewitch, adding it was the rationale for hiring Groves on a full-time basis in May 2015.


Falewitch Construction is in an Innovative Captive Strategies group—a workers’ compensation insurance group that includes like-minded safety companies that self-insure. “There is a highly suggested set of guidelines that we have to maintain to be in the group,” explains Falewitch. “One of the reasons I joined is we have full control over our cases—if I want to fight a (accident) case, we can.” The group emphasizes the importance of safety.


A sizeable portion of the contractor’s portfolio is in health care where following ICRA and other safety protocols are mandatory. It explains a lot about Falewitch’s safety philosophy. “We pretty much modeled our organization around what they (health-care owners) wanted to develop,” says Falewitch. “The cleanliness, dust and noise control and having to work odd hours requires a special employee. You can’t just get anybody off the street to do that.”


Falewitch advises smaller contractors that don’t have the budget for a full-time safety person to consider retaining a third-party inspector for jobsite reviews. He also says to not equate safety measures with big costs.


Equally important for all new companies, big or small, is for managers to take safety seriously, setting positive examples for their workers, explains Falewitch. While there is no one formula for safety, getting all staff on the same page should be a priority. “It’s really about surrounding yourself with people who can advise you of things pertaining to safety when you can’t have your eyes on all the balls,” Falewitch says.

Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.

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