Safety is not a thing. Nor is it an activity. It’s not something you place in an office or assign to a safety director and be done with it. Safety is a result; it is an outcome of how you do things.
Safety is what you achieve if things are done properly and projects go as planned. Safety is the result of many things done right.
Above all, safety is an attitude.
All too often we tend to assign responsibility, whether it be for meeting production goals or for jobsite safety, “over there.” And that, says AWCI’s Safety Consultant Joe O’Connor, can be one of the dangers of establishing a separate safety department or appointing a safety director.
“When we appoint separate individuals and departments to be responsible for safety, we tend to perpetuate a division between safety and productivity,” he says. “When that happens, we often become just an oversight function.
“Safety is not a separate entity. It has to be built into the work process. Really, it must be inseparable from productivity and quality. Work procedures and safety procedures must be integral parts of the same process.
“We need to create a safety culture rather than a safety department. If we succeed in creating a safety culture, as integral to our behavior as good manners, we’ll all win.”
“Safety,” says Dick Mettler of Northwest Wall & Ceiling Contractors’ Association in Seattle, “is not a process. It is a mindset.
“I can’t look at it any other way. Safety takes the correct attitude and a willingness to change behavior. You have to buy into safety and process it mentally to make it a part of your approach to your work. A company has to make safety a culture, and every employee has to buy into and adopt this culture.”
Kathy Coffey, loss prevention specialist at Grayhawk LLC in Kentucky, agrees. “Yes, it’s a mindset,” she says, “but it’s more than just an individual mindset. It has to be global, throughout the company. It has to be a company culture.
“Individual minds are too easily changed, especially when faced with quotas and tight schedules. Safety has to become a corporate mindset that you just never violate.
“Safety is also a process of training, education and accountability.
“It is never a short-term thing. It’s an ongoing process, aiming for excellence every day.”
Chris Handley, safety manager at Performance Contracting Group in Atlanta, concurs: “Safety goes hand in hand with quality and productivity. It goes hand in hand with proper execution of the job. These things are inseparable from safety. You can’t do one without the other.”
The one big hurdle to overcome in establishing a safety culture is to make each employee realize that safety is not something that takes place “over there” (behind the door marked “Safety Director”) but very much “right here” and squarely on everyone’s shoulders.
Building a Safety Culture
Creating this culture of safety, however, is often very much easier said than done. How do you best go about it?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” says O’Connor. “Of course, there has to be executive buy-in for a top-down drive, but the rank and file must also buy in on this.
“Everyone must agree on safety as a priority. They must take responsibility not only for themselves but also for their fellow workers.”
Performance Contracting Group, a nation-wide contractor with an excellent safety record these days, has been at this for a while.
Says Mettler, “I worked at PCG in the late 1980s when they began to implement their Target Zero (as in ‘zero jobsite accidents’) programs across the company. They have arrived now, but it took them 25 years to get where they are. PCG now has a company culture of safety. It’s everywhere. But it took time. They’ve worked hard at it.
“To implement safety you have to work it and work it and work it. That’s what PCG did. Safety is now second nature to every PCG employee.
“Today, a ‘safety only applies to the other guy’attitude never survives very long here. But it’s been an ongoing, long effort, and they have been successful at it. Today, they are one of the best in the country when it comes to safety.”
Says Coffey, who runs Grayhawk’s award-wining safety program, “To succeed, you must establish complete two-way trust. You have to trust the employees to do the right thing, and the employee has to be able to trust that his company will back him if he refuses to work unsafely.
“I know that supervisors and jobsite superintendents are pushed for production, and when they only have this afternoon to do it they’ll demand that you get this [wallboard] hung without building the scaffolding properly, now, now, now! As the employee being asked to work unsafely, you must feel confident that if you refuse to do this, the company will back you up.
“A true company culture of safety is a circle of trust, ethics and morals. If I don’t trust them and they don’t trust me, it will never work.
“Also, there can never be any exceptions to the rules laid down. Look the other way once, and you will severely undermine your effort, perhaps even destroy it.”
Punish or Reward?
There has been, and continues to be, a fair amount of discussion about the best approach: Should companies provide discipline and penalize those who don’t adhere to safety policies, or should they reward those who do practice safety? Both have their place, and both have their drawbacks.
Says O’Connor, “I don’t think it’s a matter of one over the other, as long as the policy and procedure you establish are fair and consistent.
“Statistically, if you look at research, negative reinforcement does not work as well as the positive. But how do you implement positive reinforcement so that it does not backfire? If the incentive is too great, you may run into a situation where they will not report an accident or a mishap because they do not want to jeopardize the bonus or whatever the incentive is.
“If you take a disciplinary approach, you must be both fair and consistent. Some companies have great disciplinary programs but do not implement them well, and tend to look the other way with older guys while they come down heavily on the new recruits. Such a program will not gain the respect of all employees, and will fail eventually.”
“I am a firm believer of incentives,” says Mettler. “But the danger is that if the incentive is too large, employees tend to hide accidents.
“The incentive must not be so large that it creates the opposite effect, nor can it be so small that no one cares. Good safety professionals know how to balance this.”
PCG’s Handley, “We take a balanced approach. As for incentives, all our foremen are eligible for bonuses based on branch profitability.
“With regard to discipline, the first violation incurs a verbal warning and some personal coaching to find out why the violation occurred and to work out a good solution. This may evolve into more training and coaching to correct whatever is the matter.
“Should there be a second violation, the individual will receive a written warning and will be sent home for the day to mull things over.
“We rarely, if ever, see a third violation. Partly, I am sure, because the worker now has to explain to his or her spouse why on earth he’s been sent home, and partly because he or she will realize that our company takes safety very, very seriously.”
Kathy Coffey does not really believe in rewards. “Safety is a given,” she says. “You’re paid to work safely. It’s an integral part of the job description. Should you get a bonus for arriving to work on time?
“Neither do I believe a whole lot in disciplinary actions—that’s always the last option. I believe in coaching, counseling and education.
“I tell new people, ‘Welcome aboard. We’re very happy to have you with us. Now, part of working here is that you will work safely. If you chose not to, you will not work here very long.’ That usually gets the message across. ”
Experience shows that a company culture of safety breeds lasting loyalty among employees.
Chris Handley sees this over and over: “Many of our employees have been with us for more or less ever. Even our hourly employees are collecting longevity awards. They know we care for them.”
O’Connor agrees, “I think that if you demonstrate through a safety culture that you put the employees’ welfare first, you will get loyal people. You make them feel comfortable and welcome. A lack of safety means lack of concern for them.”
Says Mettler, “A safe job site will make you feel better taken care of. And since things tend to run more smoothly in a safe site, less friction results. People like to work in such an environment.”
Coffey agrees. “Right off the bat,” she says, “we make an impact when we pay our new hires to receive the 10-hour OSHA safety training. They’ve never experienced this before as they normally have to pay for this training themselves, and do it in their own time.
“This tells the employee that you care for him or her. Once you show them that, they become the most loyal employees you’ll ever have.
“It also goes back to morals and ethics: Safety is the right thing to do, and they know that we’re doing right by them. They return the favor.”
The Hard Head
You know him (or her). This is the pre-OSHA, old-hand, could-do-this-in-my-sleep craftsman (or woman). This is the head hard enough to take any knocks without a helmet, ears strong enough to take any noise without protection, and one that considers all this safety-pampering to be for sissies.
While the hard head is a dying breed—time itself is seeing to that—there are still a few around, and they can be a serious thorn in the safety director’s (or foreman’s) side.
O’Connor knows all about them. “If you look historically,” he says, “OSHA was not put in place until 1970, so the older generation worked construction sites before there was any ‘big brother’ involvement, and many consider that they did just fine, thank you.
“The best way to get any resisting remnants of this view over to your side may be to try reasoning with them. Point out that they have a responsibility not only for themselves, but also for their co-workers, and make them see that what they do affects other people as well.
“Younger guys tend to look up to this old hand, and he has to be made to see that whether he likes it or not, he’s a role model.
“Ask him whether he would like his children to approach the job with his or her attitude toward safety. Make them see that they are viewed as leaders on the job site, and they have to lead by example.”
Mettler knows the hard-head type, too, “I’ve talked to several contactors about this situation, and sometimes it is virtually impossible to change them.
“I recently asked an old-time superintendent who used a chop saw to cut a heavy gauge link but didn’t wear any hearing protection, ‘Why on earth?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m going deaf anyway.’ Now, what do you do with a guy like that? They have been around since before OSHA, and they will usually not change until something very close to home happens, until something serious does, or very nearly does, happen to them. Then they’re shocked into the safety mindset.
“Now, some contractors take a hard-line approach here. It’s as simple as, ‘Get with the program or you’re fired.’ This, more often than not, will work, but many smaller contractors cannot take the risk that it will not work, that the guy will simply walk.
“This contractor will beg and plead rather than fire. This, however, tends to fuel rather than cure the hard-head mentality.”
“Of course,” Mettler continues, “these days more and more GCs will insist on safety, and that, more than anything else, can turn the old guys around. The contractor cannot not enforce safety, or he won’t land the job. That tends to tilt the scales, and he will insist that the hard head either wises up or leaves.”
Coffey has also been around this block once or twice, “The first thing I do when I run into a hard head is to meet with him or her privately. Face to face, I tell them that I need their help in showing the younger people how to work safely. I tell them that I need them to lead by example. I ask for their help.
“The nice thing about people is that, eight times out of 10, they do want to help.
“Now, then you have the other two who tell you that they have been doing this for more than 25 years now, and here you come messing up their production.
“The bottom line with these guys is that they either get with the program or I will let them go. We cannot have exceptions. We cannot afford people pulling in different directions. That destroys the culture.
“I know that smaller companies may feel that they cannot risk an old hand—who may be their best foreman or most experienced craftsman—leaving the company. This may have been true 10 years ago, but today there are many excellent mechanics out there desperate for a job, and they’ll jump at the chance to replace those who leave.
“Even the smallest company must think long-term. Establishing a safety culture will see them through today and into the future. If they let an irreplaceable hardhead stand in the way, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. This economy is the perfect time to dig in your heels and enforce safety. No one is indispensable, and deep down, they usually know that.”
EMR and Winning Bids
The practice of consulting a contractor’s safety record as a way of helping evaluate that contractor’s general competence dates back as far as the 1980s. If the company “does safety” well—so the reasoning goes—then it most likely does other things well, too.
This practice, especially in the current economy, has gained more than just traction, it’s becoming the norm.
The one thing general contractors look at to establish a company’s commitment to safety (and its overall management expertise), is an indicator that was originally developed by the insurance industry to calculate policy premiums.
Insurance companies refer to this competence indicator as the Experience Modification Rate. EMR is a relatively straightforward computation that compares a company’s annual losses in insurance claims against its policy premiums over a three-year period, excluding the most current year.
Companies whose claims are average for their industry can expect an EMR of 1.0, but those with claims above the industry average will see their EMR jump above 1.0 and their insurance premiums rise accordingly.
Conversely, a history of below-average claims will show up in an EMR rate below 1.0, a rate that translates into considerable savings in insurance costs.
Also, the lower your EMR rate, the better you will rank in the GC’s or owner’s evaluation of not only your safety record, but your general competence as well.
“A good safety record will win the job,” says Mettler. “Although some GCs will, if your EMR is in the neighborhood, take the lower bid, knowing they may have to supervise the contractor a little harder when it comes to safety.
“Many GCs have a policy not to accept bids from any contractor
with an EMR over 1.0, but some will consider an EMR of 1.1 to be close enough if they are the lower bidder. These are the economic realities of the world.”
O’Connor sees this trend as well: “These days, both the oil industry and the utilities employ third-party evaluators that pre-qualify contractors based on their safety records. These owners may also require that the sub submits a safety program for their approval.”
Says Handley, “PCG’s current EMR is 0.61. Fact is, it used to be 0.54, but then we made some acquisitions and had to factor their EMRs into the equation. But we’ll bring it down again.
“Our low EMR has served us very well in a tough market, and today we have more of a backlog than we did this time last year, primarily due to the GCs performing more stringent pre-qualifications these days.
“The GCs, knowing that a safe project is more likely to come in one time and on budget, are focusing more and more on safety. Our reputation in this field has helped us land many jobs.”
“I run into this more and more,” says Coffey. “The GC’s two main criteria are EMR and the low-dollar bid. Of course it’s good that he is looking at EMR, but that does not tell the whole story.”
“A company’s EMR can be artificially lowered by hiding accidents, or you may avoid accidents by sheer luck. A low EMR does not guarantee that you’re dealing with a safety-oriented contractor.
“I always suggest that the GC should not only check EMR but also do a full, nation-wide OSHA run to see how the company has performed according to OSHA.
“Then I suggest that the GC asks the contractor to produce copies of the 10-hour Construction Safety Card for labor, and the 30-hour card for the managers. This is usually a requirement in the bid documents, but the GCs rarely require proof. They should.”
It is common wisdom that a contractor with a safety culture that is alive and well will almost invariably outperform a contractor who does not. It stands to reason: The job site will be cleaner, equipment tends to be in better working condition and cared for, and loyal employees perform better than disgruntled ones.
Handley agrees, saying, “Safety goes hand in hand with quality and productivity. It’s all in the proper execution of the job.”
Mettler says, “Safety is a significant factor in productivity. Accidents impact productivity. Dirty jobsites impact productivity.”
A Case for Profit Sharing
Here’s the rationale: A company with a safety-culture will more often than not bring the job in on time and under budget. It seems to be a byproduct of safety: the clean jobsite, loyal and conscientious employees and clear procedures.
Although many negative measurements of a company’s safety performance exist—lack of accidents and other mishaps, their EMR, etc.—possibly the best positive measurement of company safety is project profitability.
And in order to foster, and further to promote the culture that underlies such profit, should not those responsible be rewarded?
Handley tells us that PCG offers a bonus program for their foremen based on project profitability.
Coffey agrees with that, but she’d take it one step further. “I have seen site management get a huge bonus for a job they brought home safely, as much as $70,000,” she says. “But this is while the people who actually did the work, safely and responsibly, got nothing.
“I’d say, if they perform safely, and if they bring the job home with a profit, they should all—every man and woman involved—share some of the profits.
“I also believe that if you do this, you will strengthen the safety culture significantly. Everyone will have a stake in a job well and safely done.”
Using project profitability as a positive measure of safety, wise management will devise and implement a profit-sharing plan that rewards all concerned.
We asked each of those interviewed for this article this question: Who in the company should be responsible for safety? Everyone answered with this one word: Everybody.
Kathy Coffey put it best when she said, “You must never forget that you are your brother’s or sister’s keeper. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to them, to make sure we all work safely.”
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho–based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.