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The Real Safe Job Site

For five years running, Alta Drywall (Innovative Drywall Systems, Inc.), Carlsbad, Calif., has seen a decline in jobsite incidents and accidents. This has lowered the company’s experience modification rate, which its insurance carrier uses to base premiums. President Doug Bellamy says it’s due to a “willingness to invest in safety.”

“We spend the money,” Bellamy says. “That sends a clear signal from the top down, throughout the entire work force, that we’re serious. Other companies see safety as a cost, and their work forces take it as a cue to cut corners, as is often the case in construction.”

Bellamy’s comments echo throughout the drywall industry. Coast to coast, presidents, risk managers and safety directors striving for excellence say that effective safety programs begin at the top. Without top-level buy-in, belief and support, a company’s safety protocols come toppling down.

“It took years for me to get my guys to wear hard hats and glasses,” says Lee R. Zaretzky, president, Ronsco, Inc., New York. “But you know something, if you show up on the job all the time with your glasses and your hard hat, and you walk up to the crews and say, ‘Why do I care more about your head and your eyes than you do? I really don’t want to have to be the one who calls your wife …,’ they eventually realize it’s not just about the bottom line but about caring for them.”

Creating a Safety Culture

Beyond top-down safety program buy-in, what’s the best way to reduce injuries and incidents? Juan Ramos, field superintendent, safety, at Alta Drywall, says it begins with each new hire. Alta Drywall provides a two-hour safety orientation from the get-go.

“They come to us from different companies. Some may not be as safety conscious as we are, and some, used to doing it ‘old school,’ put planks on buckets,” Ramos says. “We let them know right off the bat that our expectations are for them to be safe.”

Alta Drywall prevents crews from standing on stilts and buckets. Only OSH-approved scaffolds are allowed for above-ground work. In addition, the company has developed a series of orientation videos and special program for documenting jobsite inspections.

Tom Jolliff, assistant vice president, risk management services, Insurance Company of the West in San Diego, says that effective safety programs in the construction industry come down to regular employee training, companywide documentation and good on-the-job leadership.

“If you don’t have a strong superintendent or foreman running the job site,” Jolliff says, “your safety record may not be as good as it could be. They won’t be enforcing your standards like they should.”

Some drywall firms say general contractors are adding their own orientation programs, and they welcome this development. For example, Gerry Golt, vice president of safety and risk management, Precision Walls, Inc., Cary, N.C., says more GCs in his market require subcontractors’ crews to attend new-project orientation meetings.

“It would’ve been unusual five years ago, but it’s coming into play on larger jobs,” Golt says. “If their orientation lasts a half-day, then we have to pay our people for being there. We view it as an investment.”

Golt also views working closely with GCs on safety as a partnership. Wall construction, he says, sets the pace for safety and quality, which drives the rest of the job site. “The work we do sets the schedule for everybody else,” Golt says. “It behooves us to work in a safe manner so we don’t fall behind. Even a small ‘incident’ on the job site impacts the schedule and frame of mind of all the trades.”

Back-to-Work Programs

One program gaining attention in the industry is the idea of placing injured workers quickly in company jobs that their doctors will allow. Such “Modified Duty Back to Work” and “Early Return to Work” programs can be very effective.

“Rather than let a person sit at home and collect insurance money, you work them somewhere in the organization within their doctor’s limitations,” Bellamy says. “They and everyone else gets the idea that when somebody gets hurt, it’s not going to be a vacation.”

Golt says his company views early return to work as a function of aggressive claims management. “If we can provide work that’s productive work for us and good for them, within their restrictions, it’s going to help,” he says. “It’s a great incentive.”

Statistics show, Bellamy says, that back-to-work programs reduce claim costs and recovery times. Workers may wind up doing less-than-preferred work assignments, but that prompts many to seek full reinstatement to their jobs.

“We don’t deliberately make it ugly for them, but most don’t want to be limited to menial kinds of work,” Bellamy says. “It’s been our policy for five years, and I’m sure it’s made a huge difference.”

Alta Drywall can spend several thousands of dollars placing workers in assignments that generate only a few hundred dollars worth of monthly output. But, Bellamy says, the program keeps the recovering worker eyeing his old job. “You’re not getting the production you used to get, but it gets their claims settled and gets them back to work without restrictions in the safest and smartest way,” he says.

OSHA and the Economy

The consensus among safety directors, risk managers and company presidents contacted for this article is that OSHA’s number one area of concern is fall protection. (The OSHA office of communications was contacted for this article. Queries submitted to the office were not returned in time for publication.)

“Around stair areas it’s very common for a drywall contractor not to use scaffold or any type of fall protection. This is industry-wide,” Ramos says. “Since many use stilts and we don’t allow them, when they come to our company they start using buckets and other methods.” Ramos is quick to point out OSHA’s fall prevention regulations.

Many think that this year OSHA is hyper-focused on enforcement. “It’s my understanding that the amount of fines are increasing,” said one drywall company safety director, who asked not to be named. “They have basically hired more inspectors who are not as experienced as inspectors were in the past for this area of fall protection.”

In his Wachuwannano column in the February 2011 issue of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions, Donald E. Smith, CCS, AWCI’s director of technical services, pegged OSHA’s focus in slightly different terms. He wrote that a “new tactic from OSHA” involved sending out “swat teams of OSHA inspectors.” Some drywall company officials say they have seen OSHA inspectors more frequently during the past year—50 percent more frequently. But not everyone in the industry reports increases in inspections.

“Part of the thing with OSHA is that under the previous administration they were a kinder, friendlier OSHA,” says Smith. “Now they’ve gone 180 degrees. They’re going back into strict enforcement, and they’re dropping a lot of the partnerships they once had.”

By partnerships, Smith is referring to OSHA’s one-time focus on and development of industry alliances, where the agency would work closely with trade associations on training programs. The goal was to reduce violations and cut back on the need for inspections.

“They have since dropped all of those programs because, apparently, they’re gearing up to hire more OSHA inspectors to get more on the streets,” Smith says. “The question is, Do they have the money for this? In the past, they didn’t have the money to hire additional inspectors.”

If budgets are under pressure at government agencies like OSHA, they most certainly are among drywall companies. It begs the question: Is the current weak economy challenging the safety standards that drywall firms have set?

“We still go above and beyond the typical drywall company, putting scaffolds on stairs and training our employees,” says Alta Drywall’s Ramos. “We tend to be a bit higher when we bid our work, because we know the majority of the companies don’t.”

“You can’t afford to cut your safety budget,” says Ronsco’s Zaretzky. “You need to get it implemented and delegated, so once you have buy-in from the top, your outside supers help enforce it as common practice, and your foremen and your workers look over each other’s shoulders to point out unsafe conditions.”

In the end, good jobsite safety practices are about compliance with company policies and with OSHA regulations. A good company safety program is through and through a way of doing business.

“You have to stay on it,” Bellamy says. “You’ve got to be sure that your program is not just a shelf program, but that it’s understood and utilized from top to bottom.”

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant.

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