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The Voice of Experience

Old-timers have stories to tell, perspectives to give
and technology to share that all too often are lost,
leaving our industry the poorer.



AWCI’s Construction Dimensions is exploring
the idea of giving these venerable and generally
crusty gentlemen a forum so that their ideas can
live on. We begin with Ian “Scatty” Paterson, who
has been active in the construction industry since
1948, and who, at a senior age we will not specify,
is still swinging his bat as a safety consultant for
owners, developers, general contractors, builders,
subs and suppliers in California. We warn you that
what he says is not always politically correct, but it
is Scatty Paterson. As he notes, “I’ve just about seen
it all! I’ve spent 90 percent of my time in the field.
If you want to know anything about construction,
ask the people who are doing it, they’ll give you the
straight skinny. The people back in the main offices
don’t have their finger on what goes on in the field.
They’re full of politics and BS.”



Before the folks back in the main offices get too
ticked off, know that Scott sets his sights on the
entire industry, not just your end of it, and it’s not
all bad, either, so listen in.



SP: I’ve seen quite a few changes over the years in
the field. We have certainly made big improvements
in our equipment and materials. On the
subject of GCs, some treat their subcontractors
very well. Others often do not treat them even as
second-class citizens. That is not right when you
work together and communicate together, you
must treat each other as equals. Too many times,
subs get the short end of the stick: They are not
paid, they are cancelled-these are all different
issues, but I don’t blame some subs for suing GCs.
Another issue is that GCs should have a better
selection process and not just take the lowest bidder
every time.



I still think the weakest link we have in construction
is at the superintendent level. They used to
be in the field and stay on top of everything. Now
they are stuck in their trailers answering all their e-mail
and working on their computers. They have
so much paperwork now that they don’t have
much opportunity to get out into the field.



CD: Who is generating this paperwork?


SP: Architects, engineers, main offices, outside
people. See, in the old days, a general contractor
would hire most of his own work force-carpen-ters,
cement masons, laborers, operating engineers,
teamsters, electrical, plumbing and everything else.
He didn’t sub out much of his work. Now, everything
is subbed out and on most jobs the GCs have
only one person there, a superintendent. They
won’t even send him a secretary! So, what I am
telling you is that these GCs are understaffed.
They’ve got one guy, and he has to answer phones
all day, do all the paperwork, like he’s a secretary.
So we don’t have superintendents providing over sight.
They depend on all their subs to do everything
for them. That is the trend.




CD: Why has the trend gone toward specialization?



SP: It’s a lot more economical for the general contractor.
He doesn’t have to hire his own people or
keep track of all the hours, the overtime and the
pay. But what I have found is that when you sub
out everything, you increase your liability as a general
contractor. Because they don’t have enough
time to go out and supervise and see what all those
subs are doing, they lose control and so their liability
increases. What they get is a lot more laws
u i t s—a hundred times more now than they were
years ago.



CD: If they have to cover extra liability insurance
and deal with the lawsuits themselves, are they saving
money?



SP: No. They’re fooling themselves. Their liability
premiums are more now than their workers’ comp
premiums. In the old days, the workers’ comp premiums
were always the highest because they had
workers on the payroll, and that was what they
wanted to control. I’ve worked for 23 different construction
companies in my 55 years in construc-tion,
and their liability premiums are much more
now than their workers’ comp premium used to be,
because they end up being sued all the time.



CD: Are there any ramifications to this trend?


SP: Contractors usually select subcontractors by
either bid or negotiation. Well, that sub might sub
it out to somebody else, and that sub might sub it
out to yet somebody else, so you can have first, second
and third-tier subcontractors on the job. GCs
really don’t know who the subcontractors are going
to be until they show up to do the work!


CD: And it may be a sub they specifically did not
want.



SP: Exactly. A lot of the time, subs are spread so
thin they’ll have to call in another subcontractor,
some buddy of theirs. I had
a situation years ago at San Francisco
Airport. A sub was so busy that he called
one of his buddies and said, “Hey, bring
your crew out here to do the concrete
work.” Well, they overloaded the platform
with concrete and it collapsed.
With eight men on the platform, I had
to deal with personal injuries and a
structural collapse involving subs who
weren’t even meant to be on the job in
the first place.



CD: What was the outcome of that?



SP: Well, the lawsuits never quit on that
one! It went back to the shoring system
that was used for the concrete, and it
went back to the engineers and the
architects. The plaintiff claimed the system
wasn’t designed to hold the weight.
But most of these lawsuits in construction
I have been involved in so many
of them [as a forensic expert in construction
site safety]—are settled before
they ever go to trial.


We used to have a law in California that
says if an event involves a personal
injury, it has to be reported within one
year. Now they’ve extended the time
frame to two years, so people have more
time to think about and report any of
these personal injuries and then sue. The
courts in California are so backed up
with all of these personal injury cases,
that it gives the attorneys more time to
study and hire experts and find out what
really happened on these cases.


So, that is another thing that has happened
as a result of this trend the lawsuits
have really increased and continue
to do so.


CD: What else has changed over the
years?



SP: What has really changed is the
equipment, materials and tools. There
have been huge improvements with
these. I have to praise all the suppliers for
the different types of equipment lifting
equipment, cranes, etc. that they
have given us. What has not improved
is the people! I don’t see any big
improvements in the people!
CD: What would you like to see in the
way of improvements in people?
SP: We obviously need more trainees. I
have to praise the unions, because they
have actual training programs. Union
people have to go through apprenticing
and training before they can come out
in the field. Some of them have three,
five, six years of training. The unions
have very comprehensive, excellent
training programs so when you call the
Hall and they send out somebody, you
know you’re going to get a qualified person.
But the unions have lost a lot of control
with many non-union contractors moving
in. These don’t have the same kind
of comprehensive training programs
and so we generally find less-qualified
people in non-union contractors. In
fact, I looked at statistics on safety one
time and found non-union people usu-ally
have about three times as many acci-dents
as union people.
CD: Which, again, means more law-suits?
SP: Yes, and many non-union people
don’t speak English. We have large Hispanic
and Asian populations here in
California, many of whom don’t speak
English. We don’t see very many Asian
people on the job sites, but there are
many Hispanics. It presents all kinds of
problems when they don’t understand
the English language or how to read and
write it.



CD: Understandably so. Any other
issues relating to personnel?



SP: Contractors usually have mandatory
retirement. They throw out employees
when they hit 60 to 65, and that’s
not right. You get thrown out if you can’t
do your work, that’s different. But there
are a lot of elderly people who can still
do their work, who are actually more
dependable. They have volumes of experience,
they can still perform well, so I
am all for seniors in construction!
Another pet peeve is that construction
workers should never accept the premise
that death is part of the job. All construction
accidents can be prevented.
I’ve always stressed this with all construction
workers that they didn’t come
to the job to die, but to live and make a
living! Unfortunately some of them have
the mindset that ‘construction is dan-gerous
work, we love dangerous work
and that’s why we’re here.’ But construction
can be done safely.



CD: Quite right! Do you have any
words of wisdom for those coming into
the industry?


SP: I tell all the young people who have
just graduated with master’s degrees in
construction management that their
best career move, and I say this quite
candidly, is to stay away from family owned
companies and joint ventures.
These are problem areas.


CD: Tell us more.


SP: Well first of all, unless they’re part of
the family, they will not be promoted,
they will not share in the profits. They
will be ignored and neglected. Now,
some people will work for family owned
businesses just for the experience, which
is okay. But your chances for advancement
and promotion in family-owned
companies are very, very slim. If the
grandfather founded the company, then
the next generation will be brought in,
and the next generation. So you find a
lot of kids running these construction
companies, but they don’t have the commitment of their elders. So stay out of
family-owned companies.



As for joint ventures, the reason they
exist is because the original contractor
doesn’t have enough money for the
insurance to cover the project. Most
joint ventures involve two or three companies,
but I’ve been in joint ventures
with as many as six different contractors.
The problem with these projects is the
contractors all have different and often
conflicting policies and procedures, and
the result is a lot of internal bickering.
They really end up being a mess to work
in.


I’ve never seen anybody print the above
two points, but this is what I have found
to be true in my experience.


CD: If these are the folks not to work
for, whom do you recommend one
should work for?


SP: The people I enjoy working for the
most are owners. They are smarter (most
of them) and they have the resources. My
second choice is construction managers,
they’re smarter, too! And my third choice
is general contractors. My last choice is
subcontractors. They’re at the bottom of
the barrel because they generally either
have terrible policies and procedures or
no policies or procedures at all!


CD: Were subs better to work for
before?


SP: I don’t think we see the same kind
of competence among subs as we used
to when I was working for general contractors.
And like I said earlier, when you
get a sub, they sub out and then they sub
out, so you don’t really know what you’re
getting. But that’s equally true for the
general contractors—they aren’t nearly
as good as they were 50 years ago.


CD: So it’s about 50 years ago that
things started going downhill?



SP: I noticed the change in the 1960s. I
would say that’s when everything started
to go downhill. We had all these hippies
show up on the job. The best construction
workers are those who have
been in the military because they are
used to organization, structure and discipline.


You have fewer problems with
veterans than with these other types, I
found that out. In the old days, that’s
what we had. When I went into construction,
it was the WW2 vets and then
the Korean War vets who were used to
the organization, the structure, discipline,
and ways of doing things regulations.


And then in the 1960s it all changed as
we had drugs flooding the construction
sites and it was a mess. All these guys
started wearing dark glasses and you
couldn’t tell whether or not they were on
drugs.



CD: After all these years, how is business
for you these days?


SP: I’m still hanging tough. I have about
five different projects I am working on
right now. I usually have about six but it
is a little slow this year. But it’ll pick up:
Residential construction is still booming
here in California, despite the economy,
but commercial/industrial construction
is down.



I went into business for myself 16 years
ago after working for contractors for
almost 40 years! Finally, at age 56, I went
into business for myself I should have
done it at 36 or at 46! But, I was one of
these guys who was loyal to the contractor,
seeing projects through, waiting
until they had finished the jobs. Finally,
I said, “Enough is enough!” and went
into business for myself, using all these
contacts I had built over the years. That
was the smartest move I ever made. I am
making more money now than I did
then, I turn down what I want to turn
down, I take what I want to take it’s
just a whole world of difference.



So, my big message to all these young
people going into construction is, “Yeah,
you need about 10 or 20 years of experience
working for somebody else to
find out what is going on, but after that,
go into business for yourself.” I’m really
big on private entrepreneurship. When
you feel comfortable that you can do it
on your own, then go into business for
yourself.


CD: Any other new perspectives to pass
on?



SP: We should have “lessons learned,”
but the problem in construction is that
we have “lessons unlearned.” Accidents
that I am involved in—I do a lot of
forensic work, too—are exactly the same
as those that happened 50 years ago,
exactly! People falling through undisguised
floor and roof openings, trenches
caving in and burying people these
are exactly the same kinds of things that
happened 50 years ago, but the lessons
learned were never passed down to the
next generation. So, we still have people
falling through roof openings, falling
through floor openings and wall openings,
falling down elevator shafts. We
still have a lot of cave-ins because they
don’t shore the trenches and people are
being buried in trenches or excavations.



So, my point is that all these lessons we
learned half a century ago are almost
never passed down to the next group of
people that come in. We have a terrible
communications problem in the construction
industry. We have thousands
of publications, but the problem with all
of them, with hazard alerts, etc., is they
never make it past the main office.
Sometimes they find their way into the
field and sometimes they don’t. But even
if they are mailed to the field, they are
ignored or thrown into the wastebasket.
So, it never really gets to the men who
have to do the work, and that is my
point. There are too many levels of
administration.



For instance, many of these men I talk
to have never seen their company’s safety
program. You know, there are laws:
You have to have a company safety program,
and so many a company has one.
But many of the employees have never
even seen it! And I’ve run across contractors
who don’t know they’re sup-posed
to have a safety program in this
day and age! I had a big case I was
involved in last year, for example, where
both the general contractor and the subcontractor
didn’t know they had to have
written safety programs.



I’ve seen it all, done it all. I’ve been on
every type of project you can think of,
and I will continue to do so. I’m going
to keep going strong until I drop dead!
I love construction, it gets in your blood,
and you can’t get it out, you know. I just
love anything to do with construction
and it’s been my whole life. I was fortunate
to be able to earn an engineering
degree on the GI Bill and that certainly
helped. So I’m a big, old, grizzled, Kore-an
War veteran-type, 6’ 11″, 240 pounds,
and I just love construction. It’s my life
and hobby.


About the Author

Steven Ferry is a freelance writer based
in Clearwater, Fla.

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