The Quest for Zero Incidents Requires Investment, Leadership and a Genuine Concern for Others

People who really care about safety never seem to get tired of talking about it. And they have the knowledge, track record and compassion to back up that talk.

For the most successful construction businesses, safety is part philosophy, part practicality. Read on for examples of how three companies—a family-owned general contractor in the South, an electrical and instrumentation specialist in the Midwest and a small design-builder in the Mid-Atlantic—have developed strong safety cultures that encourage buy-in from both employees and subcontractors.

Leadership and Outreach
“Everyone from the CEO to the field laborers is responsible for safety.” Some iteration of this has been said by many contractors, but what does a top-down approach really look like?

At Samet Corporation, a family-owned business based in Greensboro, N.C., that has only logged nine lost-time accidents in the past 15 years, it all starts with Construction President Rick Davenport. He regularly tours the firm’s multifamily, commercial/industrial, medical and education projects—observing safety performance and addressing issues on the spot. Additionally, Davenport sends out a weekly email on Sundays that always includes a note on safety, whether it’s just a salutation to “be safe,” or a spotlight on a job or individual with outstanding safety performance.

Next in line is Marshall Tuck, Samet’s vice president of administration. “I’m responsible for safety from a programming standpoint,” he says. “Several years ago, we considered moving safety management down from the executive leadership level to our group managers, but we made a conscious decision not to do that. We didn’t want to put them in a position of having to decide between schedules and safety. This way, the group managers aren’t making production decisions at the potential risk of diminishing our safety program.”

Another key player is Samet’s safety director, Bruce Jaworoski, whose goal is to institute a workable safety policy along with a positive jobsite environment for the firm’s 140 employees and network of subcontractors. While there are always problems to correct, Jaworoski makes it a point to give equal attention to positive results.

“Workers know when the bosses in suits are walking around the site,” he says. “Just thanking them for their work goes a long way toward building trust. It’s important to tell them the value they bring to the project, whether it’s sweeping the floor or installing an integral part of an HVAC system.”

Personalization is a great way to convey safety messages down the chain of command, especially for the topics that seem to be an endless battle, such as wearing safety glasses.

“I’m not successful just telling people to put on their glasses,” Tuck says. “I have to explain the reason the policy is in place is because we care about you. You only have two eyes, and if you mess those up, you can’t work anymore. Yes, you have to police the site and sometimes draw a line in the sand, but the more you can personalize why a policy exists, it tends to resonate with people.”

In addition to Jaworoski, two safety managers are in the field every day to make sure the lines of communication are open with subcontractors. As Samet started taking on a greater percentage of jobs in the multifamily market, which has substantially more Spanish-speaking workers, the company made sure one of its safety managers was Hispanic so the company could get a better grasp on the cultural differences associated with the residential workforce. That safety manager’s prime focus is developing relationships within crews and familiarizing them with the concept of working safely.

“He’s instilling a new mindset in them,” Jaworoski says. “It’s not just about production or looking the part. They have to actually learn how to use a safety harness, etc.

“We do not demean workers. We focus on the positive and then remind them of a particular area where they need to do a better job,” he says. “As word gets out, they understand we’re there to protect them and their coworkers, not to prevent them from doing their job.”

Mentorship and Varying Owner Requirements
Despite doubling in size during the past four years—to about 160 employees now—MKD Electric, Elgin, Ill., has been able to maintain its record of more than 3,100 days without a lost-time injury. As a 20-year-old electrical, instrumentation and systems integration contractor working in industrial plants, refineries and mills, MKD’s challenge is two-pronged: folding new employees into the firm’s existing safety culture and managing varying user expectations—some of which are at the leading edge of safety and some of which are lagging.

“In our teenage years as a company, we were fortunate to connect with Mike Uremovich at Starcon,” says Michael Wesa, director of finance and marketing for MKD Electric. “He really worked to help us understand the benefit of having a world-class safety
program. Our approach is: We’re always going to rise to the level of the highest safety requirements.”

In practice, this means if a customer has higher standards than MKD Electric, the company will adopt those requirements into its own safety policy. For customers that aren’t as strict, MKD Electric takes the position of coach and mentor to show them the light on safety and why it’s important to their business. For the few owners that refuse to buy in, Wesa says they won’t be partners for very long.

To make sure its safety culture stays firmly in place, MKD Electric starts at the very beginning: with apprentices.

“We like to bring people in at the apprentice level and then grow them into our culture,” Wesa says. “We mold them into what we need. That way they don’t have bad habits for us to break. And some of them end up having the best attitudes toward safety.”

MKD Electric also engages employees through safety call-ins, safety bulletins and its safety committee, which meets every six weeks. The group is comprised of members of the executive team, operations managers, project managers, and the director of safety and training; plus folks from the service department and industrial control panel shop, as well as different field representatives such as foremen, journeymen and apprentices. They go over near-misses, review pertinent incidents outside the company and assess progress on the year’s safety goals.

“It’s always simple: We want zero incidents and zero recordable injuries,” Wesa says. “So it becomes about leading indicators—what trends we’re seeing now and how to reduce those.

“Talented employees are hard to come by,” he adds. “If we don’t keep them safe, we’ll drive ourselves into an even bigger shortage.”

Another major perk of having an active safety program and an EMR of 0.77 is accessibility to the heavy industrial client base—especially for a merit shop contractor based in Northern Illinois.

“We’re in a very tough environment here,” Wesa says. “We always hear the argument that merit shop guys aren’t trained or safe. If we can hand the client our EMR and safety policy, it takes away that criticism. It has been very powerful for our company.”

Financial Investment and Subcontractor Accountability
For RLS Construction Group, Dillsburg, Pa., being a small design-builder with 40 employees doesn’t keep the company from substantially and routinely investing in safety programming and equipment. RLS President Bob Schopfer doesn’t care how much employees poke fun at him for installing backup alarms on all cars (not just company trucks) or making sure 100 percent of staff (even administrative personnel) is OHSA-10 and first-aid/CPR certified. He simply won’t risk putting more money in the
company’s coffers at the risk of employee safety.

“Being a safe contractor is expensive. You have to put your money where your mouth is,” he says. “We issue fall protection to all employees regardless of whether they are exposed to fall hazards on a daily basis. If they end up needing to do some work that puts them at risk, they aren’t going to run back to the office, get the PPE they need and then go back to the jobsite. So we issue it to everyone—same with safety glasses and earplugs. It’s costly, but it’s critical to instilling our culture.”

There are financial implications for compliance and non-compliance as well. On the negative end, violations can result in time off without pay or termination. Employees who point out a hazard or pass an inspection are rewarded, sometimes in the form of merit-based bonuses. Recently, anyone who went one month with “no potentially unsafe conditions” on a particular jobsite received a $250 gift card.

“We gave them out at a meeting in front of everyone. I want people to see who is getting rewarded,” Schopfer says.

Importantly, employees who refuse to do work they feel is unsafe are never punished, and they are encouraged to stop any unsafe subcontractors. Additionally, an in-house safety officer and a third-party safety consultant have stop-work authority. 

“Subcontractors are my biggest fear, Schopfer says. “Every subcontractor has to have OSHA 10 certification. If they aren’t willing to spend money on safety, then I’m not willing to take the risk of hiring them.

“Before we do our pay applications, our in-house safety officer makes sure subcontractors have updated their OSHA 10-hour cards and participated in all toolbox talks. When you hit subcontractors in their pocketbooks, they listen. We want to pay them,
but we can’t unless we have documentation that they complied with our contractual safety requirements.”

Maintaining this level of quality control is crucial as a service-disabled veteran-owned business doing 80 percent of its work for the federal and state governments. In short, the government won’t contract with companies that have a high EMR.

“Smaller companies have a lot of things to do, but this has to be at the top of the list,” Schopfer says. “A safe employee will translate to the bottom line of efficiencies and not paying for workers’ comp claims.

“I’m not in the business of being an unsafe contractor,” he adds. “I’m in the business of making money on our quality work. That takes time and financial investment. There’s no other way.” 

Ideas to Replicate

Poster Contest
Having witnessed onsite fatalities with a previous employer, Bobby Summerlin, a senior superintendent with Samet Corporation, is passionate about getting workers’ families involved in promoting the importance of safety. While overseeing work at aVeterans Administration medical clinic, he came up with the idea of a poster contest in which subcontractors’ children or grandchildren draw a picture of their loved one coming home safe. Entries are posted onsite for everyone to view, and at the end of the month, the project safety committee selects winners in each age category to receive a $25 gift card. One winning poster also is displayed in the lobby of Samet’s corporate headquarters in Greensboro, N.C.

“The contest simply gets families involved in the beginning stages of an incident- and injury-free environment,” Summerlin says. “It helps get the message that mom and dad owe it to their loved ones to come home safe every day.”

Grab-and-Go Kits and Mobile Workstations
MKD Electric’s safety committee is always looking to fill holes in its safety program. Last year, the group identified a lack of information and forms available on jobsites, so the company deployed grab-and-go kits containing alcohol and drug testing forms, incident report forms and a list of nearby medical clinics (with maps). All project managers and foremen receive the kits, and they also are placed in company service vehicles.

The idea for mobile workstations actually came from MKD’s operations team. In looking for a way to more efficiently organize workers’ tools—so they aren’t working from the floor or constantly bending down to pick things up—the company created a waist-high mobile platform equipped with the equipment and supplies necessary to complete the task at hand. The workstations reduce materials handling, lessen jobsite congestion, and improve ergonomics and housekeeping.

Hardhat Stickers
RLS Construction Group is a proud member of the OSHA Strategic Partnership Program (VPP)—so much so that it’s something President Bob Schopfer wants to convey to his workers visually, not just as a meaningless label. So, he puts the OSHA VPP on every hardhat.

“I don’t want my employees to be afraid of OSHA. If you’re afraid of OSHA, it means you’re doing something wrong,” he says.

RLS also gives out stickers representing additional training workers have done: OSHA 30, confined space, fall protection, etc.

“Those hardhats are all about advertising safety,” Schopfer says. “The stickers encourage friendly competition among workers and keeps them focused on increasing their certifications.” 

Joanna Masterson is senior editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email, visit or follow @ConstructionMag.