Award-Winning Companies Build Their Culture From the Top Down, Bottom Up and Everywhere in Between


In the midst of his 17-year career with Houston-based D.E. Harvey Builders, Inc., Scott Oliver left the comfort of his job as a superintendent to take on a safety role. The firm had landed a 30-story Anadarko building, and part of the contract required a full-time safety coordinator to be onsite. Oliver’s previous experience working within a highly regulated chemical plant thrust him to the top of the list of employees well-suited to take on the position.

Reflecting back, Oliver characterizes Harvey Builders as expert builders with a pretty good safety program. “Now, we view ourselves as a safety company and our expertise is in construction,” he says. “We hold everyone personally accountable for their actions.”

That level of shared responsibility is achieved through the firm’s four safety pillars—attitude, assessment, accountability and action—all upholding the goal of zero accidents. Under that ideology, Harvey Builders’ 800-plus employees worked more than two million manhours last year with just one recordable incident. Their efforts earned the company a Pinnacle level National Safety Excellence Award from Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

Harvey Builders leads from the top when it comes to safety, and it works hard to ensure the messaging doesn’t get stale. Vice presidents and safety professionals rotate visits among the firm’s four offices (Bethesda, Md., and Austin, Houston and San Antonio, Texas) so the same safety messages and expectations can be covered from different perspectives—preventing employees from falling into the habit of listening, but not really hearing.

All of the company’s vice presidents are heavily involved in the safety program. And, as corporate safety director, Oliver spends 80 percent of his time in the field. “I’m not an office person,” he admits. “If you’re not in the trenches, you don’t know what’s going on.”

The company also is cognizant of the need to build its safety culture from the bottom up. Communication is emphasized through peer-to-peer reviews, jobsite safety meetings with hands-on training and a policy of empowering all employees to speak up if they see a hazard. Cleanliness and organization are underscored onsite, with ample safety signage explaining roles and evacuation procedures. And given the fact short service employees (with less than one year of experience) are 50 times more likely to get injured, Harvey Builders identifies them with a colored sticker or vest onsite to ensure they are always paired with a more seasoned worker for on-the-job training.

“The natural human instinct is to grow into the environment around you,” Oliver says. “We keep our safety program 80 percent positive and 20 percent negative. When you have a jobsite safety meeting, it can’t just be ‘don’t do this and don’t do that.’ The general consensus is the quality of work and types of accidents worsen when the message is so negative.”

In contrast, positive reinforcement aids production, and a happy jobsite leads to more communication, which leads to fewer safety incidents. Harvey Builders has many recognition programs and, importantly, they vary from site to site. The objective is for project teams to think outside the box when coming up with employee rewards.

Additionally, Oliver cautions against waiting until the end of a project to celebrate safety milestones. “If you’re building a 30-story building, have a celebration after the first 10 floors are done,” he says. “Construction workers are accustomed to short-term goals, so make sure safety goals don’t get lost with timelines that are too far out there.”

Oliver also believes personal recognition among peers is the most valuable reward for employees; for example, highlight a few laborers and field workers at an all-staff meeting and talk about what they have done well from a safety standpoint. “Everyone wants to be recognized, and being recognized for accomplishing something in front of your peers is the greatest reward. They talk to their families about it,” he says.

The overall thought process is that nobody is above anybody else when it comes to safety—and that sentiment extends to subcontractors. Harvey Builders has a selective prequalification process, and it will ask for certain foremen by name if they have a reputation for working safely.

“We work hard to understand our subcontractors, and we like to carry good relationships to different projects,” Oliver says. “The idea is to set ourselves up for success. If subcontractors fail, then we fail. If they are successful, then we are successful.”

Having Each Other’s Back
Every day, IES Commercial empowers the nearly 250 people in its Holdrege, Neb., division to do three things: identify a safe work plan, use a behavior observation process to watch colleagues while they work, and give feedback freely or stop work at any time.

“They don’t just have the authority; it’s their responsibility,” says Marc McClure, division safety manager for IES Commercial, which has been performing commercial, heavy industrial and high-line electrical work since 1997. “We’ve worked very hard to create a culture that ‘we’ve got your back.’ Safety isn’t in addition to what we do; it is what we do.”

For that philosophy, IES Commercial was one of 41 companies honored with a National Safety Excellence Award (Merit level) from ABC earlier this year.

The stop-work responsibility permeates throughout the company—from top management personnel to the latest hire. To indoctrinate new employees into the culture and reinforce what they learn during orientation, IES pairs them with an experienced mentor for their first six months on the job. Managers are around to address the typical areas of punctuality and productivity, but the mentor is solely focused on safety performance. The mentor has to provide 30-, 60- and 90-day feedback on the new hire, and the new hire is encouraged to assess the mentor’s communication and approachability.

“We started this program in 2013 in response to an employee who needed four stitches on his finger. When we reviewed the incident, the employee mentioned how much he was trained on in one day and didn’t remember the proper way to do this particular cut,” McClure says. IES vowed to ensure training is paced appropriately to prevent even minor incidents like this.

“After more than three years, no employee in a mentorship has suffered an injury. They get to know the IES way and they understand what we expect and how we operate,” he says.

In short, it’s all about behavior and identifying and mitigating job hazards. According to TedKayton, vice president of operations, IES Commercial takes a proactive approach rather than reacting to infractions with a prescribed set of rules. It’s just not practical to document every possible scenario of a job safety situation, and therefore much more effective to mold employee behaviors instead.

“It has been very rewarding to watch a culture start and grow and mature,” Kayton says. “We’ve had employees who we thought would be the most difficult to buy in turn out to be our best examples. They’ve really stepped forward and become proponents of our safety culture.”

It’s important for management to be in sync, too. While McClure doesn’t have a blank check from Kayton, he is entrusted to recognize what needs to be done or purchased (and validate why). In the past year, the company has bought more than $20,000 worth of safety equipment (excluding PPE), such as fall-protection systems, confined space entry equipment and training presentation equipment.

The management team also is well-positioned to give each other feedback from their different points of view. “When I first started working here, Ted said he didn’t think we should do something a certain way regarding stop-work authority. Even though it was more effort to do it the way he wanted, we saw a better result in the long term. You need someone who isn’t in the weeds all the time to speak up about the broader picture,” McClure says.

“I’ve never been put on a timeline to improve something by a certain date,” he adds. “It’s more about building this to be sustaining for the future.”

The Protégé Becomes the Mentor
CMS Corporation, Bargersville, Ind., knows a thing or two about the long view needed to formulate a zero-incident culture. The CEO, Ernest Enrique, used to own a $300 million company doing work for the same government customers CMS partners with now, specifically the U.S. Department of Defense. CMS was part of a formal mentor-protégé arrangement under the Small Business Association (SBA) with Enrique’s former company, which he sold in 2010. He had been an investor in CMS and was named CEO and chairman of the board in May 2014.

“I highly recommend joining professional organizations like ABC that emphasize a safety culture, as well as forming strategic alliances with companies that can take you under their wing,” Enrique says. “While we are no longer in the 8a SBA program, we have embraced two smaller companies and are mentoring them. They’re in a situation similar to where CMS was 12 years ago.”
Today, CMS boasts an EMR of 0.68, and its DART has been zero since 2009. The company has received 13 safety awards in as many years, including a 2015 Excellence level safety award from ABC. Meanwhile, the company’s total hours worked on U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines jobsites has been growing, reflecting CMS’s ability to maintain these high-performance metrics among its roughly 100-person workforce and across projects in 34 states.

The firm requires a job-specific accident prevention plan for every project, and a full-time site safety and health officer is tied to every project. “That individual is responsible for self-audits,” Enrique says. “We keep the safety folks at arm’s length from the operations side. They report directly to me so they aren’t influenced by any operational goals.”

One of the most important components of the company’s health and safety program is the new team member orientation. As of 2015, new hires must go through the orientation before being assigned to any projects. It’s a chance for CMS to communicate safety principles and show how the philosophy comes from the top down; plus provide project-specific training. Topics covered include recordkeeping requirements, disciplinary actions, hazard recognition, incident prevention, drug screening, blood-borne pathogen awareness and emergency action plans.

“Contractors cannot be afraid of investing in the training and PPE required to do the job safely,” Enrique says. “Spending a couple thousand dollars here and there for training is nothing compared to paying that tenfold when you have an incident.

“Safety is good for business as it relates to efficiency and the bottom line,” he adds, “but also as it relates to the goal that every person on the jobsite leaves in the same or better condition as when they arrived.”

A ‘STEP’ Up From Rock Bottom
Bad accidents can remain imprinted on a business owner’s mind for years, but sometimes a company’s wake-up call comes from a client withholding work because its safety record isn’t up to snuff. That’s the reality Coutts Bros. Inc., a high-voltage and utility contractor based in Randolph, Maine, had to face several years ago.

“Quite frankly, we hit rock bottom,” says General Manager Brad Stout, who has been with Coutts Bros. for nine years. “Safety wasn’t a primary focus, and we were trending toward a serious incident occurring, so we brought Jared Rossignol in as safety director to help guide us back on track. Now I’m confident in saying we’re at the forefront of safety.”

Indeed, Coutts Bros. was honored with a Merit level ABC safety award in March for its safety processes and performance. The family-owned business, which has about 45 employees, has utilized ABC’s Safety Training and Evaluation Process (STEP) to reboot its safety program and evaluate itself annually to determine goals for the coming year.

“If you don’t know where to start in terms of improving your business’s safety, I tell everyone the STEP application is the best; it reveals where you are and where you want to go with specific bullet points you can prioritize,” Stout says. “It’s all about the attitudes of executives and managers.”

Working around energized power lines, there’s virtually no room for mistakes. As such, Coutts Bros. has committed to only employing people who share its safety values. Completing work quickly is no longer the top, though transitioning some existing employees to the new culture was a challenge.

“We had to hold firm,” Stout says. “Management made a commitment to running the company this way. The majority of employees made that same commitment. For those that didn’t, we turned over almost one-third of staff in the first few months. The people who are committed stayed on board, and now we have a great safety program.”

The company’s hiring process is much more in-depth as well, including a drug screen and pre-employment physical during which prospective employees have to demonstrate some of the movements they’ll be doing on the job. Coutts Bros. also relies on referrals as its main source of hiring and assigns mentors to new employees so they have someone they can trust on the job to answer questions during their 90-day probationary period.

“The first thing we did after deciding to make a culture change was sit down with existing employees, and the first thing they asked for was a drug-free workplace, so we implemented that as quickly as we could,” Stout says. “People appreciate who they are working with so much more now.”

Hiring veterans has proven to be a successful strategy as well. They are great team members who know how to comply with standard operating procedures, and they ask good questions that lead to safety program refinements.

“The younger employees express how much better the work environment is for them,” Rossignol says. “They feel like they have a voice on a daily basis, and everyone gets a safety card that gives them the ability to stop work.”

Going forward, Coutts Bros. is focusing on keeping up with field inspections and sticking to the basics to prevent a safety slip-up. As Stout puts it, “figuring out how to maintain success is just as much work as implementing a new program.”

To that end, Coutts Bros. employs two full-time safety personnel, dedicates a full day for safety training every quarter and requires a minimum of 12 safety observation reports from senior management every month. Additionally, Rossignol asks employees if there’s anything they need to help make a job safer at the company-wide weekly safety meeting. If they request a piece of PPE, he usually doesn’t even ask why. If they think they need it, management is willing to provide the resources.

“It’s a family-oriented atmosphere,” Rossignol says. “Everyone feels very fortunate where we are and where we’re heading, especially considering where we were.”

That spirit has spilled over into business development. According to Stout, holding people accountable for working safely has directly impacted the company’s efficiency, which has directly impacted its bottom line.

“We are better able to negotiate with clients instead of bidding on jobs because of our safety record and our specialty work,” he says. “From a business standpoint, the monetary investment has been minimal compared to what we get back.”


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