Nation's Safest Contractors Encourage Employees to Speak Up on the Jobsite

Nobody wants a jobsite incident to occur, but how a contractor responds to a worst case scenario is part of what separates it on the safety spectrum. 

Fisher Contracting Company, Midland, Mich., which performs civil infrastructure projects across Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee, can attest. On a job last year, a scaffold wall bracket failed, causing an employee to fall to a lower level and suffer rib injuries. Upon review, Fisher Contracting determined the relatively new employee didn’t feel comfortable mentioning he was unsatisfied with the condition of the rented scaffold equipment.

In response, company president J.W. Fisher organized a four-hour class titled “Leadership at All Levels” to emphasize an employee’s duty to speak up if he or she has a safety concern. Additionally, Fisher Contracting developed a procedure for objectively inspecting rental equipment and materials. Since then, no other incidents have occurred as a result of material defects or lack of employee communication.

In another example that illustrates the benefits of empowering employees to speak up, one worker questioned the integrity of his new hardhat during a personal PPE inspection. Fisher Contracting followed up with a detailed inspection of all company hardhats and found the same defect in 75 hardhats that had not yet been issued. They were immediately returned to the manufacturer, which then found there was a problem with an entire batch of the product.

In short, quality safety programs must facilitate employee feedback and problem-solving, be easily accessible and communicated, and extend to all project partners onsite. Executives must set the expectation of zero incidents—period. 

“We believe safety is a shared vision of being accident-free, which starts at the top with our leadership,” says Erick Forshee, Fisher Companies’ environmental health and safety director. “Our company purpose and values provide the foundation for continuous improvement in safety, and our shared leadership brings this goal to life.” 

Fisher Contracting employees—from supervisors to foremen and craft professionals—also play a crucial role by participating in daily safety tailgates and monthly management team meetings, observing colleagues, completing digital audits via the SiteDocs iPad app, and enhancing the company’s Safe Plan of Action tool and Continuous Hazard Analysis Task Card. When all is said and done, Fisher Contracting’s roughly 115 employees “take safety home with them every day.” In turn, although 80 percent of the company’s work is performed in hazardous environments, the firm’s TRIR and DART rate is zero, and its EMR is 0.75. 

Construction firms that want to achieve these numbers—and more importantly cultivate a culture of shared responsibility for the safety of every employee, colleague, subcontractor, building occupant and passerby—would do well to model the programs and attitudes of firms, including Fisher Contracting, that won 2016 National Safety Excellence Awards from Associated Builders and Contractors. Read on for more real-world examples from two of the 44 companies recognized for their exceptional safety track record and rigorous commitment to training and education.

Employee Engagement Backed by Approachable Leadership 

With projects located across the country, Classic Industrial Services, Baton Rouge, La., is accustomed to transferring its 460 employees from state to state as manpower needs fluctuate. Thanks to a strong safety culture, the industrial insulation, refractory, roofing, siding and scaffolding contractor also is accustomed to seeing zeroes for its TRIR and DART rate—not to mention an EMR of 0.59.

“Many companies similar to us go to the same jobsites for years, but the majority of our work happens in numerous plants. Workers often go to different environments several times per year, forcing them to interact with new people and new hazards,” says Classic Industrial Services President Mike Landes. “We account for that by having our programs centered on employee engagement, rather than just jobsite-specific risk mitigation.”

Every day, on every job, crews go through stretches, discuss hazards and complete the firm’s morning checklist. Workers literally fill out a card that checks off whether they have the right tools, their PPE is in good shape, they have performed a safety task assessment, etc.

“They have to hand this card to their supervisor. It’s a physical manifestation of saying ‘I’m ready to go to work,’” Landes says. “This daily act keeps workers engaged.”

With such a transient (and growing) workforce, the leadership of foremen and superintendents is vital. Classic Industrial Services’ corporate safety manager makes sure frontline field leaders are thoroughly onboarded and undergo regular training on the company’s safety expectations. Onsite, supervisors require employees to actively participate in pre-task planning so they are used to identifying hazards and communicating corrections throughout the day. Everyone has stop-work authority.

On one combined cycle power plant project, Classic Industrial Services was working adjacent to another contractor whose disorganized extension cords presented a tripping hazard. The crew stopped working, contacted the other contractor’s leader and got them to fix the situation.

This example ties into Classic Industrial Services’ new “00 Safety Program”—named for the goal of zero incidents and injuries—which encourages employees to identify the root cause of issues and propose corrective actions for the future. Importantly, workers are trained to communicate potential problems or near-misses positively rather than as reprimands. It’s as simple as calling something a “good catch” and authorizing field workers to suggest solutions that might be more effective than what the manager had in mind. 

This is especially important considering Classic Industrial Services’ work inside power plants is often large scale and time sensitive. Typically, a crew outside the boiler passes materials to a crew inside responsible for connecting all the scaffolding. Although everyone is safely tied off, the scaffolding could collapse if it’s constructed incorrectly. During a build last fall, a young superintendent stopped the work of a crew that was passing materials in a way that caused the workers inside the boiler to have to step over a lot of components. 

“Nobody had tripped yet, but there was the potential for an incident,” Landes says. “It took maybe five minutes to clear up the issue and get back to work. It’s all about identifying and reducing hazards before they become a problem.”

Materials handling is a big issue for the company. Crews typically move about 40 million pounds of scaffolding, insulation and other materials annually—from the truck on up to 150 feet above grade.

“When we’re on a job with tens of thousands of feet of insulation to put on pipes, we attempt to have just-in-time delivery so things aren’t onsite much longer than we need them, which keeps us from having to move them multiple times,” Landes says. “If you’re only moving something once or twice, close to where the work is, then the opportunities for injury are significantly reduced.”

Landes also encourages staff to embrace leadership roles, whether it’s running a crew or an entire job, or carrying materials from one spot to another the right way every time. 

“It’s great to have safety engagement at the corporate level, but on the jobsite you’re only required to have one safety professional for a certain amount of workers, so only 5 percent of people might be dedicated to safety,” he says. “When everyone takes responsibility for the work they’re doing that day, 100 percent of workers can be focused on safety.”

Landes and his management team also take jobsite visibility very seriously. They are constantly visiting projects, and safety is always the first item on the agenda regardless of whether the job has production or quality issues. By maintaining consistent messaging, workers buy into the safety culture Classic Industrial Services holds dear—that everyone leaves work in the same condition as they arrived.

Site visits also are Landes’ best bet for receiving constructive feedback on safety programs and PPE. He knows all the superintendents’ names and they all know his, opening up the comfort level for honest communication.

“It’s easy to dismiss complaints about a piece of equipment, such as safety glasses,” he admits. “But one of our jobs in New Mexico happened to have the right weather conditions mixed with some bad fly ash conditions that made the safety glasses they had unusable. They were getting fogged up in a way you probably couldn’t understand if you didn’t put them on yourself onsite.”

A Healthy Mix of Technical Knowledge and Empathy

For Environmental Holdings Group, LLC (EHG), Morrisville, N.C., which averages 300 employees annually, general and job specific safety orientation begins before anyone is allowed to step foot on one of their projects. Written and video materials are offered in English and Spanish, and completion is documented by a numeric sticker on each worker’s hardhat, as well as a laminated ID card. 

This process is particularly important given the influx of temporary workers EHG has employed during the past few years, and the fact the firm’s scope of work often requires strenuous hours on complex abatement, preservation, remediation and demolition projects. In addition to the orientation, all workers participate in toolbox talks, job hazard analyses and mentorship in order to drive home the company’s vision of 100 percent of employees working safely 100 percent of the time. 

Prioritizing temporary (and full-time) workers’ engagement in daily and weekly safety programs shows in the numbers: EHG’s EMR remains around 0.7, and its TRIR dropped from 2.9 to 1.86 and its DART rate went from 0.72 to zero. 

“We are constantly training, coaching and giving workers confidence to call out safety concerns and not fear that their jobs are in jeopardy if they do,” says Miguel Roldan, EHG’s corporate safety director. “Our safety department has developed personal relationships with many of our workers so we can get to know their strengths and weaknesses. We spend a good portion of safety tours observing work practices and potential safety violations so they can be corrected on the spot, as well as applauding workers for a job well done.”

One example of outstanding performance amid tough conditions involved removing a decommissioned electrostatic precipitator and associated ductwork from the existing E.W. Brown generating station in Kentucky. Fifty-two EHG workers split into two 12-hour continuous shifts to complete the scope of work during a 15-day plant shutdown. Not only was the area confined on all sides, requiring components to be torched in place and hand-demolished, but minimal overhead clearance also led crews to use a monorail system to move material by chain hoists and trollies. In total, more than 450 tons of material was safely removed from the work area.

If incidents do occur, EHG reviews the data to see if there’s a common root cause. Two years ago, Roldan’s team noticed their
demolition workers were suffering from too many forearm lacerations. The answer was simple—institute the mandatory use of cut-resistant sleeves and gloves—and the positive results were immediate. 

Additionally, EHG’s safety committee meets monthly to discuss incidents and develop new procedures. During the past year, policies have been added to EHG’s safety manual covering property damage accountability, fire protection, hazardous waste operations, emergency response and job competency. Currently, the committee is discussing ways in which OSHA’s new silica regulations will impact operations and safety protocols.

EHG also conducts site safety tours and line-of-sight supervision to help measure employees’ fulfillment of their safety responsibilities. Praising good behavior is a big part of the tours, and recognition also is generated via a quarterly excellence
award that personalizes the connection between executives and construction crews. 

One recent award winner, equipment operator Cameron Ohl, was described as someone who “takes great pride in maintaining efficiency, safety and awareness of what has to be done. He is conscious about the safety for all who are on the site and exemplifies the EHG ideals of working safely and communicating well with others.”

Opportunities to connect on a first-name basis are why Roldan considers it a “calling” to be a safety professional. “Technical knowledge alone will leave you woefully short in reaching your goals personally and within the company,” he says. “There has to be an empathy toward employees.” 

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