Safety: More Than a Priority

Owners Play An Important Role

Contributors:
Owners – Paul Benassi, Children’s Hospitals & Clinics; Jody Link, Fairview Northland Regional Health; David Ozolins, University of Iowa

“Safety needs to go from being a priority to being a value. Priorities change, but values don’t.” These remarks by John Henshaw, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, send a strong message that both owners and construction firms should embrace. The good news is the fatality rate from accidents is dropping and safety trends have improved significantly over the past decade. The bad news is the construction industry, as a whole, still has a long way to go. There are still more workers killed in the construction industry than in any other major industrial sector. Every day 1,300 construction workers go home injured or ill, and three don’t go home at all. Construction is 7 percent of the U.S. workforce but represents 20 percent of the fatalities. 1

In addition to protecting lives, safe construction sites have enormous implications for owners. A serious injury can have a devastating impact on their organization, their bottom line and their public image. Even if they are not at fault, even when there are only minor injuries, accidents can consume an owner’s precious time and money and may even lead to schedule delays. Given the risks and consequences, how can owners choose a construction partner who holds safety as a strong value within their organization? What role can owners play to make safety more than just another priority once the construction firm is on board? This article summarizes some insights and perspectives from owners and construction safety experts.

Selecting a Safe Construction Partner

Owners who value safety vigilantly incorporate it into their selection process when hiring a construction firm. Both objective and subjective information is important. Here are six things to consider:

1. Cover the Basics — OSHA identifies these elements as being essential to a contractor’s safety program – incorporate these into your selection process:

  • Management commitment
  • Employee involvement
  • Worksite analysis
  • Hazard prevention and control
  • Safety training

2. Ask Astute Interview Questions — Every contractor will say that safety is important, but as Jody Link, Vice President of Ancillary and Support Services at Fairview Northland Regional Health says, “The interview is our opportunity to see how they ‘planfully’ approach it.” Here are some suggested questions:

  • How do you approach safety?
  • How often will your safety director be on site?
  • How is safety promoted and reinforced within your company? What is the president’s role?
  • Give me an example of how you (Superintendent) lead by example in promoting safety.
  • What are your plans, processes and policies for communicating safety information to all parties who come into contact with the site during a project (owner, employees, department heads, public, etc.)?
  • What are the unique construction safety needs of my project and how will you address these?

3. Evaluate the Firm’s “Safety Culture” — Although every construction firm has some focus   on safety in order to comply with state laws and OSHA standards, not all construction companies are created equal. As David Ozolins, Loss Prevention Engineer in the Department of Risk Management at the University of Iowa says, “A strong commitment to safety comes from the top down in a company. If the president and top people don’t care, it shows up very rapidly in the ranks.” If safety is an important “value” within a company, a safety “culture” is created that goes beyond mere compliance to OSHA. For example, at Knutson, safety is a central and vital part of the company culture. This is evident by strong senior management involvement and tight integration of safety into all aspects of Knutson’s operations, both office and field, namely:

  • The President/CEO attends bi-annual corporate Safety Meetings and delivers a strong message to reinforce the corporate safety goal – “To send each worker home every night.”
  • A Superintendent Safety Award Program, including cash incentives, has been established. Awards are presented in front of all employees at each company-wide Annual Meeting.
  • Safety performance is the first topic on the agenda at each Quarterly Operations Meeting.
  • Safety is on the agenda of every weekly meeting in the office and at each job site, including both employees and subcontractors.
  • All employees at the foreman level and above attend a formal, 10-hour OSHA training course.
  • Safety is tracked monthly for each superintendent and reported on at each monthly Project Team Meeting as a key indicator of job performance.
  • Three full-time safety professionals are dedicated 100% to safety performance.
  • The Safety Director provides a weekly report to the owner and general managers reviewing the safety activity and schedule for the upcoming week.
  • A Safety column in the employee newsletter highlights accomplishments and reinforces essential safety information.

4. Understand EMR (Experience Modification Rating) — EMR is an insurance industry statistic that compares a firm’s actual workers compensation losses to an industry norm. The EMR is widely used as the gold standard for determining the effectiveness of a company’s safety program. Although the EMR is a valuable component in assessing a company, it is not an end-all. When considering the EMR, owners should take into account the type of company. For example, a pure construction management firm will typically have a lower EMR than a contractor that self-performs work using their own employees because a construction management firm does not have the higher risk field exposure included in their calculation. In addition, a couple mid-to-large size claims may skew the EMR, even when a company historically has a strong safety track record. When assessing an organization, look at EMR trends over a minimum of three years and don’t let one off-year affect your decision if the overall trends are positive.

5. Do a Chemistry Check — The right “chemistry” between an owner and their project’s superintendent and project manager is often the biggest success factor for a safe project. Jody Link stresses the importance of having the right comfort level with the people an owner will have day-to-day contact with. “I needed to feel comfortable that I could call the project manager or superintendent at any time to ask very direct questions and problem-solve with them. During a walk-around of the site during our interview process, I was able to get a good read on Jim Hoff and Dave Carr’s (Knutson Supt. & Sr. PM) communication styles and personalities – this was really important in my decision.”

6. Make Sure They Understand Your Business — Every industry has different safety construction requirements. Ensuring safety in an operating hospital, an active school campus or a chemical facility is much different than what is required for an office building or warehouse. In the healthcare industry, for example, Knutson has developed a Medical Facilities Construction Manual that outlines our procedures for following Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO)’s Interim Life Safety Measures, and conducting an Infection Control Risk Assessment. They work with the hospital to form a risk assessment team to examine what impact a project could have on air and water quality, infection control, utilities, noise, vibration and emergency procedures. All these issues are evaluated in relation to the proximity of patients and medical procedures that will be underway during construction. Clearly, healthcare construction requires special expertise. Paul Benassi, Director of Facilities at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics in St. Paul, Minnesota sums it up this way, “When it comes to construction in a medical environment, patient and staff needs are as important for contractors to understand as all the technical aspects.”

 

Owner’s Role in Improving Safety

An owner’s influence on construction safety only begins with the selection process. Owner involvement and participation in promoting safety sends a strong message to the construction team that will further heighten safety awareness and performance.

A study by the Construction Industry Institute shows that improved safety performances are possible through the use of the following six practices by owners:

  1. Careful selection of safe contractors
  2. Contractual safety requirements
  3. Proactive involvement in the safety practices of projects
  4. Establishment and funding for a safety recognition program
  5. Active participation in safety training and orientation and verifying the comprehension of the training
  6. Assigning a full-time safety representative on site

Further suggestions on how owners can ensure safety include:

  • Facilitate a team approach to site logistics planning – involving department heads and employees who may be impacted by the project will prevent problems and increase ownership.
  • Keep safety on the agenda – cover safety in all owner/contractor meetings in addition to focusing on schedule and costs.
  • Participate in Foreman Meetings – communicate your expectations and safety requirements – do it repeatedly and passionately.
  • Request copies of all accident reports – expect your construction partner to share what happened, why it happened and what will be done to prevent it in the future.
  • Tour the site regularly – one of the biggest safety indicators is a site that is clean and organized. This means there has been good planning and forethought and that workers care.

In conclusion, the word “accident” implies an event both unanticipated and unavoidable. Knutson doesn’t view accidents as a product of bad luck. We believe detailed preparation, training and consistency make accidents predictable and preventable. It’s a philosophy shared by every Knutson employee. For further information about construction safety practices, feel free to contact Mike Nielsen, Safety Director at mnielsen@knutsonconstruction.com.