What drives your safety program?

When it comes to safety training, why you do it could have a bigger impact than you think on how you instruct your employees and ultimately, the results of your safety program.

“It’s all about attitude,” says Peter Kuchinsky II, owner of CBA Construction Safety Check, a safety consulting and training company. “It’s a mindset that can cost little or nothing at all.”

A large percentage of contractors provide safety training to their workers because someone else requires it, says Jeff Stachowiak, safety training director for Sunbelt Rentals. That someone else is usually OSHA, a general contractor or an insurance company that gives discounts for a certain amount or type of training. These contractors get the cheapest, fastest training available to fulfill requirements. “The problem with this approach is that it only addresses a little bit of the picture that would keep an accident from happening,” Stachowiak says.

These contractors are apt to pop in a 15-minute video when they find out their workers need forklift training, for example. Often they arrive at a general contractor’s site and discover their employees won’t be allowed to work until they’ve been trained in aerial lift or scaffolding safety. “They call me up when they find out they had to do training yesterday,” Stachowiak says. “I give my six-hour class, but what happens the next day or next week? Who’s enforcing that training? I’m not there anymore.”

Kuchinsky says the do-it-because-OSHA-requires-it contractors know what the rules are and what inspectors look for, and can avoid frequently cited violations most of the time. They are more fearful of fines than worried about accidents. These firms usually enforce safety policies through audits done by others rather than through regular inspections by supervisors or foremen. Kuchinsky says an even worse group of contractors has its safety rules collected in a big binder gathering dust – nobody knows where it is or what the rules are.

Another motivation for safety training is an accident that leads to litigation and/or having to face the family members of someone killed on your jobsite. While this can certainly make you a believer in adequate training for the future, it’s too late for the unfortunate worker. “Obviously, you want to know this stuff beforehand. Believe me, you don’t want to be in this position,” Stachowiak says.

The third reason for safety training – doing it because you think you have a moral obligation to do everything you can to make sure your employees go home safely at the end of each day – is the ideal.

Getting your message out
Of course, even if you have a safety program in place for the right reasons, it does you little good if your employees don’t know what those reasons are and don’t share your attitude toward safety. You might provide safety training because you don’t want your employees to be injured or killed, but the supervisor below you may be doing it simply because you require him to.

To test how well your message is getting out, go to a front-line worker and ask why that person thinks he or she is getting safety training. If the answer is, “because my boss requires it” or “because you require it,” the right message isn’t getting through. Find out how the message came down and realign it. Another tactic for testing the strength of your communication about safety is to ask a worker what his or her last safety meeting was about, says Vince Hundley, owner of Safety Management and Related Training of El Cajon, California, a company that manages contractors’ safety programs on an hourly basis. If the employee can’t answer, you know safety is not getting enough emphasis or attention.

Linwood Smith, vice president of risk management for T. A. Loving, Goldsboro, North Carolina, a general building, utility and bridge/heavy contractor, says his company regularly surveys employees, asking them what they think of the safety program. The company then gives the confidential surveys to a third party that evaluates them and tells T. A. Loving what it needs to work on. “It gets down to the perception of the employees,” Smith says. “If the employees don’t think you have a good program, if they don’t understand it, you need to change it.”

Stachowiak says you need to tell your employees directly and openly why safety is important to you. “You have to say on a regular basis – daily – ‘I don’t want anyone getting hurt or killed working for me,'” he says. Tell your employees you know training can be a pain sometimes, but you can’t do the job without it. And when you take a day out for training, tell your workers before the class begins the reason you’re doing this is because you don’t want an accident at your company. Encourage them to ask questions and bring up problems.

How motivation affects the safety program
In a company where safety training is done for the right reasons, everyone plays an active role. “The first ingredient of our safety program is empowering all employees to shut down a situation they think is unsafe,” Smith says. “I just think it’s the morally right thing to do.”

To shut down an unsafe project, workers tell a supervisor they’ve stopped working on it and why. The supervisor evaluates the project and makes necessary changes. If a worker and supervisor disagree about whether a situation is safe, they take their viewpoints further up the management chain.

Remember what you and your management team (if you have one) do in relation to safety matters as much or more than what you say. “If workers see management emphasizing the importance of safety, they’re interested in it,” says Justin Crandol, senior director of safety and health services for the Associated General Contractors of America.

Owners and managers should go to training before other employees. Many times, owners send a foreman in their place, Kuchinsky says. “Guys will say, ‘Man, I wish my boss were here,'” he says, because they can’t relay to them what is required. Problems arise, for example, when an owner doesn’t think about bidding shoring and/or shielding into an excavation job. This creates a conflict for the foreman, who is most likely responsible for bringing the job in on time and on budget in addition to his safety duties. Kuchinsky says the most successful contractors avoid situations like this by putting safety on the same par as schedule, budget and quality.

When you are at the jobsite, wear a hardhat, boots and all the personal protective equipment your workers are required to wear. And follow all the safety rules that apply to the site.
If you see workers doing something right, such as a whole crew wearing their safety goggles, buy them coffee as a reward. “It’s the little things that motivate workers,” Kuchinsky says. “Everybody thinks safety has to be perfect. If you’re always looking for errors, you’re going to find them. It’s like eating an elephant. You have to do it one bite at a time.”

The context for the majority of safety messages most construction workers hear is along the lines of “John wasn’t wearing his goggles and he got written up.” This creates a negative image for the safety program as a whole.

“A lot of times people just like to write people up,” Crandol says. “You should write up good things, too.” Then bring these good things to the next safety meeting. If you saw someone maintaining three points of contact while using a ladder, for instance, point it out. You’ll make that person feel good about safety and encourage others to follow the rules.

Instead of disciplining workers, Kuchinsky advises contractors to coach and correct. If you see a group of workers not wearing their hardhats, for instance, ask them why they don’t wear them. Chances are, it’s because they’re uncomfortable. Most hardhats cost about the same, so let your employees pick out the next ones you buy. “Make them part of the process,” Kuchinsky says.

Talk to your workers about what they need on the jobsite. Ask them what they are most afraid of and how you can fix it. Kuchinsky says a worker once told him he was afraid of something falling on his head. Kuchinsky went to the man’s supervisor and asked if the crew could work on the other side of the building while others were working overhead. The supervisor said sure – the choice to start on the side of the building where the workers currently were had been a random one.

Even if your company is small, setting up a safety committee is a good idea. In small companies everyone might be on the committee. Have each person take turns giving a safety talk at weekly meetings.

Structural Group’s Pullman Power division spent four days training a crew for this slipform chimney project. The job was finished a week early, however, due to the time spent training.

The companies with the best safety programs don’t use canned safety meetings, Hundley says. Have your safety committee develop meetings from going over the information recorded from the previous week’s jobsite inspections and any recent accidents or near misses. “This keeps the focus on where the company is at and makes the training specific,” Hundley says. At a company where the welfare of employees is not the prime motivation for meeting safety requirements, a foreman is more likely to hand workers a piece of paper with an arbitrary safety lesson on it and say, “Here’s your safety meeting – sign it,” he continues.

Terry Daniel, training director for Structural Group, a Hanover, Maryland-based company that specializes in structural repair, chimney and silo building and bridge component installation says safety training occurs on a daily basis at the company’s jobsites and all employees play a role in the leadership and development of new training programs. One example of daily training is what the company calls the Jobsite Safety Analysis. The JSA takes place onsite before a task begins and involves front-line employees identifying the potential hazards involved with the project. The crew then develops solutions in response to those hazards. “By taking the time to complete the JSA at the beginning of the task, the chances for injury are dramatically lessened and all team members are aware of the hazards,” Daniel says.

During a recent $10 million slipform chimney construction project, Daniel says Structural’s Pullman Power group spent four days training a crew of 58 employees – a total of 1,064 man-hours. But the job was completed a week ahead of schedule, he says, because of the training sessions, which focused on the processes, procedures and safety necessary to make the project successful.

The advantages
The biggest advantage of a safety program that results from truly valuing the lives of your workers is fewer accidents. Aside from that, however, contractors with good safety programs usually have a low turnover rate. That’s unusual in construction, where people tend to jump around, leaving one employer for a slight increase in hourly wage. Employees will like working for you and will be more likely to stay if they know you are committed to keeping them safe, Stachowiak says.

Smith says T. A. Loving instituted a zero-accident policy seven or eight years ago and has seen a marked decline in turnover.

Fewer accidents also will lower your insurance rates. At one company Hundley worked for, incidents were cut from 24 to six in one year, leading to a 30 percent reduction in premiums. The company saved $230,000.

Safety training is about repetition
Keep in mind that one careless action by you or one of your supervisors can ruin your safety program. If a supervisor sees an unsafe situation and lets it go on, it destroys your safety program, Smith says. Even worse, if an employee brings a situation he or she recognizes from training as being unsafe to the attention of a supervisor and the supervisor says do it anyway because we’re in a hurry, you’ve crossed out your safety training and changed that worker’s ideas about what’s acceptable in the future or when a supervisor isn’t immediately accessible. “Your safety program is only as good as what it is when no one from upper management is around,” Smith says.

When you do safety training for the right reasons, your methods, procedures and priorities are always evolving. T. A. Loving has used focus groups to determine the weaknesses in its safety program. Smith asked each person to come up with one thing the company could improve in relation to safety. He wrote those things on a board and then gave each person four sticky notes labeled one through four. Everyone used the notes to identify which items were the most important. The company then assigned groups to work on fixing the top four problems. Smith plans to repeat the exercise every two or three years. “Every so often you need to ask your employees what you’re doing right and what you’re not,” he says. “Safety is not just management driven, it needs to come from employees.”

Even if you have the best intentions, no safety program is ever going to be perfect. Because you are working with fallible human beings, there will always be problems. The best you can do is to keep working at them. “Safety training is a repetitive thing – you have to keep training, observing, talking and retraining,” Smith says. “You can never relax. All it takes is one slip up and you could have a major accident.”

Sidebar: What’s the motivation behind your safety policy?
Answering these questions, provided by Peter Kuchinsky II, of CBA Construction Safety Check, can help you examine your safety training motivation and gauge how well you are incorporating safety into the everyday functions of your company.

  1. When was the last time you read your company’s safety program? Do you agree with everything in it?
  2. Do you provide all the equipment the safety program says the company will?
  3. Is safety mentioned in your mission statement? If so, do you follow the mission statement?
  4. Do you attend your company’s safety meetings? Do you give the meeting once or twice a year?
  5. Do you budget for safety when you bid a job?
  6. Do you participate in the safety training your employees are required to attend?
  7. Do you wear the same safety equipment as your workers when you visit the jobsite?
  8. Are you quick to discipline or do you coach and correct?
  9. Do your employees view the safety program as a positive factor or does everyone moan when it’s brought up?
  10. Do you know the most dangerous hazard your workers are exposed to on a daily basis – what could hurt them or cause them not to go home?
  11. Have you done everything you can to protect your employees from hazards?

Sidebar: The stages of safety organization
4) BIG SAFETY BINDER: The rules are written somewhere but nobody knows where they are or what they say.

3) OSHA COMPLIANT: You know the rules and requirements and what the inspectors look for most of the time, and you attempt to comply as long as it does not effect production or cost money. You know how to avoid frequently citied violations, most of the time, if the superintendent/foremen has time to inspect the job site often enough.

2) INSPECTION, TRAINING & PREVENTION: Work is looked at prior to starting. Proper equipment is provided and the workplace and workers are frequently checked by foremen to ensure that safe work practices are being followed. Workers follow safety rules due to enforcement and consulting when unsafe conditions are observed by supervisors/foremen.

1) ACTIVE WORKER PARTICIPATION: Safety is the first item of any work task. Workers seek out safety equipment and training. Workers watch out for each other. Equipment and tools are checked before use and maintained as part of the daily practice. No work task is attempted unless it can be accomplished safely. Workers know the safety rules and follow them because they believe it is the right thing to do.

— Information provided by CBA Construction Safety Check