Is Safety Just A Spoken Word?

By Ron Hinds | September 28, 2010

What does the word "safety" mean? The dictionary defines it, as it relates to the construction industry, as "the state of being safe." Helpful. Maybe we should look at it another way. As a worker or an employer, unsafe equates to having an accident, which can lead to injuries, delays and costly expenditures. An accident, of course, can be an "unexpected and undesirable event" or "something that occurs unexpectedly or unintentionally." Actually, quite often an accident is neither unexpected nor unintentional. It is the result of bad habits or procedures. So, while few if any set out to cause an accident, or be the victim of one, someone is ultimately responsible.

Can you say you or your company make a conscious effort to create a safe work environment? Of course, you say. But what if someone asked you, "What is the most important aspect of your company?" Would you say safety or profitability? Profit may be part of the life blood of a company but without a great, not just good, safety record you may never achieve what it takes to keep a company up and running. One incident can bankrupt even the largest of companies.

I know from my experience as a masonry contractor with 50 or 60 employees that safety takes the back seat when it comes to getting the project done. I had my share of so called accidents or, as I like to call them, incidents. I always blamed them on the employee because he was not paying attention or did something stupid. I never blamed myself because I did not have a safety program nor offered proper training to my employees. I was always trying to get the project done so we could move to another project. The contractor always wanted us to be there two weeks earlier than scheduled. When we were, they would want more bricklayers this week and want us to lay them off next week. That was back in the 60s and 70s. Not much has changed in 40 years has it?

Safety is truly the life blood of your company. I can drive by a job site and tell what kind of safety program is in place. I have traveled extensively over the years, working with the construction industry, and what I see on some sites would make an OSHA inspector have a heart attack. You know it doesn't make any difference in the size of the project or what part of the country the project is in. There is always room for improving safety.

I can tell you it is getting better because some of the companies are recognizing that they can't let people ignore safety regulations. It is the responsibility of the controlling contractor to make sure that all subcontractors and all employees abide by federal regulations and company safety policies. This is a good thing. But there are still a lot of large and small construction companies that are crossing their fingers and holding their breath; hoping that nothing will happen that will jeopardize the speed of getting the job done or the expected profits. I am so tuned in on the aspect of safety on projects that I carry a camera and when I see something that could jeopardize someone's life, I take a picture to use in one of my classes. I took a picture of one project and when I viewed it later, I discovered five OSHA regulations violations in the background.

I took a picture of a dump truck transporting a trailered backhoe traveling at highway speeds with the backhoe tied down with one porch-swing chain. What was the driver thinking? I imagine, he was not thinking of his safety or anyone else's. The sad reality of this situation is that it is not uncommon.

When I contact a company about safety and offer to do safety training, the answer is pretty much the same. They acknowledge the need, but begrudge the time. Tomorrow is always the best time to do training. Unfortunately, it's also the best time for an accident to occur. So the training doesn't get done until something happens. By then, panic has set in. Most of the calls for training I get are in crisis mode. The controlling contractor won't let them run the equipment until their employees are equipment certified or the site is in compliance with federal or company regulations.

I often wonder how many contractors never bid a project because they don't want to deal with the safety requirements. I also wonder about the companies that have their own safety directors and if they have problems getting their employees trained. Of course, there are safety companies that have programs where new hires get all the training done in a brief seminar. Let the buyer beware! You can not pencil in safety training. Unless you develop a culture of safety, any amount of education will fade.

If the safety company is not going by the federal regulation and state or company regulations then the training is worthless. Be aware of companies that are doing training for a cheap price and do not nor can not show proper credentials.

Safety programs take time. They need to be backed up by a company philosophy that puts safety first, always. Training needs to be done by an accredited organization. It must be thorough, documented and in line with federal, state, county, and city regulations. If not, you may have a liability problem, or perhaps have trouble with insurance or bonding.

Most companies that are required to have insurance or bonds will need to be able to produce a company safety handbook and company safety program. This is sometimes a problem with smaller companies, or ones that are new or growing very fast. These contractors could benefit from companies that understand both the industry and safety requirements. It may not be enough to simply provide a company with some handbooks. Some situations require individually designed programs and training. In fact, some contractors may need to have a have job-specific safety program created and managed for them, especially tailored to specifications determined by the general contractor or owner.

While no company can totally prevent someone from violating safety rules, a commitment to improving safety through procedures and training can certainly reduce the risk substantially. A goal of zero accidents may seem unreasonable, but the determination to maintain a safe working environment goes a long way toward that benchmark. Besides, one accident is too many if it happens to you, or on your site.

The key is training and awareness. Often, insurance companies will become actively involved in the insured company's safety program, especially when there are an excessive amount of claims. The insurance company may not do the training required, but they will likely have some suggestions. If not, there are some things to look for in a safety consultant. Make sure it is insured. If your company is involved in litigation you want the company that provided the training to be insured also. Sometimes, companies use in-house trainers, so that all of the liability responsibility rests within the company. If they are about to lose their coverage, however, they may need to shop outside their business.

Another thing to consider is enforcement. When you put up a safety sign on your work site, think about how you are going to enforce the message. If you have a safety program that's not working, it may not be the program, but lack of compliance. Do you use the "stick" or the "carrot?" You can try penalties for violations, such as time off without pay, or reward employees for adhering to the safety policy. Sharing the money savings of a clean accident record with workers often is a good way to build morale and create a safer work site. Be sure that safety rules are understandable and clearly displayed.

The first ones who need to commit to safety are the ones who will be responsible for the safety of others. There are companies where the supervisors are the biggest violators. All leaders need to attend training sessions and participate with the other employees. Ideally, managers and crew chiefs should set the standard for safety. They should be certified, if applicable, especially since there are certain regulations specific to supervisors.

It is vital that owners and top management demonstrate their commitment to safety. If they can't attend the training, they should try to address the attendees, stressing the importance of the program. That tells the workers that they are not just interested in profits, but in the safe completion of a project and the welfare of their employees.

Some safety training companies offer additional services, like on-site inspections and audits. That places the responsibility for the success of your safety program on an off-site company. If you contract for these types of services, be sure to stipulate the details that best suit you, like the number and duration of site visits, how they will communicate the results, who will ensure the correction of safety violations, etc. Of course, there are programs where OSHA will inspect your site at no risk to you.

If you do have an accident, or violate a government issued regulation, your safety company should be prepared to work with you to correct the problem and minimize the damage. They should even be prepared to appear with you in court. The may even teach you how to handle an OSHA inspection and make sure you know your rights.

Of course, no amount of training can ensure that you will never have an accident. So make sure you know how to deal with an incident once it happens. Make sure you can perform a Root Cause Analyst. It should provide, in detail, the reasons for the incident and what corrections are called for so that the incident will not be repeated. Have someone in your company be responsible for your safety program and maintain records of all accidents, employee training and certifications. Keep these records current and provide additional training when necessary. If someone has an incident or near miss make sure they are re-trained and it is documented. Of course, there should be first aid and access to additional medical treatment.

The point is, safety is not just a word, it is a way of life — perhaps your life. Don't be the person that had to say, "I could have saved a life that day but I chose to look the other way." (Don Merrill)

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"Click It!" For Safety

There are many associations, organizations and companies that are working to increase safety on job sites around the country, and the world. One such effort comes from Aerial Work Platform Training (AWPT) in North America. They are working to save lives by encouraging those working off the ground to wear a full body harness with a short lanyard attached to a suitable anchor point. That is the message of a new safety campaign named "Click It!" It is similar to successful promotional passenger car seatbelt programs. The campaign is approved by the Scaffold Industry Association (SIA).

The initiative came from companies frustrated with the fact that people are dying in boom type lifts because they are not wearing a harness that would keep them from being thrown or catapulted from the platform. To remind and encourage people to wear a harness, AWPT had that advice printed on stickers that can be placed on the boom lift where they can be seen by all occupants mounting the platform. In addition, AWPT has made available a document titled "Technical Guidance Note AWPT H1" that provides information on their recommendation for the proper use of harnesses and lanyards on different types of aerial platforms.

Called "Clunk Click!" in the United Kingdom where it was first introduced, the campaign is being promoted worldwide by the International Powered Access Federation (IPAF), AWPT's parent organization. To date, thousands of stickers have been printed and distributed throughout the United Kingdom and the program is spreading rapidly. There are already international versions of the program: German "Click Clack!", Italian "Clic Clac!", French "Un petit Clic!", and other versions in Dutch and Spanish.

"In countries where the program has already been introduced, major rental companies and others took the initiative to promote the program because unnecessary fatal accidents were happening when occupants were catapulted out of boom platforms because they were not wearing harnesses," said IPAF managing director Tim Whiteman. "These simple stickers can save lives." Skyjack, a major aerial work platform manufacturer, has committed to placing the "Click It!" stickers on all boom lifts that leave their factory and major rental companies are considering displaying this vital message in their rental fleet.

Those interested in obtaining stickers or the "AWPT H1" document should visit Small quantities of stickers are available free of charge and larger quantities or custom-printed versions can be ordered for a nominal price. Downloadable artwork is also available online for printing your own stickers.