Safety Rewards

By G. C. Skipper, Contributing Editor | September 28, 2010
Mike Monnot credits Zachry's successful safety program to management commitment and employee training.

Tell Mike Monnot, CEM, that safety impairs productivity and he'll prove you wrong. "In fact," he says, "safety improves productivity."

He should know. As equipment director for Zachry Construction Corp., a general contractor in San Antonio, Monnot manages a 3,600-piece equipment fleet and 110 vehicles. He says he has always focused on safety when it comes to employees and work environment, and that emphasis reaches across the company's five divisions, including an international division that handles major projects in China, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Cambodia.

"Safety is always an issue," Monnot says. "Any time we can improve the working environment for employees, we reduce total costs and increase productivity. Our focus has always been on taking care of our employees and making sure they go home with all their body parts at the end of the day."

Safety has to be driven from the top down until it is deeply embedded in the culture of the company, says Monnot. To accomplish this requires the management commitment and employee training.

Monnot's field commander, so to speak, is Richard Gibson, site safety support manager for the company's equipment yards in San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. He is also at the forefront of the company's training programs.

Among the topics covered in Zachry's training sessions are hand and eye safety, proper use of equipment, rigging safety, working with loads, hazardous-material training, and how to work safely in confined spaces, Gibson says.

"We cover the subjects thoroughly once a year and hold refresher courses annually," he says. "Training courses range in length from two hours to two weeks, depending on the subject matter."

One Zachry plan involves the advanced CCAA (Crane Certification Association of America) overhead crane certification program, which has several phases. In addition to literature and other printed materials, the company uses equipment so employees can show their proficiency before they receive certification. Monnot says training is conducted by both internal personnel and outside sources.

Zachry purchased equipment simulators in mid-2006, says Gibson. As one of the few — if not the only — construction companies in the country to invest in such technology, Zachry is now able to either train new operators or check the proficiency on a machine of experienced operators. The company has simulators for tower cranes, mobile cranes and backhoes. "We do this prior to putting an operator in the seat of one of these machines," says Gibson.

Monnot says he would have invested in simulators before now had the technology been available. "Simulators let us cross train, qualify and certify our equipment operators without ever having to put them in the seat," he says. "Eventually, you have to put them on the machine. The trouble is, most construction equipment today doesn't have room enough for the instructor to ride along."

The investment in such technology wasn't all that expensive, Monnot says. "The hardware costs about $10,000 and software runs about $3,000," he says. "Simulators have been around a long time, particularly in the aviation industry, but they've always been huge, cumbersome and expensive. These are portable and affordable."

Currently, Monnot has three simulators, but when more software becomes available this year and in 2008, he will buy more to train people, and even prequalify job applicants, on crawler tractors, wheel loaders, "and every piece of equipment that we own."

Monnot says he will end up with enough simulators to also train equipment operators overseas — and implementing safety there has its own challenges. "It's the difference in language and culture," he says. "We rely primarily on outside sources and translators to do our training internationally."

Zachry entered the global market in the late 1990s when the United States discovered that its Russian embassy had been bugged. Zachry razed and rebuilt the U.S. embassy there, Monnot says. Since 9/11, Zachry's overseas projects have involved primarily constructing U.S. embassies.

Most countries don't focus on safety as much as the United States, Monnot says. "They work with a rock and a stick versus the technology and tooling that we use," he says. "It's quite a challenge to get them to move from what they use in typical day-to-day work to the kind of tooling and techniques we want them to use."

In China, for instance, there are no water trucks on construction sites, Monnot says. "They put a 55-gallon drum in the back of a cart and drag it around by hand or with an animal," he says. "They have a very primitive spray bar for dust control. When we got there, here we came with a water truck that can be driven around the yard carrying a powered pump that holds 2,000 gallons of water. It's quite a dramatic change."

As for the impact that Monnot's emphasis on safety has had on the company, consider this: He actually asked OSHA to critique his safety operation and provide suggestions on how it could be improved.

The end result is clearly measured in the stats. In 2001, the equipment yard in San Antonio had a rate of 11 "recordables" (employee injuries) and two incidents of lost time. "That is higher than we were willing to accept," says Gibson.

Through the process of preparing for OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) in 2002, the company reduced those numbers to six recorded injuries and one lost time. That number dropped again in 2003 to five recorded injuries and one lost time. OSHA awarded VPP Star Status to Zachry in 2004, which meant the company injury rate was 50 percent below the national average as compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"We were the first construction group in the nation to have a VPP equipment yard," says Gibson.

But the awards didn't stop there. In 2005, Zachry achieved Super Star status (75 percent below the national average); in 2006, it achieved a ranking of Star Among Stars (90 percent below national average.); and this month, says Gibson, "We will be awarded the Star of Excellence due to the fact that we have had no employee injuries and no lost time this year."

Although Monnot's safety emphasis is based on concern for employees, he says there are financial benefits as well. "By performing your work safely, you reduce your insurance rates and reduce medical claims," he says. "But the most important thing is that you create a safe working environment for employees. You have to show them that you are concerned about their well being and then demonstrate it.

"Our employees," he says, "now think safety more than they ever did before. It's a win for the company and a win for the employee alike."

Mike Monnot, CEM, has such a strong emphasis on safety that he has asked OSHA to critique his safety operation and provide suggestions on how it could be improved.