Something has shifted in safety attitudes and practices. It’s more than meeting Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other safety mandates. Today, safety equates to good business, influencing employee morale, business growth and attracting new workers.


In 2016’s “Building a Safety Culture: Improving Safety and Health Management in the Construction Industry,” Dodge Data & Analytics (formerly McGraw-Hill Construction) updated findings from its 2013 report. Previously, the need for a world-class safety program ranked fifth in interest by industry respondents. Today, safety ranks No. 1. The new study gathered responses from 254 general contractors, specialty contractors, design/build firms, construction managers and engineering firms.


The new report found safety practices on the rise compared to 2013. Significant findings included a 10 percent increase in respondents reporting a decrease in injuries (up to 81 percent in 2015), a 10 percent rise in the increased ability to contract new work (up to 76 percent), an 18 percent gain in the ability to retain staff (up to 64 percent), and an 8 percent advance in the ability to attract new staff (up to 46 percent).


“The most compelling good news is an increased return on investment [ROI] in safety outlays and cost savings in a short time frame,” said Donna Laquidara-Carr, industry insights and research director, Dodge Data & Analytics, Bedford, Mass. “We also noticed a relatively shortened time to put a solid safety program in place. The most striking difference since the 2013 report is the increased importance in safety for on-site workers.”


The EC’s view


Accident reduction is a clear measure of a safety program’s effectiveness, in large part based on an adherence to OSHA measures, regulations and other consensus standards such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). However, it’s not the whole story, said Wes Wheeler, director of safety for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).


“Safety is just the way to do business today,” Wheeler said. “A good safety record is considered a prerequisite from a customer’s perspective. Customers who themselves take a proactive safety role at the job site expect contractors to do the same. You’ll also be attractive to prospective workers and help retain employees.”


Aligning with the Dodge findings, Wheeler believes a top-down and bottom-up company commitment is essential for a safety culture to take hold.


“Employees need to feel free to identify issues and help to create the solutions related to safety,” he said. “Management may have an idea on what is needed, but employees are the ones familiar with the actual practices in the shop or field. When the two parties share their ideas, they can mediate acceptable ways to meet regulations and company standards.”


ECs are prioritizing job-site safety by using better protective garments and other safety gear. In the 2016 SmartMarket report, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) was the most important way to engender safety on the job site.


“Construction safety products have improved over recent years,” Wheeler said. “Retrievable devices like mechanical tripods used in tight, confined spaces are great inventions. Proximity devices, comfortable shoes, garments and other PPE make it easier for workers to don safety equipment. The price of safety equipment has come down, too, making safety compliance more affordable.”


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Wheeler said manufacturers of electrical equipment, garments and gear are making huge technological strides.


“Thirty years ago, equipment malfunctions often resulted in harm to an employee through electrical burns while destroying the equipment itself,” he said. “Today’s manufacturers have developed current-limiting fuses and electrical circuit breakers that can reduce dangerous energy levels, thus protecting workers and the equipment itself.”


Taking charge


Ninety-seven percent of Dodge study respondents find safety leadership by job-site supervisors to be vital. That sets the stage for safety-conscious ECs to make their mark, lead on the job and possibly win future business.


For the past 21 years, Ruben Bera has served as corporate safety director for Commonwealth Electric Co. of the Midwest. The company is based in Lincoln, Neb., with offices throughout the state and in Iowa and Arizona, and has been serving the commercial, industrial and institutional sectors for 75 years. Bera was sought out by management to develop a rigorous safety program that could be embraced by all its workers.


“Change is difficult,” Bera said. “It’s hard to adjust to new protocols. I’d often hear, ‘You want us to do what or wear what?’ One electrician told me, ‘We start at 5 a.m., so we’ll probably see you at 8.’ I got there at 4:30 in the morning. That won some respect. From that point on, buy-in for a better safety program took off like wildfire between project managers and field personnel from all our eight branches. It helped build our safety culture. I needed three years to change things around and got it. Today, our EMR [experience modification rate] is 0.61. We just lowered it from our previous score of 0.67.”


EMR is calculated by an insurer, notably in workers’ compensation insurance. It is a gauge of the cost of past injuries and future chances of risk. The industry average rate is 1.0.


In his role as safety director, Bera has created safety committees in each of his branches composed of management and field personnel.


“That’s where I gain valuable and vital input,” he said. “For instance, the committee helps guide me in the selection of PPE. Workers need to be comfortable with what ends up in the field.”


Branches now call Bera to discuss safety issues and find solutions; they see him as a resource. He helps navigate OSHA and National Electrical Code regulations, testing labs for equipment review and other efforts.


“We’re constantly training,” Bera said. “Foremen hold monthly safety toolbox meetings on-site. Comments and suggestions are funneled back to me. Impromptu safety huddles are also held.”


Bera also serves on the National NECA Safety Task Force. Some of the task force’s recent work has included videos covering lockout/tagout, GHS (Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals) and PPE selection. Related publications have been produced.


“These efforts are especially helpful for the smaller companies who don’t have the staff to put together as robust a program as bigger firms,” Bera said. “It gives them a leg up as they commit to safety. Many of these resources are available through the NECA store.”


Richardson-Wayland Electrical Co., based in Roanoke, Va., has made great inroads with its safety program, as well. Charles Shenberger came to the firm as safety director four years ago and was recently named president. A subsidiary of Argos Utilities Corp., the nearly 100-year company serves municipal, utility and industrial customers. Shenberger said the company’s safety program was “in shambles” when he started. It hadn’t been updated in 13 years, and training was absent for a number of years. So, he started from scratch.


“Four years later, we’ve now put in 60,000 man-hours of training,” Shenberger said. “Safety training is held every 90 days for foremen and general foremen. There’s been a year-after-year reduction of all metrics, including our EMR rate, which stands at 0.50.”


Like Commonwealth, a top-down/bottom-up obligation transformed and created a safety culture within Richardson-Wayland. Input from the field, including PPE selection, OSHA training for foremen, and CPR and defibrillator training for every employee are all part of the company’s safety program. Everyone in the company gets some level of safety training.


“Safety is for our employees’ own well-being,” Shenberger said. “That’s part of its value. In my career, I’ve trained 10,000 people on safety. If they don’t believe you have their back, they won’t practice it. Safely done, quality work is what we ask. We make it clear that bad safety habits are not acceptable to us. A behavioral conditioning class is part of our training.”


Shenberger said his company spent what it felt it needed to spend to achieve its safety program goals. That was its ROI.


“Much better to spend the dollars you need to for a robust safety program than spend it on insurance claims,” he said.


At Richardson-Wayland, any employee is given the authority to stop a job in the case of an immediate danger to life or health. Fortunately, that is uncommon.


“Our people have a fiduciary responsibility to stop any situation that is a threat to life or safety,” Shenberger said.


Both ­Richardson-Wayland and Commonwealth have earned honors, be it through their insurance companies or associations. Earning certified training from such groups is valued, as well. For example, Richardson-Wayland uses training programs offered by the Chesapeake Safety Council.


Shenberger added that when developing a safety program, it’s important to recognize one size does not fit all. Each company has to discover what works well for it.


“The more employees that you have, the more your program is written, documented and standardized so everyone is familiar with it,” he said. “A smaller company might be less documented but size doesn’t dictate the level of commitment to safety.”