Emergencies take many different forms—from work accidents to natural disasters—and can happen at any time. Savvy contractors know that being prepared can be a life-or-death matter.
In the following interview, safety leaders Brandon Johnson, general manager of Triangle Electric Inc., Williston, N.D., and Jerry McGlynn, vice president of field operations and safety at McWilliams Electric Co. Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., discuss their approaches to emergency preparedness and how they meet and exceed industry standards to help ensure their companies’ readiness for a broad range of emergencies.
Please share a bit about your firm and your overall approach to safety.
Johnson: We’re a family-owned business that was founded in 1946 and we currently employ 110 electricians. Our safety mission statement is, “To provide a work area that supports the health, safety, and welfare of all employees. When our employees and work environments are safe, our facilities are clean, and we practice safety in the workplace, only then does it become second nature.”
McGlynn: McWilliams Electric was founded in 1922 and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. We have two locations (Carol Stream and Schaumburg), roughly 100 employees, and are a full-service commercial/industrial electrical contracting firm.
I’ve always seen signs on the job saying “Safety first.” However, I feel that the signs should really say, “Safety always” so that employees don’t get complacent, because that’s when accidents happen. We post the slogan “Safety always” on truck decals, on the back of our hard hats and many other places. One of our top priorities is that everyone goes home at the end of the day the same way they showed up to work, just a little more tired.
The pandemic and increasing frequency of severe storms and natural disasters have affected the way many contracting firms and their safety leaders operate today. Has your approach to emergency preparedness changed in the last few years?
Johnson: We haven’t altered our safety culture or training due to storms or natural disasters, but we modified our training practices and efficiencies during the pandemic to utilize more technology, which allowed us to continue providing safety training to our employees virtually to ensure that they stayed safe. By keeping our employees safe, we were able to continue servicing our customers during a trying time.
McGlynn: The pandemic and increasing frequency of storms brought to the forefront the fact that we must be prepared and have a written plan that we review constantly and effectively communicate to our employees.
The last few years also confirmed that the world of emergencies is constantly evolving and that safety leaders need to keep up with the changes. As an example, OSHA is coming out with new standards for heat stress in the summer and exposure to cold in the wintertime, so it’s not just about natural disasters anymore.
What different types of health and safety emergencies can arise on the job, for which you must be prepared?
Johnson: Our electricians are exposed to a variety of potential hazards on a day-to-day basis, including arc flash, extreme weather and temperature conditions, driving-related issues and on-site hazards such as high pressure on production pipes and multiple hazardous gases such as hydrogen sulfide, which deadens a worker’s sense of smell upon exposure. We train our employees annually on prevention of all of the different hazards; provide defensive driving training; and supply all PPE, such as arc flash suits, appropriate/mandatory gloves for the task at hand and 4 gas personal monitors to detect and monitor gases in the employee’s breathing zone.
McGlynn: As we see it, it’s about planning for the work and then working the plan. I write job-specific safety plans, whether they involve social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID, the need to wear respirators for hazards like asbestos or crystalline silica dust (a common by-product of cutting concrete), etc. Plans also include identification of the closest hospital, emergency contact numbers, severe weather shelter and more, with printed maps and directions for getting there. We’re also prepared for medical issues that could happen (such as scrapes, cuts and broken bones) as well as fires. Workers must know evacuation routes and designated assembly areas so that everyone can be accounted for.
How do you prepare for physical or mental health--related emergencies on the job?
Johnson: All of our employees are trained in first aid, CPR and operation of an automated external defibrillator (AED), and we have AEDs in our buildings and remote yards. If an incident occurs in the field, our employees are trained to report it to our company and our client and render first aid. When Triangle’s safety team is notified, we utilize Ortho Live, a platform that provides video appointments with medical professionals who give treatment plans and set follow-up appointments. If an employee’s condition requires hands-on treatment, they then travel to one of our Designated Medical Providers, which are occupational health clinics that provide all the treatment necessary while still understanding OSHA recordable criteria. They don’t immediately overtreat patients like some medical establishments can, but rather provide both needed treatment and protection of the company.
McGlynn: We prepare our workers with the physical address of every work site they’re on so that they can share their location with 911 in the event of an emergency. We place first aid kits in gang boxes, which are metal, waterproof and always refilled and follow ANSI’s published standards for the contents of first aid kits based on the number of employees in the group and the type of work they do (office versus field, etc.). Per OSHA requirements, we ensure that the AEDs are on-site and accessible to people within several minutes; we also provide CPR training to our foremen every two years and offer the course to their significant others as well.
Mental health is a huge issue in the construction industry and unions have member assistance programs to help employees with counseling or issues with their loved ones. Stickers with contact information for these programs are included in our gang boxes, and NECA provides poker chips with “988” (the national number for mental health emergencies), which I hand out to all new employees.
How do you plan for fires, evacuations or other emergencies?
Johnson: Our employees are trained in fire extinguishers and fire watch; if there’s a planned activity of hot work, we have fire watch available, as prevention is always the first action, and we also carry fire extinguishers on all of our vehicles. In the event of a fire, the top priorities are the preservation of human life, safety of the public, protection of the environment and minimization of property damage if possible. Our employees are instructed to identify and call 911 or the emergency service in the area if they’re unable to utilize the local fire extinguishers to extinguish the fire. We’re not trained as first responders, but will try to ensure that the main hazards are secure for the professionals when they arrive. We emphasize that we should never fight a fire that we’re not trained in or don’t feel comfortable fighting with on-site extinguishers or a fire past its incipient stage.
As for emergency evacuations and drills, we provide emergency evacuation and training policies for our office locations, each with a designated muster and gather area; on-site, we follow our customers’ policies in terms of muster areas for emergency evacuation. In our daily job safety analysis (JSA) paperwork, wind direction is also noted so that if there’s a hazardous gas release, the workers know which way to evacuate so they’re able to go crosswind, then upwind, and get out of the toxic areas. If able during evacuation of the location, the JSA would also include a proper headcount of all employees at the muster area.
McGlynn: Our employees go through fire training with a burn barrel to ensure that they know how to use a fire extinguisher, and we regularly review other best practices in the event of a fire, such as ensuring that the egress is clear if you fight a fire, etc. We review a laminated sheet with our evacuation policies on a quarterly basis and hold drills with our staff twice a year. Our severe weather shelter serves as an active shooter room as well; it has a steel door that’s opened with a five-digit code. It locks from the inside once closed, and it also has a peephole so that those inside can see out, but an intruder can’t see in.
How often are your employees trained in or reminded about any of the above protocols, and how do you find it most effective to share this information with them?
Johnson: We train all of our employees yearly or as suggested by the individual training. We also have monthly training topics that are completed by the employee online so that employees can take the class at any time they’re able. We offer CPR/first aid training in small, in-person groups so that our employees have the best learning experience possible.
McGlynn: We do a morning, in-person huddle on all jobs to instruct workers on the specific hazards at each job site, e.g., fall risks and protection relative to scaffolds, ladders, etc., and these are documented. We also hold a weekly safety meeting with our crews on the job site, during which we also conduct a job site hazard analysis (JHA) to comply with OSHA standard 1926.20, which states that “such programs shall provide for frequent and regular inspections of the job sites, materials, and equipment to be made by competent persons designated by the employers.”
Our JHA isn’t a form that’s just “pencil whipped,” rather it’s thoroughly reviewed by the competent individual who addresses the hazards on the job site and advises all employees on how to safely work around them. Anyone on the job site has the authority to stop work and ask how to do something safely, get trained or refuse to do unsafe work.
Do you have any final thoughts when it comes to emergency preparedness in the shop or field to run a truly safe, effective and informed organization?
Johnson: Since there’s no getting a second chance to prevent or question a possible unsafe condition or process, our employees all have “stop work authority” and will never be reprimanded for using it. In emergency situations, we want employees to get themselves (and, if they have confidence, their co-workers) to safety and not put themselves in danger to try to save property or others if they don’t have the appropriate PPE or aren’t trained in rescue or other emergent procedures.
McGlynn: Safety is everyone’s responsibility. If you see someone working unsafely, I encourage everyone to ask that person to care about their personal safety and to coach them on how to perform that task safely.
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