Safety Leader

Adam Ashton: General Superintendent, Forest Electric

Adam Ashton
COURTESY OF ADAM ASHTON

In February, Forest Electric, Edison, N.J., celebrated four years without a lost-time injury. Adam Ashton, general superintendent, explains how the company makes safety such a top priority.

What’s the secret of your success?

It comes from the top down. The [company's] president has 100% bought into safety and pushed it down to our foremen. Another reason why there’s 100% buy-in: safety practices also help boost productivity and quality of work.

We have to do a little forward looking on our jobs, including using a lift instead of a ladder to be safer and wearing personal protective equipment when cutting something out using a razor knife. We pretask plan for pretty much everything we do. We are looking ahead and always thinking through so we’re not just reacting on the job and shooting from the hip.

We also do a lot of prefabrication in our shop to lessen risks on job sites. In our shop, everything is elevated in a controlled environment, adjusting for the height of individual workers. That way, our workers can do things like bend conduit in a less risky manner.

Also, our shop is lit much better than the typical lighting on a construction site. Then workers can take the preassembled materials and just pop them in place on job sites.

How do you encourage crews to take safety seriously on the job?

We let workers make some of the decisions with us. When they participate in safety decisions, they feel like they are part of it. We also provide training, including instilling in them that their job can’t just be about a paycheck—their family also depends on them to be there for them. We want them to be able to go home and be with their family. That can change in a split second, so we tell them that they shouldn’t make hasty decisions but think about what they need to do ahead of time to be safe.

We also reward our workers for being safe by giving them kudos for doing a great job and gifts, such as t-shirts. Is there a specific injury or almost injury that changed how you thought about safety on the job?

Back in 2002, when I was an electrician at another company, an elevator installer working on Christmas Eve in a shaft in the largest building in New Jersey fell 13 stories to his death because he wasn’t wearing full protection. He was 34 years old and had two small children. Imagine, for every Christmas Eve for the rest of his children’s lives, they will think of their dead dad. That’s when it really hit me that this has to stop—there has to be a better way.

What spurred your interest in getting into the safety profession?

Today, I am both an electrician and a safety professional. Being on the job site where that elevator worker was killed really jumpstarted my desire to help people be safer. Another thing that spurred my interest in becoming a safety professional was attending a fire-retardant demonstration in Pennsylvania. The demonstrator created an arc flash near a mannequin that was not wearing protective clothing, and  the mannequin immediately caught on fire. I was standing 50 feet back and said, “Oh my God—that could be me.” That also really upped the game.

What challenges do you face in managing safety responsibilities for your company?

New employees, honestly. We’re a union contractor, so we get some employees from the union hall who have worked for other contractors where safety was not as important. The challenge is to get them to buy into our culture, especially workers who have been in the business for 30 years, doing things their own way. You’ve got to get them to see the benefits of being a safe and productive worker.

Do you have any other advice for safety professionals?

You’ve got to show your workers that you really care about their personal safety for them to buy into your culture. You’ve got to praise your workers when you see them doing a good job at being safe. Walk up to them, shake their hand and thank them. They really appreciate it, and it goes a long way toward maintaining a safe workplace.

About the Author

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert has more than three decades of experience writing about the construction industry, and her articles have been featured in the Associated General Contractor’s Constructor magazine, the American Fence Association’s Fencepost, the...

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