Safety Leader

Bret Toelkes: Project superintendent & safety director, DL Smith Electric Inc.

Bret Toelkes
Bret Toelkes
Published On
Nov 15, 2021

Bret Toelkes knows a thing or two about what can go wrong on a project and harm a worker. Toelkes is the project superintendent and safety director at DL Smith Electric Inc., Topeka, Kan. Here, he shares how his decades of experience in the electrical contracting field has helped him instill in his workers how critical safety is to their lives and their families’ well-being.

What spurred your interest in getting into the safety profession?

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the business for 43 years. It was kind of a natural progression for me [as] a result of working around a lot of different types of electrical construction. As a superintendent for DL Smith and being on a lot of different jobs, it just made sense that I should take that role. After a while, we have seen a lot of issues that could come up and we try to address those potential issues before they become a problem.

Before a project starts, I try to look ahead and see potential pitfalls and then try to prevent them.

What safety training is important for employees and how is successful training measured?

Successful training is measured in your insurance rates; I don’t think there’s a better measuring stick than that. The ability to qualify for many types of projects as a result of our safety is also very telling. Safety is a very high priority at our company, and we talk about it a lot. Company owner Shawn Smith makes it a priority, which, in turn, makes it much easier to implement. But it’s not always a popular topic for workers.

When I’m talking about safety, I often see some eyes rolling because they’ve heard many of these topics before. But it’s very important they are reminded about safety precautions and that it’s critical to adhere to them so they can go home at night to their family. The real measurables are when there are no injuries or even a near-miss. You tell them the reasons why they need to do things correctly, even though it can be inconvenient. It would be easier to just run around without a hard hat and PPE, but that won’t get any of us where we want to be. Ultimately, they need to just embrace it and do the right thing.

In our weekly safety meetings, we use the Safety Meeting app that workers can view on their mobile devices, and it’s very effective. The app has hundreds of different safety meetings you can conduct. For example, one week you can talk about slips, trips and falls, and another week you can talk about working in the cold and hypothermia. You can follow the content in the app verbatim, or you can make it more personalized.

Also, depending on the job location, we conduct a prejob briefing—a rundown we do every day. You just want to ingrain in the workers what they need to do to keep themselves safe, and you have to be relentless so it becomes second nature to them.

What challenges do you face in managing safety responsibilities?

The challenge is probably the continuing education you need to do, because there’s no end. You also have to keep training as practical as you can because there are tasks on certain jobs that you wouldn’t do on others.

There is just such a broad range in the electrical industry, and you’ve got to be able to adapt to different things and rules at every location. For example, it doesn’t do any good on a commercial job to really talk about working in confined spaces. And on an industrial power plant, it doesn’t do any good to talk about EMT conduit applications. You’ve got to be diverse and up-to-date while keeping it relevant.

What do you see as the biggest gaps or disconnects in safety today?

I wish some of how we apply 70E were simpler to explain. When it comes to things like arc flash requirements around switchgear and panelboards, if you do it yourself, you just always need to make sure you are accurate. Timing is always critical in simply what is safe and what is not.

Do you have any advice for a new safety professional entering this field?

Be very diligent and willing to repeat yourself 20 times. Don’t get caught up by some workers saying, ‘You told me that already.’ You’re going to have to say things over and over and over again. Keep reminding them about what they need to do right, it’s OK and it’s not the end of the world. Make safety a part of your company’s culture and don’t give in because somebody doesn’t want to hear it.

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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