Safety Leader

A Whole New Way of Thinking: Why a great safety program is not good enough

A silhouette of a human body overlaid with symbols for the 7 chakras | Getty Images / Shoo_Arts
Getty Images / Shoo_Arts

Even the best example of an electrical contractor’s safety program—celebrated for its exceptional OSHA statistics—will inevitably be centered around matters more important to the company than to its workforce.

In the latter part of the 20th century, while tiny ripples in the wake of the Great Depression still lapped up against attitudes about employment, construction electricians were accustomed to the admonition to “suck it up” when it came to the aches and pains ordinarily suffered by tradesmen.

A great safety program, cast in a traditional mold, will no longer be good enough. To do justice to the future of the electrical construction industry, it’s time to adopt the “whole worker” concept. 

We talked to Joe Kopko, executive vice president of HUB International, Chicago, who is an outspoken supporter and advocate of this philosophy.

Joe Kopko, executive vice president at HUB International, is a strong advocate of the “whole worker” philosophy. | Aaron Siegel Photography
Joe Kopko, executive vice president at HUB International, is a strong advocate of the “whole worker” philosophy. | Aaron Siegel Photography

The whole worker concept may be new to many of our readers.

The whole worker concept isn’t that new of an idea. It’s just something that hasn’t taken off as much as it might have. But now we very much need it. If we factor in the aging workforce and growing labor shortage, we can no longer ignore the worker as a whole. We have to take into consideration the complete range of our workers’ needs and how they interface with the company. For sure, we have to toss out any previous suggestions that workers are like interchangeable parts, or consumable items like drill bits. They’re not tools we can just replace with another one off the shelf.

Most contractors would agree. But we know you’re not stopping there.

Whenever we take into account the whole worker concept, we have to consider that they’re free thinkers. No surprise, they have minds, just like us, and we need to cater to that notion. We should strive to stimulate them intellectually. That old quip that some electricians still like to trot out, saying, “They hired me from the neck down,” always elicited a smile from whoever heard it. But there was a kernel of truth in it. Many employers were prone to believe it. And, regrettably, many still do.

That takes us close to one of the main pillars of the whole worker concept, the worker’s mental state.

Yes, while we are all comfortable discussing the physical aspects of health and safety, mental health is a different matter. But we have to make it a primary focus. Our workers, like everyone else, are dealing with challenges of their own. In construction, and perhaps most industry settings, the mind is a taboo subject. 

As mentioned earlier—regarding the way people behaved for decades in this country, especially our parents and grandparents living through the experience of the 1930s—we’re accustomed to just sucking it up and working through the mental issues. People like to stay off that subject. But, over the years there have been a lot of electricians and technicians whose minds have been broken.

We’ve ignored that, and it has culminated in workplace issues. Beyond the moral implications of ignoring what is continuing to worsen, contractors are missing out on a critical feedback loop that will allow them to make much needed productivity improvements and keep up with the necessary evolution of the 21st-century labor force.

Despite all of the equipment and large tools that are a regular part of the construction scene, most of the “mechanical” work performed is still accomplished by people, not machines.

We have not adopted innovation and technology in the construction workplace as well as we should have. Meantime, year after year, the pace has continued to pick up. Sadly, we’re still doing work the way we were doing it in the late ’80s and early ’90s, even though there are a whole host of resources that could alleviate the burden on the worker. Without newer, better ways, their bodies are breaking. 

When the body’s broken, people can’t work, and this in turn has a compounding effect on the mind and spirit of our workers. It’s not just a shoulder tear that will heal in six weeks. Through their lens, it could be a life-altering injury that puts their future at risk. 

We know from talking with you before, you go one more step beyond the worker’s mind and body.

That’s right. And, frankly, for some members of the industry, it may be another touchy subject. The last part is the spirit. I refer to it as the cultural component that gets overlooked. Consider this picture: Looking at a company’s “great” safety program, we see the lagging indicators from OSHA. One year, we see fewer injuries than any of the years before. Hey, that must mean it’s been a great year. Except, there are those two workers who are sitting home with lower back pain or maybe they can no longer lift their arms over their head. Their spirit has been crushed. That gets overlooked when we don’t see the whole worker.

Your three pillars—mind, body and spirit—interlock into a unified philosophy. Where do we begin to implement it?

Let’s start thinking of each individual electrician and technician in terms of how we want to stimulate their thinking. We want to help them solve problems—and get their help at solving ours. They’re resourceful. We have to engage with them, ask them questions and give them an opportunity to help evolve the way we work. We have to get their feedback. When we task them with helping us solve problems, it’s going to keep them engaged. It’s going to keep them stimulated, but, more importantly, it demonstrates that we value them for more than their backs.

Second part—with the body—we have to ensure we’re taking advantage of all the great resources and new technologies that alleviate the burden on the worker. That’ll require some investment, but, over the years, it will provide the highest return on investment of anything a contractor invests in. It’s important that the industry refreshes how they define ROI, and what rolls up into that number.

We have a mutual goal, for our companies and for our workers, to add 5, 10 or 15 more years to their working careers.

The last is the spirit, which I call the cultural aspect. It follows along with the idea of investing in the wellbeing of our workers—yes, by buying better tools. When they pick up a tool and it’s quality—especially if they’ve suggested and asked for it— their level of engagement goes through the roof. A culture that embodies the whole worker will also share why they selected that particular tool. What is the net impact on engagement and active risk identification with a company that embraces this approach, versus “We buy the cheapest available because a grinder’s a grinder.” 

Plenty of industry data tells us that musculoskeletal injuries make up more than one-third of all injuries on a job site, and we’re seeing them increasing.

We’re talking about ergonomic injuries. Strains, sprains and overuse injuries are wearing down the body.

Not everyone follows that data. Mostly, people just sweep ergonomic injuries under the rug. They fixate on acute injuries. Workers hear and know about ergonomics, but they don’t dwell on the subject, because they’re strong, young and healthy. By your 50s and 60s, ergonomics plays a huge role in your strength.

When someone complains of an injury, we associate it with what they were doing immediately beforehand and not all the previous years of cumulative damage that’s happened because they used a tool that wasn’t properly counter-­balanced and required more muscle effort.

Maybe it’s something as simple as a trigger-finger pull, repeated over 15 years. We don’t step back often enough and say, where did that come from? How do we make sure, moving forward, we mitigate this?

We try to figure out a solution based on what was happening just then, versus how we could have reduced the strain over many years. 

If you have improved ergonomics, you could get 8–10 years more out of your joints and muscles, not to mention greater lifetime earnings, better health in retirement and, potentially, mental health.

Tell us more about how to get all these “whole workers” to buy in to the concept. It won’t succeed without them.

With the whole worker concept, we might rally the troops and say, “This industry is prone to neck and shoulder injuries. How many of you have experienced a burning sensation in the last week? What was the task? How do we fix this?”

We have to tell them, “You do it more than we do. Let’s pilot some tools. Let’s get some experts in here.”

I know most companies won’t take that approach. But for those that do, this is where the spirit thrives, and this is where the suggestions start coming in. Now we start solving problems.

A scenario such as this presents a cultural grounding point for the organization. You can create an opportunity to draw your people in or validate that you don’t care. When I ask some of the leading questions to identify risk and opportunities to prevent a loss, I follow up with the same response every time: “Can you show me?” Then, “What are your thoughts?” and always, “Would you be willing to help us improve this and craft a safe approach that still allows you to be productive?” 

Unless we stimulate our workers to help start solving problems beforehand, nothing will change. Post-injury, how objective will anybody be in their solution? How likely are they to come back to the table and say, let me help with that? At that point, we’ve lost the opportunity.

Improving ergonomics does not mean spending a million dollars on new equipment, right?

That’s right. It’s not necessary to spend huge sums of money. But contractors have to change their mindset. This is a marathon and takes time. The first step is to look at the way your employees work. Are they kneeling on concrete? Are they using a piece of cardboard, insulation or an ergonomic kneeling pad? Think in terms of cumulative effect. 

About the Author

Andrew P. McCoy and Fred Sargent

SARGENT is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com. MCCOY is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and department head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson...

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