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Construction Safety

Construction Risk Management: Avoiding the Incompetent Worker

TJ Lyons | March 1, 2008

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Builder studying a blueprint

When a taxi shows up at the curb, you expect the operator to know the town, maneuver carefully, be sober, and have a driver's license. We trust him or her blindly and completely. This inherent trust (likely a behavior learned from well-meaning parents) speaks to a fundamental oversight in the construction world that hurts good people.

Work near a crane, climb a scaffold to inspect a detail, or tie-off to a fall protection anchorage—every construction worker puts inherent trust (life-trust) in someone he or she does not know each day. In the following photo, a contractor was to erect perimeter protection to provide fall prevention for every person on the floors of a high-rise. The industry standard requires a minimum of at least two such cable clamps at a specific distance from each other. In this case, the minimum was not achieved.

Insufficient Perimeter Protection

Insufficient Perimeter Protection

Somewhere along the line, both the supervisor of the work, super of the project, and the installer failed to notice the incompetent installation. The result was what Dave McCollum, one the better safety philosophers in the United States, calls "an armed hazard." Again, this is just one small contributor for an incident, but it was put in-place by an incompetent person who failed the life-trust needed for any successful site.

The intent of this article is to help identify people from our project who should not be there, and highlight the harm the incompetent person does on our projects.

Pinch Points

Though numerous opportunities exist to find life-trust violators, there are five critical pinch points that will flush these folks out. It will take honest questions, close scrutiny of the individual, the ability to listen, and some people skills to identify and rid a project of these hazardous people.

Pinch Point #1: Call a Friend

Among safety professionals, there is an informal but critical link that allows candid conversations about people and firms to occur between competitors. Contractors across the United States identify weak and strong subcontractors. One of the best opportunities to get ahead of an incompetent is to "phone a friend." If a specific contractor has just finished up on a competitor's project, call your competitor and ask not only how the job went, but, more importantly, how their supervisor or foreman performed. Any team is only as strong as its leader, and knowing who your subcontractors "A" players are is critical to your own success.

One of the most critical questions to pose is who would your competitor not want on the project site. By specifically asking, you may learn that the project's crane operator made a tactical decision to move a tracked crane, boom-up, during the windiest day of the month with the outriggers in. This operator, a verified risk-taker and incompetent party, is not someone you would ever want on your project. So ask who he was!

Pinch Point #2: Pre-bid Subcontractor Leadership Meetings

Ask potential contractors to take a complete look at their scope of work, prepare any questions they might have, and invite them to the site for a meeting. Since they have not been awarded the work, they will be eager to please and should be well prepared for the session. Let them know before the meeting that they will be providing an outline of their approach to the specific work, and that the top levels of management are expected to attend.

On the general contractor's side of the fence, ensure that the project manager, executive superintendent, and safety coordinator also attend. This is an opportune time to gauge the competency of the people you will be entrusting. Listen carefully. The following are actual comments that surfaced during a series of such meetings for a U.S. project.

  • A flooring contractor's foreman was asked if they would be willing to use cut-resistant gloves during his portion of the work. He acknowledged they already were using Kevlar and that would not be a problem. The question was then posed on his use of self-retracting knives for the work. "Self-retracting…"? Though some coaching soon took place, he was not aware of this longstanding risk control for razor-knife use, and that spoke volumes as to his knowledge of the safety side of the trade.
  • During an interview with a steel erector, his fall protection program was reviewed. It was very extensive but relied heavily on ladders for connectors. The leadership team asked the contractor if he would be willing to simply work out of scissor lifts instead of ladders, and if there would be any cost associated for that. The contractor agreed that elimination of ladders would both increase production, eliminate huge fall protection exposures, and after a later review, there was no increase in cost.
  • During a session to meet with the company doing the roofing work for a project, the president of the firm and his salesman attended the pre-bid meeting to discuss their approach. Again, the job had not yet been bid. To the surprise of the hosts, it was immediately apparent that one of the two had enjoyed an adult beverage for lunch. Though this was not brought up during the session, the leadership compared observations after the meeting, and the firm was not allowed to bid on the project. A conference call would not have provided the same information.

Though many projects do not make the time or have the culture to force these sessions, their value to establishing life-trust cannot be overstated. Like meeting the boy that takes your daughter out on a date, this is time well spent—handshakes can be gauged, and expectations clearly stated.

Pinch Point #3: Evaluation of Subcontractor's Project Team

As the work is closer to starting, assembling the subcontractors' crew for a talking session is a fundamental and critical step toward eliminating the chance for incompetent oversight. At this point, the team that will do the work has been chosen, and a coordination meeting with your site team is needed. Your superintendent must organize this effort for the system to be a success. Avoid "safety" putting this together for the general contractor's supervisor; after all, it is the general contractor's mission to ensure the safety of the project, and he must be comfortable with those he entrusts.

This is the time for simple questions and preplanning the work. Though the focus should be the planning, this provides a nice opportunity to ask some pointed questions. Competency is based on knowledge, experience, and understanding. Following are a few examples of simple questions to gauge competency.

For plumbers: "As you know, with the hot heat-producing work you guys do, setting fire to my building and the use of compressed gases is always a concern. So, why is it that a bottle of acetylene cannot be stored on its side, and second, how will your fire watch program work?"

For erectors: "Falls are something we do not want happening on our project. We are targeting fall prevention instead of protection and will need your help. Just a quick question, if you are tied off at your chest with a conventional lanyard, what is the maximum distance you would fall?"

For crane operators: "Cranes are easily the biggest and most dangerous machine on my project. As an operator, what scares you the most, and second, when we lay out your working pad, how close to level will you need it?" See Photo 2.

Crane and Unlevel Working Pad

Crane and Unlevel Working Pad

For electricians: "As you know, we have a zero tolerance for anyone operating on energized equipment. Can you tell me what the NFPA 70E was written to protect your folks from?"

For concrete pump operators: "We see your pump as a crane since a load is being lifted to another area. Just how close will you be able to get to a power line?"

All of the above questions should be easily answered by a competent person. A concern might be that someone who was competent a decade ago is no longer competent. In the electrician's question, for example, NFPA 70E is a consensus standard targeted and adopted for use in the electrical arena. A significant effort was made to detail methods to eliminate or lessen the effects of working on energized electrical equipment and associated dangers of arcing. A competent electrician would be aware of this issue and the reason for the standard. It is surprising how many electricians have not heard of it.

The bottom line is your best efforts at assembling a great crew will be limited by the subcontractors that do not field their "A" teams. These conversations are a great opportunity to get the right person at the right time—before you start.

Pinch points 4 and 5, which are addressed during construction, will be addressed in the next article.

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