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Construction Safety

Construction Risk Management in a Hard Economy: The Treasures

TJ Lyons | June 1, 2009

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Construction worker carrying a concrete beam

A worker was wrestling a wheelbarrow up a long plank trying to balance 280 lbs. of masons cement while not breaking the board or his back. When he finally made it to the top and rested, he was asked why he did not use a two-wheeled wheelbarrow since they are so easy to handle with heavy loads and he could move much faster. He replied, "Well, I only have the one plank." There are many lessons here.

Tough time times are here, and many friends in the construction world have lost their jobs. But underneath the misfortunes of the many are gifts for some.

Following are specific areas to invest in your people and company to glean that extra dollar, keep a worker employed, and gain a client or two. Though each of the items to explore may seem like a fresh idea, it is not. You should have considered most of these approaches during our fat economy. Take them seriously, consider and discuss them with your good people, execute them, and you will come out of this rough stretch a winner.

Construction Economics

A plumber on the 21st floor of a high-rise in NYC was installing new copper piping. The area was wide open with only one wall in sight protecting the elevator shaft. He was alone and climbing a 12-foot ladder to do his work. First, he went up with a bore-brush and steel-wool and made everything shiny. He climbed down and up again to apply a liberal dose of solder-flux. He again went down, grabbed the solder and a torch, climbed up (hands-free) and soldered the connection. Not yet done, he once again returned to the floor and back up the ladder with a wet cloth to ensure the connection was nice and clean. When asked what his work was for the day "Well, I have 79 more connections to solder, and then we test." He was asked, "Wouldn't it be easier to just tool around in a mobile scaffold and not keep climbing that ladder?" His reply "Well yes, but we can only use ladders."

So we ran some math. Each connection took 46 minutes while the time doing the work was just 12 minutes. About 75 percent of the time, this good guy was just climbing up or down a ladder while trying not to fall. Hence, the hidden value of construction economics.

Take the time to watch your folks work and figure out how to do it faster, and, by default, you might do it safer. In this case, the plumber should work out of a scissor lift, all his equipment is at hand, and money is to be made.

Construction Economics: Another Example

As seen in the bottom of the first photograph depicted in Figure 1, scaffolding was erected taking 3.2 hours to assemble. The task to be completed was to simply caulk a joint from the floor to 16 feet up. The contractor then asked for the scaffold to be inspected; it failed and was immediately taken out of service. He then retrieved a scissor lift (Photograph 2 in Figure 1) from the same building, took down the unused scaffolding (22 minutes), and completed the work in 41 minutes. When asked why he did not use the lift the first time, he replied, "Well, I wasn't using the scaffolding right then." As a sloppy site is an indicator of inefficiency, so is a clumsy approach to the work.

Figure 1: Construction Economics—Using a Scissor Lift

Construction Economics--Using a Scissor Lift

Time To Strengthen—Change Your Contract

Contractors are malleable during tough times. They will accommodate more, and if there is an opportunity to save some money, they will jump at the challenge.

Gather some of your field, safety, purchasing, and estimating folks and throw them in a room with promises of food. Ask them, "In a perfect world, what would you like to see in our contracts to make your days easier?" Then walk away. If you have the right team, you will strengthen your contracts, your contractors, and may keep people a bit safer. Now is the time to think about that "wish list" you have carried in the back of your head centering on thoughts that start with "I gotta put that in the contract."

Here are a few examples:

Language prohibiting using conventional table saws that cut off people's fingers (sometimes I cannot believe what I am writing). One brand (Saw-Stop) senses skin and simply stops spinning, protecting users. Consider that every 9 minutes there will be an injury from a table saw, and something like one out of every 27 people using a table saw for work will lose a finger. Put it in your contract that only table saws that do not cut off fingers will be used. Soon, a clever and correct attorney will be asking, "Gosh Mr. Lyons, it seems like there must be something that could have been done to save Mike's fingers. Was there a safer saw that could have been used?"

If scaffold is used at any height, it must be surrounded by rails. This eliminates the problem of having a contractor put his scaffold at 5'11" to evade the 6-foot fall rule.

No more job-built ladders. These were invented by the Pueblos over 10,000 years ago and should be confined to museums and fire trucks. Use stair towers or portable stairs—they are faster, safer, and more efficient.

Use Saf-T-boots, Garlock, or similar manufactured systems for perimeter protection. The days of erecting a guardrail with nails and 2x4s are gone. There is a return on investment on manufactured systems. Considering how much maintenance is needed for fixing our rustic railings, these purchased devices will pay for themselves, and on the next job, they are free.

Replace standard stepladders with ones that provide a working surface. Steps are for stepping and not for working—unless you are a firefighter.

Look at your ladder use and see if you might do the work faster from a lift or other elevated work platform. Compare both systems, do the math, and make a decision. Do not base your decision on emotions but instead on data. Another option is to have your contractor bid using both approaches as alternates and let them figure it out.

Replace conventional lanyards with a simple retractable. In a recent study, 71 percent of workers tied off to a conventional lanyard for protection would have hit the ground. To make matters worse, recently a safety director supplied extenders for his workers to make it easier to attach their lanyards—it also brought the workers 18" closer to the ground when they fell.

Eliminate the shoddy crane pads that workers assemble on your projects. Only allow shop-made or manufactured mats (like Bigfoot) to be used. Cranes are your biggest risk and when some of the poorest material is used to hold them up, you are asking for trouble.

Use Downtime for Planning

In a recent construction project initiated by Shell Oil and Jacobs Engineering, we used downtime to plan. Trim your losses just through thinking. Compared to a standard approach, these steps were taken:

  1. Interview the general contractor (GC) and clearly state your expectations. "There will be no incidents on this project."
  2. Ensure the GC and everyone on his operations' teams feels a zero-incident project is possible. Ask "Do you feel all accidents are preventable in our world?" If the answer is anything other than yes, find someone else.
  3. Interview each of the potential contractors before they are allowed to bid. Do your homework so you understand their philosophy before they arrive, and then listen for what their culture says when they speak. The insincere are obvious.
  4. At the interview, ask pointed questions and search for binding agreements that are outside of a written contract. During one session, the steel erector was asked if he was willing to work out of scissor lifts or booms rather than tie-off or use ladders. Instead of saying, "Well, we use ladders," he asked to return his next morning. At the next interview, he said, "We can do it, and if you can help coordinate some of the site work, we can do it faster." What was the cost associated with this approach? Nothing.

Ultimately, this project, well over $24 million in value, was completed with over 400 days worked, not one injury, and the total the cost of all claims was less than $200. Take the time while you have it to plan like this.

Train Your People

Dr. W. Edwards Deming noted that you should spend lavishly on training. (See "Deming's Point #6 as Applied to the Insurance Industry.") Just look at Toyota. Carl Metzger, one of the top safety guys in the United States, once said, "Don't forget to make a good guy gooder." He went on to explain the damage done when training is only focused on the miscreant and not also on your stars.

As money trickles in from the federal government, much will likely go to urban areas for development. One builder in the Northeast trained its staff on how to work on Brownfield sites in the OSHA 1910.120 Hazardous Waste Site Operations (Hazwoper). Now, they are fluent in that world, and can provide guidance to owners.

Firms are taking the time to provide OSHA Outreach training in construction to their smaller contractors. This strengthens their subs now so when the work starts again, better results will follow.

Subcontracted Safety Consultants

If you are in the habit of hiring safety consultants, take a strong look at that process. Many consultants are in the field specializing from lasers to lanyards, and if you do not have that expertise, you must hire them.

However, if you have sharp people, now is the time to take that superintendent you are just about to lay off and send him to shadow your top safety people. When they see its more about relationships than regulations, and understand it is all about planning instead of policing sites, you will gain a superintendent who can be your safety guy during a tough time. When things get fat again, he can be a super but with a new and better understanding of how to keep his site safe. That's smart staffing.

Whenever you speak with superintendents, the conversations often comes around to the point where he shrugs his shoulders and says, "Safety … we never had a safety manager on project. That was my job." And he is correct. One failure of industry, including construction, was the creation of the safety coordinator, for two effects that evolved. First, the operations group could pass off safety responsibility to the safety coordinator, losing strict accountability for keeping good people from getting hurt. Second, the weak superintendent now calls the safety coordinator to take care of concerns that used to be his or hers.

Here's a great example. A safety performance audit was performed with the superintendent in tow. A worker was seen violating the 6-foot fall protection rule and needed to be removed from the project. The super grabbed his radio, called for the safety guy to come over to remove the worker, and proved to those surrounding that super that he had lost control of his site.

If there ever was an opportunity to pass back safety responsibility to the superintendent and his team, it is now because it's economical. Safety coordinators should be weaned from projects over the next few years to ensure accountability is applied where it is deserved and where it can be controlled, no different than quality or schedule. More companies are tying actual losses on a project to the site's balance sheet, further driving the focus that is needed for a well-run project.

This is one example where "smarter staffing" reduces the workforce during a downturn but will increase the performance of your firm when it rebounds. Simply ensure you have people with passion for the work and that they understand why safety is an element of a project, not an assignment.

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