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Construction Safety

Construction Safety Stickiness: Labels Matter

TJ Lyons | October 4, 2019

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Hard hats required sign on a fence

In 2009, Dan Lavoie and I were walking a project in New York City. Mr. Lavoie is one of the top safety professionals at Liberty Mutual Insurance and remains a great friend. I noticed a workstation set to cut steel studs to size for the walls. Surrounding the station was a clutter of waste stud ends making a mess and a good place to trip. I walked over and slid a trash barrel under the edge of the saw and dropped in a stud end. The idea of "Nothing Hits the Ground" was born.

The goal is any debris produced on a project would fall into a bin, barrel, bucket, box, or bag. Rolls right off the tongue right? Kinda easy to remember. That's important. Soon, Paul Huntley, the Turner safety director in the Nutmeg state, called the practice "Nothing Hits the Ground," and that has stuck. Google it, and you will see testimonials from general contractors, references in Lean publications, and a great video on the practice from Bayley Construction. They call it "Nothing Hits the Floor," but it is the same idea. A best practice that has become common practice—the goal of any safety professional.

The following are several other examples where great ideas have what I call "safety stickiness." The idea makes sense, but the practice comes to mind because of the memorable tagline.

Construction Worker Saw Trashcan - Lyons - October 2019

Property of TJ Lyons 2-6-2009

Do the Math

On a cold day in Pittsburgh, Sean Myers, a Turner safety director, and I were walking a project and came across a fellow on the second tier of a rolling scaffold. He was tied-off as hoped but using 12 feet of line and working 11 feet from the ground. I asked him to take a minute to come down so I could inspect his gear to make sure he was safe. He replied, "Hang on, I need to unhook." I replied, "No need for that. Just climb on down." I spent a few moments with him, a piece of Sheetrock and a Sharpie, and roughed out a diagram and the math. When he could see the numbers, he quickly understood the danger he had created, and the tagline "Do the Math" was born.

Construction Workers Scaffolding - Lyons - October 2019

Property of TJ Lyons 1-22-2008

Soon, I roughed out a sketch of a guy falling from a scaffold and passed it to Peter Furst, one of the top safety professionals in the United States. In fact, if you look up God in my smartphone, Peter's phone number pops up. Peter suggested that we add a hydrant to the logo to show that you may hit something before you hit the ground. Stickers made, I passed these to the safety directors across the Northeast with the proviso that you only hand one out at a time. And only after coaching someone by "Doing the Math."

As we started looking closer at this condition, we found that 7 out of 10 workers tied off would hit the ground if they fell. This was early in the fall prevention era. The goal was there, but the execution was poor. "Do the Math" was one answer to help workers understand what "right" looked like.

Construction Hat Stickers - Lyons - October 2019

Photo property of TJ Lyons

Get Bent

I recently penned an article on fall prevention, and the closing line is one I use in the field. It's relevant, understandable, and outlines the severity of doing something unsafe. "When the two users were coached on why they needed to have taken this rigging out of service, we reminded them: it's like buying birth control—rigging needs to work the first time to prevent something unwanted later."

The "Get Bent" effort started out with a confrontation in Tacoma, Washington. I had brought up some poor rebar protection to the project general superintendent. When I mentioned none of it was any good, you could hear his profanity across the ocean in Russia. When he had settled down, I realized I had not provided the answer he was waiting for: what's in this for me? I went back to my hotel in Egg Harbor and put together a comparison of costs for differing rebar protection. Simply having the manufacturer's machine put a loop or a candy-cane on the top of rebar to eliminate the impalement hazard was the best. It was also the least costly option. Some argue that point (people that bend rebar by hand in the field), but this is a common practice in the United States and overseas. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has spoken to the idea. The following was the question to them.

Question 3(a): In the pictures below, workers tie horizontal rebar to the vertical rebar that has been bent over into "ears." Does the bent-over rebar present an impalement hazard that must be guarded under §1926.701(b)?

Construction Workers Tie Rebar - Lyons - October 2019

Answer: No; the end of the rebar in these pictures has been bent over to the point where it points downward, thereby eliminating the impalement hazard.

I reached out to my nephew, Eric Cooper, who is studying graphic art at Pratt in New York, and asked him to draw something up. Naturally, it needed a tagline, and "Get Bent" seemed perfect.

Get Bent

Photo property of TJ Lyons

Ladders Last

Earlier this month, I was visiting a construction project in the Poconos. As I entered the breakroom for the workers, the poster below was hanging on the wall. That just made my day.

Why Ladders Last - Lyons - October 2019

Photo courtesy of Turner Construction

On June 23, 2008, while at Turner, I first proposed the idea of eliminating ladders from worksites to a friend at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In that email, I made several proposals to change how we approach work at height in the United States. "Second is the complete removal of ladders from our worksites as a normal approach." I named that idea as "Ladders No More."

Turner then hosted a group of experts and ladder users from the Northeast and brainstormed ladders and how to eliminate them from our projects. At some point, one of the executives said, "Well, TJ, companies in the United States make ladders, and we don't want to put them out of business." I thought that odd since we have also moved away from typewriters, arsenic in cosmetics, and Dictaphones, so I relented and called it "Ladders Last." That really has stuck. "Ladders Last" is alliterative and descriptive. Many general contractors now have the "Ladders Last" philosophy in contract documents, and Turner remains the lead advocate of the effort. Vendors use that tagline when advertising lifts, and you find safety posters outlining the idea for sale on the Web.

Stop and Give Me 20

In many a military movie, some poor cadet ticks-off the drill instructor. "Drop and give me 20" pushups was the common remedy for the unfortunate recruit. In 2007, I was working in California for Danny Cook. He was one of the best bosses I ever had. We share the same Irish background and birthday. When one of our workers was struck by a machine, Mr. Cook wondered out loud why we had to have workers near operating equipment. I discussed this in an earlier column. The idea is to separate flesh from steel through proper work coordination. Don't rely on back-up alarms or guys paying attention. We don't do either well.

Mr. Cook offered that if we keep our trades 20 feet from something that would hurt them, we would eliminate the incidents. I proposed the "Give Me 20" idea, and it stuck. We started coordinating and found we could work faster since guys with shovels and rakes were not in the way of equipment.

Construction Workers 20 Feet - Lyons - October 2019

Photo property of TJ Lyons

Shattered Lives

The United Kingdom embraced this tagline idea years ago. They have saved lives with it. In June 2008, the Health and Safety Executives rolled out the "Shattered Lives" program. What struck me was the opening illustration—a person shattering into pieces in a fall like a porcelain doll. It shows the outcome of a fall in the most powerful way.

A common theme they use in many of their illustrations promoting the concept states "… where proper consideration is given to assessing and managing risks and promoting a culture where slips and trips are not seen as inevitable but rather, avoidable." For more information on this great program, go to

Mates in Mind

When we in the United States were reluctant to speak about suicide and mental health in construction, our compatriots in the United Kingdom embraced the idea that "there is no health without mental health." This is a model program for accepting that there is a need to address the effects of mental health in the construction world. Moreover, a clever tag line ties buddies to buddies and links the concern to the mind. So clever. "Be a mate. Be the change." I love that idea.

Mates In Mind - Lyons - October 2019


To wrap this up, I offer three tips. The first is to prepare. You will see slow success as people fight, then relent, and then embrace your ideas. You are attempting to change behaviors and traditions in place for decades, if not centuries. Keep in mind that people were taught, by those they trust, the exact task you are trying to alter. When I started out in this field, general contractors would have to pay extra to have workers tie-off during construction. Now, you see the practice has become common.

Second, share. We are often unaware of best practices in construction for we are reluctant to pass them along. One of the top safety directors in the United States once challenged me on this. I wanted to share our safety lessons learned with our competitors. My idea was dismissed because, "TJ, it's not what you can do for the industry; it's what you can do for this company." Keep pushing.

Last, have patience. Solid programs will take about a decade to develop into common practice. It was not until this summer that I saw a client require "Ladders Last" in their contract. That is a decade after the idea was developed. Remember, long-lasting change comes incrementally.

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