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Construction Safety

Construction Safety Success—Making Safety Stick

TJ Lyons | March 23, 2018

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Broken ladder

I met with Peter Furst, one of the top safety professionals in the country. I became frustrated, though, for my head was full of wonderful ideas, but no one else seemed to have an interest. Mr. Furst said to me, "TJ, most people think that if it wasn't their idea, it's not a good idea." That stuck.

The following are some tips to promote your safety ideas. Ideas that will be considered and will stick. Something personal, profitable, and relevant often helps.

"Stickiness" is the goal of any safety professionals' efforts. It's when people hear what someone else is doing, understands the approach, and copies it. Malcolm Gladwell is famous for defining the idea of the "tipping point." My definition—stickiness is when an idea is adopted by many and becomes common practice.

The following are lessons I learned and some great, sticky stories. Keep in mind that advances in safety are still being born. Something in the works may need the little extra push to reach that tipping point we look for. When I look at a construction site and see we are still driving nails with .27 caliber shells in a pistol or tying workers to a structure so that they don't fall too far, I realize that changes are still needed. How to start?

Develop a Clear, Undeniable Depiction of What You Want To Eliminate

I am a fan of Ralph Nader. His interest in reducing injuries to occupants in car accidents makes him a saint in my book. Consider today's dashboard. You can run your hand clear across the dash. No radio buttons to push and nowhere to hang those little plastic trash bags designed to fit snug over the tuning knob.

Reading up on auto safety efforts in the 1970s, I saw a photograph of a beautiful girl laid out on a gurney. The next photo showed an x-ray of the same girl with a cigarette lighter knob pushed clear into her forehead. She had struck the dashboard of an older model car when the predecessor of airbags were heater levers, radio knobs, buttons, and most prominently, a cigarette lighter. That photo and the concept it presented will "stick" with me forever.

You Must Be Consistent in Your Efforts

During a recent IRMI conference, there was a roundtable in the general session where some of the top leaders in the industry shared their thoughts. The question from the audience was "Often it's difficult to get a conversation going with those in the C-suite." The C-suite (I had to ask) is a silly term defining the top level of an organization. C-suite should go the way of "thinking outside the box" and my favorite, "thought process." But, back to the conference, the speaker said, "You know, if you tell me 10 times to pull the trigger on your idea, I will likely say no. But if you ask 11 times, I might hear you." This reminded me of a line in Exploring the Dangerous Trades, an autobiography by Alice Hamilton that hangs on my wall:

Julia Lathrop never roused one to a fighting pitch, but then fighting was not her method. (Nor was it mine. I have always hated conflict of any kind, but with me this led to cowardice, to shirking unpleasantness. Never with her.) She taught me a much-needed lesson, that harmony and peaceful relations with one's adversary were not in themselves of value, only if they went with a steady pushing of what one was trying to achieve. (Emphasis added.)

If you know it's right, and you feel it's right, keep pushing.

You Need a Great Motto

This is critical. We often learn by remembering simple mnemonics or taglines ranging from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response tip "HAHAMICE" for those gases that are lighter than air, to how to tell the stress on a sling connection, "double-divided slings are sinful." Some of the more common ones in our field are for firefighters, "put the wet stuff on the wet stuff," and EMS treating hypothermia, "They are not dead until they are warm and dead."

During my career, I have had the chance to help or tag several safety efforts that stuck: "ladders last," "nothing hits the ground" (tagged by Paul Huntley of Turner), and "do the math."

Ladders Last

I was recently asked to speak on artifacts in construction. Once again, I covered the threats of ladders and the idea of "ladders last" in an effort to reduce ladder falls. Advocating this since 2011 (some people may be tired of hearing about it), but in the world of stickiness, this approach has stuck. Initiated at Turner around 2005, we invited some of the brightest people in the safety world to a summit in New Jersey. The goal was to keep people from falling off of ladders.

First, I thought we would call the effort "ladders no more," but someone reminded me there is still a need for some ladders. So, I came up with "ladders last." Kevin King, Turner's risk manager, gave it the nod and, as Liberty Mutual later stated, "This is a game changer." I'm very proud to have been a part of the team that started this. How sticky was it? Well, just Google it to find out.

Nothing Hits the Ground

This is one of my favorite "sticky stories." Dan Lavoie of Liberty Mutual and I were walking a project in New York City when we saw a pile of steel-stud ends accumulating on the ground next to a table saw. It reminded us of the scene from Hot Shots! Part Deux where a young Charlie Sheen is shooting a machine gun and soon engulfed by the empty shell casings. I grabbed a trashcan and put it under the saw, and the idea "nothing hits the ground" was born. The tagline was later created by Mr. Huntley, the safety director for Turner who oversees Connecticut.

The idea is so simple. Any material arrives on site in a box, basket, barrel, bin, or bucket. Any debris produced goes directly into a container. This makes for an orderly site and makes moving things easy.

Nothing Hits the Ground - Lyons - March 2018

Do the Math

Around 2003, I was walking a project in Pittsburgh and spotted a worker on the second tier of scaffolding. He was "protected" from a fall by wearing conventional fall gear. I asked him if he would mind coming down to meet me. "Hang on, let me unhook." I replied, "Oh no, no need for that," for he was 10 feet up with 6 feet of safety line. He is still connected to his fall prevention gear.

Do the Math Example - Lyons - March 2018

From this incident, I asked my Turner safety directors to audit their sites to see how many workers that were tied off, if they fell, would still hit the ground. We found that to be 1 out of 4, and "do the math" was born. The idea was and still is that when you find someone too close to the ground, you grab a marker and have that worker "do the math" on a piece of wood or Sheetrock. We then had a series of hard hat stickers made up showing exactly the problem and handed them out to anyone tied off—good or bad. Ask anyone at Turner about "do the math," and they will know. It stuck.

Do the Math - Lyons - March 2018


When forming your ideas into execution, try to discover what will make it sticky. But beware: Many interventions, even successful interventions, may take decades to take hold. Not everyone will embrace it right away, and in fact, some never will for the next step in safety may cost someone's job. During my "ladders last" efforts, I got a call as I cut my grass on a Saturday. The caller was from a federal agency devoted to a safe workplace. The caller was upset that my work ridding projects of ladders would eliminate much of the research she was doing on improving ladders. It was an uneasy conversation because I had not considered those implications.

And one last story to tie this article and obstacles together. I was once asked to speak to a group of vice presidents at their "summit" in Florida about where our safety efforts should go. I listed three goals: "ladders last," "nothing hits the ground," and using SawStop technology on our sites. SawStop saws will stop instantly when they sense a finger or hand touching the blade. I mentioned that the inventor had stopped counting after 3,000 people saved their fingers using his saw.

One of the vice presidents then offered up, "Yes, but there is that one time it won't work." I was crushed to think that someone would offer up such resistance to solid data. And that brought me back to that line from Mr. Furst: "TJ, most people think that, if it wasn't their idea, it's not a good idea." Take that as your challenge.

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