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July 15, 2010

Safety experts talk safety

The DJC interviewed four members of the AGC Safety Team to see what makes them tick. Some go to extremes to get their workers' attention — in one case resorting to magic tricks and humor — but all want their workers to go home in one piece at the end of the day.

Ray Pierce


Diamond B Constructors

Pierce is corporate safety director at Diamond B Constructors, a Bellingham-based mechanical and HVAC contractor with commercial and industrial divisions. Pierce has been with the 100-year-old company for seven years.

Q: How did you get into safety as a career?

A: While working at a pulp mill I was asked to perform tasks that were inherently dangerous with no type of protection for the hazards present and I refused. When union workers heard that I had the guts to stand up to management in the interest of safety, I was chosen to be on the safety committee and then elected as chairman. When the mill closed in 2001 I moved on to construction safety in oil refineries and other process facilities.

Q: What do you like best about your work?

A: The thing I enjoy most about what I do is training and educating workers on safety issues. I try hard to make training interesting, using non-standard techniques such as videos, magic and humor to illustrate points. Adults don't learn well by lecture, they will remember your points if you do things that stand out. After 10 years I still run into workers from the pulp mill that remember my training and actually enjoyed hearing about safety! Ya gotta make it fun if you can.

Q: What's the next big thing in safety?

A: I hope that the safety community can begin to openly talk about “personal accountability” in safety. Currently there is a somewhat unwritten rule that we avoid assigning any responsibility to an injured worker for fear of being viewed as “pointing the finger of blame.” It is the workers who feel the pain of injury and it is they who have the most to gain from a good safety culture. Part of a healthy culture is accepting responsibility for one's actions and hopefully sharing with others how they can avoid the same mistakes.

Q: How has the AGC Safety Team helped your firm?

A: People in the know recognize the AGC as an organization that promotes quality and professionalism in its members. Specific criteria must be met before you can become an AGC member and one heavily weighted factor is safety performance. The AGC regularly audits member project sites for safety compliance and the effectiveness of their safety programs. When deficiencies are found members get AGC assistance in making corrections. This sort of oversight benefits even the most well-informed safety professionals and their employees. I honestly can't imagine doing my job without their help.

Q: Are projects still being rushed to get finished early? Does that affect safety?

A: It's great if a project finishes early, but not at the expense of worker and public safety. Our projects are planned so that possible impacts to schedule have contingencies in place to keep the project moving steadily ahead. Obviously there are impacts that no one can plan for, and when that happens AGC members do not compromise on safety.

Q: Is construction different when it comes to safety?

A: Construction safety differs from standard industrial safety simply because the landscape is constantly changing, and with construction techniques today it changes rapidly. One day there may be minimal electrical hazard and the next a building has been energized requiring lockout/tagout procedures be followed.

Because a construction site changes constantly, all procedures must be continually reviewed and adapted to the current needs. In standard industry, for the most part, it's the same equipment doing the same thing every day. Additionally, in construction the workforce changes from one project to another, creating greater challenges in meeting safety-training requirements.

Mark Gauger


GLY Construction

Gauger got into construction after graduating from Western Washington University with a communications degree. He knew some people at McKinstry and took a gofer job there in the mid-1980s during a tough economy.

After six months of being the gofer, Gauger moved into manpower coordination, where his duties included permits and L&I claims. Then he became project coordinator, project manager and finally safety director.

After 13 years at McKinstry, Gauger spent five years as director of safety of the AGC, then six years in a similar role for the Mechanical Contractors Association of Western Washington.

In 2008, he got a call from GLY Construction's Tim Gottberg, who was planning to retire as safety manager and was seeking a replacement. Gauger said he knew a lot of people at GLY and missed working in the field, so he took the job.

Q: What is GLY's safety record?

A: Everyone at GLY, in every position, is extremely proud of our safety record, but we do understand that perfection is the goal. At this time our experience modification rate (EMR) is .5038 with a recordable incident rate of 3.86 while coming off of the last two years without any time-loss injuries. The statistics are good and help with benchmarking and program motivation, but GLY's real program is in how individuals are treated and the importance company leadership puts on doing the right thing. The company culture is collaborative throughout, and within our safety department we concentrate on coaching and education, and only using discipline when really needed. At GLY it is a team effort and everyone owns safety.

Q: What do you think of incentive programs for workers?

A: Incentive programs can have a purpose and a positive effect, but a company must understand what they usually are. For most companies, it is a marketing program; that's OK, as long as everyone understands what it is. As far as their effectiveness, it depends on the company. Some of the best safety results I've seen over the years are from companies that have had very small or no incentive programs. On the other hand, I have seen some work extremely well. One common theme I've seen is that if you start an incentive program, you can make changes, but do not stop. If companies do, I have seen their safety program falter because of a drop in morale.

Q: What is the biggest safety concern of your workers?

A: Access to and from working decks as well as safe access around a jobsite is one I've heard the most about over my years. Even when there is good access there always seems to be a concern that it will stay that way. During any given day, from moment to moment, jobsites change. Material gets delivered, vehicles and equipment are constantly moving, and areas of sites become restricted due to work sequencing, weather, manpower issues and scope changes. Construction sites are in a constant state of change, which is why safety programs must be looked at as a process. Site safety is never over; it is just an ever-changing and evolving process.

Q: Has the recession affected safety?

A: I think the recession has affected everyone within every industry and construction safety is no different. There have been safety professionals laid off all over the region. In fact, GLY did have to cut back from five to four safety people, but that is not where the recession has affected safety the most. With the current recession, the type of projects that are being built has changed. The larger, longer term projects are not as prevalent as they were, due to the financial industry's reluctance to give loans. This in turn means that the typical construction company is doing more projects, with smaller scopes and lower margins. Bottom line, there are fewer safety people covering more projects.

Q: Are smaller projects safer than larger ones?

A: Small projects are not necessarily safer than large projects. On the typical tenant improvement project you have a smaller workforce, which is easier to manage and you don't usually have the extremely high hazards, but the extremely high-hazard issues are not where most people get hurt. Human nature is that people won't take chances on what they feel is a high hazard, but if they don't perceive it as such, then we can see more frequent injuries.

Q: Where do most people get hurt?

A: Material handling is where most of our accidents occur: legs (knees/ankles), hands, shoulders and backs. Even though we have lifting rules for weight amounts that address when to get help, we still see injuries associated with this. Construction workers have “can do” personalities and are trying to do a great job for the company, which in turn allows them to take care of their families, but sometimes that attitude means they do their own internal risk-reward assessment and don't always do what is best for them, physically. I call that doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Their logic is understandable, can't argue with it, but it is not the best thing for them, their family or the company in the long run.

Q: What worries you most about the construction industry?

A: My two biggest concerns are the aging workforce and regulatory agencies. Younger workers entering the construction industry are working smarter and getting hurt less, but we are still losing the younger workers to the technology-driven industries. In construction, people still build buildings, and we are getting the word out that our workers can earn a very good wage while building something they can be proud of for years.

The worker safety regulatory agency in Washington state is the Department of Safety and Health (DOSH). What worries me most about DOSH is the extra scrutiny the larger contractors seem to be getting during this economic downturn, while smaller contractors and jobsites outside the metropolitan areas are not seeing this same scrutiny. AGC and its Safety Committee have been trying to persuade DOSH to institute an inspection targeting program that would focus regulatory resources on contractors, no matter what size, that have the highest frequency of injuries based on EMR and claims data. A targeting program would “level the playing field” and help worker safety where it is needed most.

Lori Wehmhoefer

Pease Construction

Wehmhoefer is the safety officer at Pease Construction in Lakewood. She got her start in construction in 1982 with Pease & Sons, a Tacoma-based general and mechanical contractor. She held administrative roles, but left in 1985 to be a stay-at-home mom. A year later, she got a call to join Pease Construction, which was formed in 1984 by Loren Pease and Patty Candiotta, both relatives of the founders of Pease & Sons.

Wehmhoefer fills a number of roles at Pease in addition to safety officer, such as small business advocate, marketer, claims manager and project manager.

Q: Are construction companies safer today than 10 or 20 years ago?

A: The construction companies that I am familiar with are so much safer now. There were exposures that we weren't even aware of 10 or 20 years ago. Business for those providing personal protective equipment has, fortunately, seen a huge increase in consumer demand. Trades people are no longer embarrassed to use protective equipment; safety has become a part of their culture!

Q: How do you build a safety culture?

A: The culture has to come from the influence of top management. They need to communicate safety as a priority and then support the steps that lead to that environment. Victories such as no injuries on a work site, or a lower EMF, should be celebrated to reinforce positive accomplishments and keep the momentum.

Q: What is Pease's EMF? How did you get to that level?

A: Our experience modification factor is presently at .8739 and we'd like to see it even lower. Having a low EMF doesn't just happen. It starts with the “safety culture” we talked about. Safety meetings, job site inspections and doing hazard analyses are all great tools to encourage that. If something works well on one site, we share it with another.

AGC Retro is also a great avenue for promoting that same culture, since sharing lessons learned between contractors is essential to making our industry as safe as it can be. Just as you would care for your own family, it is vital to listen to the concerns of the people working with their tools and discuss what techniques are going to make their tasks as safe as they can be.

Q: Do you think anyone can get a 0.0 EMF?

A: There are costs from the Department of Labor and Industries for ALL contractors for items such as overhead, wages, insurance, etc., so no contractor can achieve a 0.0. The lowest one that my sources were aware of was a .27.

Q: What concerns you most about today's job site?

A: Human error. The protections are available, but the recognition of hazards comes with knowledge, which takes time to absorb. Adequate training is paramount and the educational process shouldn't stop.

Q: How do you orient new workers to safety?

A: We have a new hire orientation where the immediate supervisor provides instruction. Workers are provided a copy of our general guidelines and safety policy, and their supervisor makes sure that they are aware of job-specific safety issues that are present. Ways to alleviate those hazards are stressed. We encourage questions, since it is more common for a newcomer to feel that doing so might make them appear incapable of handling the job.

Q: Who is safer, women or men?

A: I guess it depends on who “this man” or “this woman” is that we're talking about. My feeling is “being safe” is not something based on gender, but more on who we are individually and what we do with the knowledge that we have.

Randy Mooney

Leslie and Campbell Inc.

Mooney has been safety director/estimator at Leslie and Campbell Inc. for a dozen years. Prior to that, he was safety compliance officer and safety consultant at the state Department of Labor and Industry's Yakima office. He said he left the public sector after 10 years for better pay.

Mooney worked for 13 years in the logging industry before L&I initially hired him as a logging inspector. In the logging industry, he was a field mechanic and was in charge of safety on the side.

Leslie and Campbell was established in 1967 as Dan Leslie Roofing. The commercial and industrial roofer changed its name about a year ago.

Q: Is roofing more dangerous than other construction jobs?

A: Roofing is considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the construction industry. As a commercial/industrial roofing company the majority of our work is low-sloped roofs (flat to 4-in-12 pitch), which eliminates some of the hazards that are associated with high-sloped (steep) roofs. Our jobs are only as dangerous as we make them. With proper training and use of fall protection, a lot of the hazards can be greatly reduced.

Q: What special safety considerations do you take?

A: The roofing industry is considered “high hazard.” There are many safety considerations. My main focus is fall protection due to the severity of the injury. Every job over the legal height, be it a repair or reroof, must have a fall-protection plan and fall protection. It is very important to provide and to ensure the use of fall-protection equipment. The use of personal protective equipment when handling hot asphalt is another. Temperatures can range from 400 to 500 degrees.

Q: You worked for L&I for 10 years. What's it like to be on the “other” side?

A: Now that I'm on the “other side” I see the real difficulties that are associated with meeting some of the requirements from L&I. It can be frustrating at times. It may be as simple as purchasing a box of safety glasses or as difficult as changing a method of operation.

Q: How do you handle safety with new workers?

A: It is very important to start with safety orientation, drug testing and training prior to the employee starting. This is where I like to start the “safety mind set.” The new employee must know the hazards involved prior to being exposed to them. At this point we let the new employee know that it is OK to be safe, and at the same time, there is a disciplinary program if they choose not to be.

Q: What direction is safety moving in?

A: The whole concept of safety is to provide a safe work place. Construction, however, will never be “accident proof.” The direction I would like to see safety move is employee involvement. One of the main elements to a good safety program is to get employees thinking safety. Once employees start thinking safety for themselves and co-workers, an accident prevention program will be far more effective.

Interviews conducted by Benjamin Minnick

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