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May 2, 2013

Safety's role in the ‘new normal’ of construction

  • With safety regulations changing, responsible contractors must have someone making sure safety programs and job sites are up to date.
    Special to the Journal



    When the local construction economy started to improve, everyone scrambled quickly to gear up again.

    But there is still a great deal of uncertainty, and backlogs aren’t always as deep as contractors would like. So instead of hiring many new employees, often contractors and their core employees are just working harder and longer. They hire only when projects demand new personnel.

    In addition, contractors need to have a low EMR with low premiums to be competitive with their bids because developers are looking for the highest value at the lowest price.

    With all this emphasis on cost in this new marketplace, how do contractors fulfill their safety needs? Contractors want to run safe jobs to protect their workers and stay in compliance with safety regulations. An injury is disruptive and demoralizing to the crew and costly to the employer for years because it affects EMR.

    How safety fits in

    With contractors needing to keep their staffing levels as low as possible, how does safety fit into today’s construction marketplace? It makes sense to have every employee stay focused on doing their work safely to bring the job in on time and on budget.

    With safety regulations changing, responsible contractors must have someone making sure safety programs and job sites are up to date. If the company is large enough, hiring a full-time safety director is always a good option, but that isn’t an option for many contractors.

    There are a number of safety consultant firms that can be hired on a retainer contract or on an as-needed basis. These are safety professionals who provide a wide range of valuable services, from updating safety programs in the office to doing job site inspections in the field.

    Another option would be to join an association that has safety personnel who are available to advise members. Often, associations with retrospective ratings programs have this service available. These groups often also provide safety seminars and other safety and workers’ compensation services for free or a reduced fee.

    Associations also provide safety roundtables and forums, as well as self-assessments tools, such as ABC’s Safety Training and Evaluation Process. Trade groups also have elite safety recognition programs such as the ABC Safety Alliance and AGC Safety Team.

    Recently, ABC launched a new program called Safety-on-Demand that provides safety consultant services at a reduced hourly rate.

    Safety Matters provides the services on a per-month contract with the more hours used in a month, the lower the hourly fee. As we talked to members while we were developing this new service, they all said this was a wonderful approach to their needs. With this program contractors may purchase as many hours as they need, based on their current work load, without committing to a specific contract requirement.

    Once in the program, members call Safety Matters to assist with developing a site-specific safety plan or conducting a safety and health inspection on one of their projects. They can also get assistance if there are accidents on a job. The association handles administration and billing so that the safety consultants can concentrate on what they do best — keep workers safe and contractors compliant.

    It has worked well for the contractors in the program. Erin VerHoeven, vice president and co-owner of Corstone Contractors LLC, signed up right away.

    “To be able to have a well-respected safety consultant help us with our safety needs and keep our costs down has been tremendously helpful. The market is so competitive we need to find savings wherever we can — and keep our workers safe.”

    L&I resources

    Another safety resource is the Department of Labor and Industries. Its website has a wide variety of information on industrial health and safety, from A (accident prevention plan) to W (workshops). The department’s consultation services will do a job site safety inspection without fear of getting a citation for an infraction.

    The consultation side of L&I doesn’t report on their findings to the compliance side, but there are compliance inspectors checking on job sites every day. Being out of compliance can be expensive and is always stressful and distracting. Check out http://www.lni.wa.gov/safety for more details.

    Regardless of which resources a contractor chooses to be safe, a key component to success is creating a culture of safety within the company so that all workers understand it is their personal responsibility to be safe and keep others safe every day on every job site. Everyone deserves a safe and healthy work place and getting employees to take responsibility is the key to achieving zero injuries.

    Kathleen Garrity has served as president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington since the chapter was founded in 1983. She sits on the state Prevailing Wage Advisory Committee and serves on the NAIOP Community Enhancement Committee. Jennifer Richards is principal of Safety Matters LLC. She has worked in the construction industry since 1987, beginning as a carpenter’s apprentice. She also serves on the board of the Construction Industry Training Council.

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