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Industrial contractors are certainly no slackers when it comes to safety but, lately, a seismic shift in thinking has occurred that could revolutionize the market. 

While rules and protocols—personal protective equipment, safety training, safety oversight, well-maintained equipment and overall work environment—remain critical, contractors are turning to individual and team behavioral approaches at increasing rates in order to minimize safety and risk. The concept is “leadership from the bottom up,” which builds an environment of respect and trust. 

There is an undeniable need for the new approach, as demand for manpower is straining the market and leading to corresponding declines in skill and productivity.

According to an Associated Builders and Contractors analysis of data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, industry employment has expanded by some 142,000 jobs, an increase of 1.9%, in just the last year. As such, strains on the labor force pose the greatest threat to safety as they challenge a contractor’s ability to maintain a strong safety culture across expansive geographies and diverse markets. 

Addressing the Whole Person

Performance Contractors of Baton Rouge is using a rather unorthodox manner to change its safety culture, says Torrey Garrison, vice president of environmental, health and safety. Taking a comprehensive approach that addresses an employee’s overall well-being, the contractor has instituted an app- and web-based employee assistance program. 

Through the EAP, workers can anonymously access topics ranging from time and financial management to more serious topics such as coping with split families and crisis intervention. PTSD is another hot topic. “We want to take care of our employees on and off the jobsite,” Garrison says. “We provide them with outlets to speak about things they might be going through. If we’re taking care of them off the jobsite, they are better prepared to do their work safely on the jobsite.”

In the fourth quarter of 2019, more than 250 employees logged into Performance’s EAP website and more than 260 downloaded the app. But Garrison says it’s not about the numbers: “Even if it’s just seven people, that’s seven people who are getting help who wouldn’t be getting help if we didn’t have this program.” 

Performance displays banners at jobsites, discusses the EAP at monthly meetings and reinforces everything in monthly emails to keep it relevant. “It’s 100% confidential,” he adds. “We don’t know who they are. We know the topic they may be inquiring about and we know the number of people that have either downloaded the app or called, but no names.” 

To further reinforce safety, Performance operates “hands-on evaluation centers” in Lake Charles, Houston, Mobile and Baton Rouge, where new hires literally operate the equipment before they go into the field. They watch videos, then physically walk through a variety of hands-on exercises dealing with fall protection, scaffolding, confined spaces, lock out/tag out, etc. 

Much like Performance, industrial contractor Keen Project Solutions of Ankeny, Iowa, prefers a holistic approach to safety. “We have this wall when you walk into our lobby—the Keen Kids Wall—where you’ll see pictures of our employees’ children wearing personal protective equipment that they’ve gotten from mom or dad,” says Matt Frandsen, Keen’s president. “It’s a great reminder of who we’re really working for.” 

Keen takes a principled approach to safety that emphasizes a corporate responsibility to “send our employees home in one piece.” That’s critical in the inherently dangerous world of industrial construction. “We work in operating industrial facilities, and that further magnifies risk,” he adds, “so we believe it’s important to spend the appropriate amount of time performing up-front planning and identifying potential problem areas.”

Cajun Industries, LLC of Baton Rouge has stopped blaming the employees for safety failures and is instead fostering a culture that encourages safety ownership. As a result, employees are more likely to report near-misses because they don’t have to fear retribution. 

That’s a huge departure from the past, when a contractor was more likely to blame the employee for errant behavior. 

“Everyone in this industry had been trained that way, but we’re now seeing that the system is somewhat flawed,” says Troy Lake, Cajun’s director of corporate safety. “There’s no such thing as one cause; there are always a number of causes. It could be a lack of training, or having no policy or procedure, or a lack of planning.”

Today, the industrial construction market isn’t driven so much by OSHA recordables, but by risk potential. For Cajun, that means performing a formal root-cause analysis when near misses are deemed high-risk. The entire process could take three to four weeks as a team performs a thorough investigation.

Cajun Constructors put in extensive preplanning, meticulous scheduling and strategizing, and remarkably complex execution to deliver the Dow LP6 Debottlenecking Project in Taft, Louisiana, which included 105,326 manhours completed in only 12 months.
Safety in Peril

Owner-imposed time demands are a significant threat to safety, as they push contractors to ramp up labor too quickly in order to meet schedule requirements. That can make the transference of a contractor’s corporate safety culture to the jobsite—no matter how advanced—a difficult proposition. 
During the TrueBulk Loadout Addition at Corteva Agriscience in Hedrick, Iowa, Keen Project Solutions was faced with an increasingly tight schedule that forced multiple trades to work on top of each other. 

Unprecedented weather conditions compounded the problem, forcing the project team to find creative ways to continue working through record snowfall and rain to complete the project. 

“The project had a very tight schedule and timeframe, and as we were starting a project we were going into winter, so the safety and health risks were somewhat magnified,” Frandsen says. The use of chainlink dog kennels covered with insulation and concrete blankets were necessary to keep the crew warm while they placed anchor bolts, equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, to ensure their safety. 

Despite the urgency, Keen dedicated a considerable amount of time to upfront planning to proactively eliminate the safety risks and address production issues and quality. Keen’s reliance on 3D modeling and virtual reality were an integral part of the process. “Across all our projects, we’re using virtual reality as a part of our planning process and design, which also benefits us from a safety perspective,” Frandsen says. 

Keen also leaned on prefabrication and modularized construction to reduce crane time and fall risk at the Corteva site, and it conducted an extensive prequalification process for new employees to preemptively mitigate productivity and safety issues.

“Finding adequate skilled labor can certainly have an impact on safety and productivity,” Frandsen says. “We perform due diligence on the front end. We’ll do a good amount of upfront work to make sure we understand their capabilities, resources based on that period of time, as well as any limitations they might have.” 

During a recent project at Philips 66 in Lake Charles, Performance Contractors doubled down on safety with additional coverage in work areas and an aggressive communications campaign. Ultimately, the contractors needed to safely and efficiently work all scopes simultaneously and still complete the project by the second quarter of 2019. Civil, mechanical, scaffolding, heavy lifting and E&I teams worked side-by-side on a tight worksite throughout the project. 

Incidentally, it was also one of the first test sites for Performance’s Safety KPI Dashboard System. The online accessible system provides real-time access to site safety observation data. 

Unrealistic time constraints are more the rule than the exception these days, Cajun Industries’ Lake says. Owners are often pressured to overlay schedules and construct multiple projects simultaneously. While in the past there would be some transition between project phases, contractors are pushed to keep a project moving. 

Lake says that makes it difficult to maintain a safe site, as contractors must often work in the same space. “The owners are pushing for shorter schedules,” he explains. “The same amount of work that would normally take a year, they now want it done in nine months.

“That creates congestion that we don’t have control over,” he adds. “When another contractor has to bring in a crane or set up structural steel around us, or put in foundations etc., we’re all working in the same space. That makes it more difficult and you’ve got to have a different thought process to make everything happen safely.”

Editor's Note: This article was researched and written before the COVID-19 crisis.

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