Secrets to Superior Safety

No one needs to be lectured on the value of a strong safety program; the benefits to the employees, their families, and the company are all well known and well documented.

But how do you go about improving your company’s safety program? To find out, we asked two of the HVAC industry’s safety leaders, and members of a sheet metal contractors’ peer group, for some tips on how they have implemented and sustained good safety programs.

“We are where we are because we have a culture that doesn’t allow people to think about anything until they’ve thought about safety first,” says Tim Howald, president of Tweet/Garot Mechanical, Inc., Green Bay, WI. At the time of this writing, Tweet/ Garot had surpassed 3.6 million safe hours without a losttime accident, going back to June, 2002.

The 400-employee company is regularly honored for its safety performance by the Associated General Contractors (12 consecutive years), the Wisconsin Council of Safety (11 consecutive years), the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA), and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

But it wasn’t always like this, Howald recalls. “When I bought the controlling interest in the company, in 1984, we were consumed by contracting, just like everybody else. It was all about growth and survival, and doing the best we could financially. We thought we were paying attention to safety, but in reality we weren’t.”

That began to change in the early 1990s, when Chris Warren was hired as a dedicated safety director. “This was at a time when even the GCs in our community didn’t have a safety director, and I think they wondered how we were able to commit so much time and energy and resources to it,” Howald says. Warren started small, with items such as mandatory footwear, hard hats, safety glasses, and hearing protection. Soon the employees realized the company was serious about providing them with every possible safety resource.

“Ultimately, after years of Chris’ leadership, and the buy-in of our entire management group, we got to the point where everybody in our company knows that everything has to be analyzed from a safety perspective first,” Howald says. “It can’t be about productivity, it can’t be about labor units, it can’t even be about getting the job done if safety is compromised in any way, shape, or form.”

Warren, Tweet/Garot’s director of safety/lean facilitation, says there are five major components to Tweet/Garot’s safety program.

1. A zero-injury initiative and a zero-injury mindset. “We have continued culture expectations and continued vigilance to educate people that this is our way of life,” Warren says.

2. Pre-job planning cards. This gets safety on everyone’s mind not only at the start of every job, but at the start of every day. All of Tweet/Garot’s crews have daily huddles, in which they review what they’re going to do, identify the steps and the hazards, and determine what they are going to do to eliminate or overcome the hazards.

3. Continuous safety training.

4. A third-party drug testing program. “We’re very fortunate to have the unions in our area be very proactive in working with us on this,” Warren says. “And since it’s a third-party program, the employees don’t perceive it as a ‘them’ or ‘us’ scenario, it’s a ‘we’ program. If we identify someone as using drugs, we can get him or her off the jobsite, keeping both the individual and his or her co-workers out of danger while they get help.”

5. Reaction to injuries. “While we focus mostly on proactiveness, unfortunately we do have to deal with some reactive issues,” Warren says. In such cases, the company has a strong return to work or alternate duty program. “Our providers know that we don’t want to know what the employee can’t do, we want to know what he or she can do. And we want to keep them working.”

Today, Gabe Gutenberger is Tweet/Garot’s director of safety, and he says the company’s focus on safety planning has had the unanticipated benefit of helping with day-to-day project planning.

“The zero-injury program, with its daily list of hazards and list of corrective actions, has actually expanded to include onsite planning for tools, materials, and so on,” Gutenberger says. “Moving it to areas where it’s used for the whole job, without losing its primary focus on safety, really helps the workers embrace it.”

Adds Howald: “Our safety program requires an awful lot of diligence, but it’s worth it. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Another safety-conscious company is Rabe Environmental Services, Erie, PA. Rabe and Tweet/Garot belong to a very active industry peer group along with Streimer Sheet Metal of Portland, OR, and Ernest D. Menold of Lester, PA. Rabe received the Pennsylvania Governor’s Safety Award in 2006, and has had zero lost-time accidents in six of the last eight years.

One of the first things that new employees do is meet with Denise Buell, the company’s quality assurance manager and safety director for the past seven years. New hires are given a general safety orientation covering the company’s safety polices and procedures. All employees are also given a special safety orientation specific to their specialty, such as pipe fitters or sheet metal workers.

“However, despite all the orientations and training we have, the biggest thing is active involvement,” Buell says. “We have an operations meeting every single Friday, and at the beginning of that we go over safety. Every single project manager has to report to me on what jobs they went to, any safety issues or hazards at those jobs, and who they talked to that week regarding safety.”

Rabe President Rich Patrizia says a key is having the right safety procedures, including a complete and workable safety manual that outlines the requirements for safe work practices. However, these things are not necessarily going to ensure safe work practices.

“While policies and procedures are where it all starts, we had those in place for many years and didn’t achieve significant improvement,” Patrizia says. “What we didn’t have in place for a long time was the establishment of safety as a company culture. Something that starts at the top and permeates the whole company. It wasn’t until we had that that we really saw safety dividends.”

Other important components of a safety program, according to Patrizia, are ongoing training, a safety manual, and safety training that evolves as different methodologies to improve safety are learned.

As an ISO-certified company, Rabe has what are called “corrective action requests” that document any safety incidents. “This gives us a system whereby we can determine the root causes and solutions of any safety issues, share those with the management team, and incorporate them into the employees’ training.

“We constantly improve our systems and procedures,” agrees Buell. “Any time something comes up, we analyze it, solve it, and improve ourselves based on it. We don’t want to ever make the same mistake twice.”

The company is also proud of its daily QUEST (quality, efficiency, safety, and teamwork) jobsite huddles, in which the field supervisor reviews the work to be done that day, addresses any specific safety concerns, and provides all the necessary personal protective equipment. “This gets everyone thinking safety at the start of every day,” Patrizia notes.

In the midst of all analysis, improvement, and training, Patrizia keeps safety in the forefront of everyone’s minds through the judicious application of good old capitalism. For example, the company’s “Safety 100” program is an incentive program in which field supervisors earn $100 if they complete a comprehensive safety checklist at the start of each job, and a comprehensive weekly safety inspection throughout the job.

At a recent high-profile, fast-track casino project, the company offered to raffle off a 56-in. television if the project was completed accident-free. “We were very happy to be able to give away that TV,” Patrizia says.

Ultimately, a good safety program has many components, but the most important component is inside the head of the company’s president.

“It has to be a company-wide culture, and that means it has to come from the top,” Patrizia says. “Our people work safely because everyone here knows we will not compromise safety for any reason. If it can’t be done safely, it can’t be done at all.”

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