It’s one of those wise and timeless sayings that just can’t be denied: “better safe than sorry.”
In each endeavor, care and planning smooths out the bumps in the road, and bring a more satisfying result to any project. Safety as it relates to HVACR contracting — in the shop or in the field — is critical to employee well-being and company success. If you’re not following a prescribed safety program, the clock is ticking, and it’s only a matter of time until a catastrophic accident befalls one of your employees, and perhaps, ruins your company.
Contracting Business.com recently spoke with representatives of leading mechanical HVAC companies to learn their views on safety and some details of their award-winning safety programs.
Never Too Big to Be Safe
Among the HVAC industry’s largest and safest companies is EMCOR Group, Inc., headquartered In Norwalk, CT, a leading provider of mechanical and electrical construction and energy infrastructure and facilities services for a diverse range of businesses. More than one of its subsidiaries are past recipients of Contracting Business.com’s Commercial HVAC Contractor of the Year and Design/Build awards.
Many of EMCOR’s 75+ subsidiaries are frequently recognized for their impressive safety records. For example, University Marelich Mechanical, Inc., Anaheim, CA, has earned safety awards from the Associated General Contractors of California (ACG-CA), Sheet Metal Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), Mechanical Contractors of America (MCAA), and California Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association (CPMCA).
In September 2011, EMCOR subsidiary, Air Systems, Inc., San Jose, CA, received a SMACNA first place award for an outstanding safety record in the 400,000 to 500,000 man-hours category.
EMCOR’s devotion to safety is one of five measures of the company’s success cited in the company’s 2010 annual report. “Safety is an overarching principle at EMCOR, which we hold up at the highest possible level,” says Mava K. Heffler, EMCOR’s vice president, marketing and communications. Every injury is reviewed and communicated across EMCOR In alerts, emails and reports, as soon as possible, in order to inform others of the cause, what can be done to prevent the Injury and has a general reminder of the need to work safely in line with good work practice.
At EMCOR, safety is part of an ultra-comprehensive program of education and communication that’s taken so seriously that it’s at the fabric and behavior of the organization. It’s not a ‘band-aid’ type of program — it’s foundational,” Heffler says.
A comprehensive safety program not only helps a business avoid small accidents; it’s a perpetual sentry against injuries which could have lifelong, negative implications, says David M. Copley, EMCOR’s vice president of safety and quality management. “A serious injury can have catastrophic effects on the worker, their family, and their friends. A crippling injury can result in the need for a lifetime of care for the worker and a changed life for family and friends,” Copley says. “And, others on the jobsite, who could have possibly prevented an accident, would never forgive themselves if they felt they failed to intervene or provided wrong direction.”
Since 2003, EMCOR has dramatically reduced injuries and improved the safety of all of the company’s work sites through a combination of initiatives and a sharp focus on ensuring that workers return home each day, safe and uninjured. EMCOR’s two signature programs, the “Be There for Life! Zero Accident Program” and the “Changing the Way We Work Program,” educate workers about complying with safety practices, while maximizing the quality of their work. Between 2003 and 2009, injuries were reduced by 66%. Injuries have continued to decline since that date.
“We realized that it’s the way that we work that can cause or prevent injuries and that by changing the way we work we can reduce risk and injuries and increase productivity,” Copley explains. “For example, if we have a load of materials to move, and decide that we’re going to have four people move those materials, and all have been trained in proper lift-and-carry techniques, and have protective equipment, they can indeed move those materials safely. However, if we change the way we work, and assign one person with material handling equipment to move the material, they’ll all be less fatigued, and the other three can remain productive by working on other tasks. Like most contractors, we don’t get paid for moving materials, only for installing them.”
The “Zero Accident” and “Changing the Way We Work” programs have been recognized by CNA Insurance, which in 2009 selected EMCOR as the first recipient of its Chairman’s Safety Innovation Award. The award commends an organization for exceptional safety performance, commitment to safety, and injury reduction. EMCOR has also developed educational programs such as its Productivity Plus Roadshow, Productivity Champions Class, and SuperVISION classes, all designed to reduce risk and injuries and improve productivity.
“The Productivity Plus Road Show travels to each of our operating companies. We devote time to educating managers and field leaders in what constitutes financial losses and how to reduce them by changing the way we work, to reduce fatigue, waste motion and injury,” Copley explains. “We follow that up with Champions Classes, where we bring people together from our various companies for additional education on how to change behavior. SuperVISION classes teach our field leaders about observation techniques. We photograph people at work, and critique the photos to explain how they can change their body posture, tooling, and processes to benefit themselves and their individual EMCOR subsidiary company.”
“You must have adequate resources in place, properly trained employees, the right safety equipment, and compliance assurance."—David Copley
A monthly publication, “Productivity Plus,” features EMCOR companies who are using a particular product or process to improve safety, quality, and productivity. “Peer to peer communication is far more effective in changing attitude and behavior than any email from the head office, “ Copley says. To reinforce its employees’ commitments to safety, EMCOR awards gold, silver, and bronze recognition medallions to its subsidiaries, for safety records of one year, nine months, or six months without a recordable injury.
Injuries are costly, and the cost of medical treatment rises each year, but by devoting financial resources to safety awareness, training, and equipment, a contracting firm can save itself the millions of dollars that injuries might cost in workers compensation costs, lost productivity and higher insurance premiums.
“There's a price to pay to be safe,” Copley agrees. “You must have adequate resources in place, properly trained employees, the right safety equipment, and compliance assurance. In real terms, those are costs that any good company should already be budgeting for. When you invest that way, you’re able to reduce losses. Although there’s a balance between what it costs to implement safety, and what it costs as the worst-case result of not having an effective safety program, having an effective safety program that looks to technology and change to improve safety will result in productivity gains.
“We monitor losses carefully, and over a number of years we’ve seen a significant reduction,” he reveals. “Consequently, our workers’ compensation premiums have fallen, because EMCOR is seen as less of a risk by our insurance provider. As workers compensation costs have decreased, earnings per worker have increased. This is a win-win situation for our employees and EMCOR.”
Closed Door to Bid Process
Ignoring safety can result in your firm being shut out of the bidding on certain projects.
“A good safety record will help you knock on the door, and have an opportunity to bid a project. We know for a fact that some companies can be excluded on the basis of a poor safety record,” Copley says. “An effective safety program will help get the job done on time, to meet estimates, and to ensure everyone’s satisfaction.”
Using Safety Resources
The argument that there’s nowhere to go for information on working safely doesn’t fly anymore. Indoor Environmental Services, Sacramento, CA. is a 2011 SMACNA Safety Program winner, for zero lost -time accidents, in the 200,000-300,000 hours category. It’s also earned a Platinum Award from the Contractors Safety Assessment Program administered by ConstructSecure, Inc.
Safety Director Eric Fuchino says IES’s primary safety bible is based on CalOSHA guidelines, which he supplements with various association materials.
“We take advantage of our memberships with MCAA, SMACNA, and others, for safety videos and sample programs. We attend safety conferences, and meet many different people in this industry, and come up with great ideas and a better understanding of the standards and regulations. I apply a lot of information I learn from conferences, and have picked up a lot from other companies and have applied it here. That’s one reason why our program works the way it does.”
He says those tips range from the less interesting —such as which accidents are recordable, and which are not — to action ideas, such as when he learned about On-Site Health and Safety Services, Anaheim, CA. This California service provides 24-hour mobile health and safety services.
“On-Site’s Emergency Medical Technicians and nurses come out to the jobsite, treat the injury, talk to the employee, and allow them to ask questions. It gives the worker a comfortable place to be seen; they don’t have to go to the ER and sit and wait. On-Site shows up at the jobsite in about 45 minutes,” Fuchino explains. In addition to 24-hour first aid, On-Site Health and Safety Services provides pulmonary function testing, respirator fit tests, blood draws, drug testing, and audiometry, customized new hire orientation training, contract first aid and safety technicians for any size job.
Slow Down and Be Safe
Fuchino finds that safety competency varies among employees. “We still find a lot of people still learning safety on the job. They don’t show up ‘safety prepared.’ And the main reason is, this is an industry that accepts risk, and promotes ‘getting the job done ASAP,’” Fuchino says. “So, they show up ready to get the job done to make an impression. We get them to see that it’s okay to slow down, and that they can’t do this job unless they can figure out how to do it safely. Incorporating that mindset into the work habits of a new employee — especially a younger employee — is the beginning of the process. Which is one reason why we empower the foremen to encourage safety.”
Fuchino is happy to report that employees have come to understand how working safely “adds hours.”
“To get work, we need a low Experience Modification Rate (EMR), which is a number used by insurance companies to gauge both past cost of injuries and future chances of risk,” he explains. “After our general contractors and end-user customers started using safety as their measurement tool for a good company, our field employees realized that working safely ‘adds hours,’ and they changed their behavior,” he relates. “When we work safely, it gives us the ability to get more work. That small change in the industry has helped business owners, as well as the field teams, change their behavior.
“Potential customers also review number of vehicles against traffic accidents. If it’s high, they won’t choose us. At times, a high mod rate will even eliminate you from bidding on a project. It helps us explain to employees how safety keeps them working.”
Limber Up, Wise Up
Knowing that fatigue and personal habits can affect job alertness and performance, the company began a “Stretch to Flex” program. Every safety meeting begins with some stretching exercises and rolls into a discussion of fitness and alcohol and drug policies.
With vehicles traversing the highways for service, construction, and special projects, Fuchino says IES’s highest risks evolve around traffic-related incidents. Other high risk areas include strains and sprains, eye injuries, and cuts. However, mandating safety equipment has brought good results. “We’ve eliminated eye issues by enforcing our safety glasses mandate,” he reveals, “and we reduced cuts to one accident so far in 2011 by enforcing our glove policy. Driving incidents were reduced last year. In 2011, we had minor incidents which didn’t involve another vehicle. That didn’t cost us any lost time, but it helped focus awareness.”
Support from the Top
Joe O’Neil, operations manager, Crockett Facilities Services, Bowie, MD, has more than 10 years of experience in developing safety procedures. He says a recognition of the value of safe practices at the top management level helps instill awarenesss among field employees.
“Employee buy-in depends on how well the company executives promote the safety environment,” O’Neil says. “If the president doesn’t promote the safety atmosphere, the troops won’t buy it. At Crockett, we developed our safety plan from the top down. We have the full support from the owners with its development and implementation. They support it with our employee safety awards and by purchasing of the latest in safety equipment and gear. The employees see that, so they too make it important in their own jobs.”
What would O’Neil advise contractors who feel they need to improve their safety programs?
“If you feel like you need to improve, you probably do,” he replies. “We had to take baby steps. The development of a safety program is daunting task. It’s overwhelming, looking at the big picture. We contacted industry connections and even clients to collect tips and pointers. Some of our largest clients were more than happy to provide information and share resources. We used OSHA, NFPA and NEC, just to mention a few, to gather information. The workers comp folks were happy to chip in, too. We took a few programs at a time and built on them annually.”
Mike McCullion, Director of Safety and Health for Sheet Metal Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) says an increased number of HVAC/sheet metal fabricating firms are paying more attention to safey. The reasons include record-keeping mandates, and the importance of safety to customers.
“One main driver in recent safety program improvements for many sheet metal and HVAC companies is the need to improve and maintain safety records, such as OSHA incidence rate and EMR, due to the demand in the bid and proposal stages of projects,”McCullion says. “Large clients and owners are looking to hire companies with good safety records, and the ability to demonstrate an effective safety and health program is vital to winning bids and keeping contracts.”
Ask yourself what you want your company’s safety culture to be, McCullion says. Answer that question, and you’ve made a good start.
Making safety and health part of how the job is done
goes a long way towards successful projects.”
“Even small companies can move a safety “program” to a safety “culture,” by taking simple steps towards recognizing that safety is not just part of doing business, but it is the way business gets done. Training workers to appreciate that safety is part of every task, job, and process is one important part of a safety culture. If ‘Joe Worker’ reminds ‘Bill Welder’ that he isn’t wearing his safety glasses, does Bill get defensive and tell Joe to mind his own business? Or, does Bill thank Joe for helping him avoid injury: “Wow, thanks for reminding me!"
As Copley and Fuchino have emphasized, McCullion agrees that the business ramifications to having a poor safety record can no longer be ignored.
“Company owners need to recognize that safety (accident prevention) is a cost center that can contribute to the bottom line through obvious benefits, such as lower workers comp payments and insurance refunds for an EMR below 1.0, as well as the not so obvious paybacks such as increased productivity, higher morale, and avoiding OSHA penalties.
“Incorporating safety into operations is important. Written safety and health policies and procedures need to be included in operations manuals, not just dusty manuals sitting on a shelf.
“Safety equals quality,” he says. “Train workers to do jobs and tasks safely. If you train a worker to weld, train them to weld safely. Making safety and health part of how the job is done goes a long way towards successful projects.”
Some Safety Resources
ACCA has partnered with Federated Insurance to provide our members with access to exclusive resources on workplace safety and risk management. acca.org/members/insurance
The AC&R Safety Coalition provides training for Universal R-410 Safety Certification. R-410A-designed systems employ thicker walled tubing, and compressors capable of withstanding the higher pressures of R-410A. R-410A systems require different installation and service procedures.
American Safety Training Solutions offers 1-day, 2-day and 4-day federal OSHA and California OSHA safety training at numerous locations across the country each month.
The Contractor Safety Assessment Program (CSAP) assists in contractor selection through evaluation of a contractor’s safety performance history and current safety management systems. https://www.constructseer.com/Faq
The Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) has released a new educational DVD to assist mechanical construction foremen and project managers in resolving safety conflicts on the jobsite. Making It Work: Safety Conflict Resolution for Supervisors provides guidance for supervisors to address jobsite safety conflicts in the most effective and efficient manner possible. mcaa.org/store.
To address the increasingly important need to keep heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration technicians safe in the field, RSES is offering a new, 165-page book, “Safety for the HVACR Service Technician.” http://bit.ly/rsessafety
SMACNA’s Safety and Health Department develops safety programs, publications, services and videos to assist members in establishing and managing effective safety programs.
Safety plan downloads can be purchased from Liberty Construction and Vic Sunshine, a former contractor and safety consultant. Complete construction safety programs and plans are available to download, or safety program packages can be prepared and shipped direct.