Safety: Anatomy of a Turnaround

July 1, 2010

If you think safety isn’t worth the time and safety cultures are hokum, take a look at Fox Contractors Corp. of Fort Wayne, IN. A site-development and heavy/highway contractor, Fox employs some 350 personnel at its peak workload. In former days, the company focused on production first-get ‘er done, one way or another!

Then along came the Parkview North Hospital, a $600 million expansion project in Fort Wayne, one of the area’s largest construction projects. Fox, a union contractor, won the site development contract with the general contractor-a joint venture of Weigand Construction, Fort Wayne, and Pepper Construction, which works in multiple states. When the digging started, problems arose.

It wasn’t pretty. Fox experienced multiple utility hits in a short time, causing brief outages and inconveniencing health care delivery. Key Fox personnel lost their jobs.

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Fox and the general contractor each knew they had to turn the situation around. Each side needed the other to succeed. Questions arose: Why? What was happening? Were both sides really communicating and working as a team?

“Much of safety is about having a safety-first attitude, practicing good communications-really listening-and caring enough to eliminate unsafe acts,” says Sheryl Wiser, whom Fox hired as safety manager.

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Adds Mark Spears, P.E., safety director with Fox: “We learned that we can work safely and maintain production-that we don’t need to increase our bidding price to pay for safety. Due to our aggressive approach to utility damage prevention and cultural renaissance on this project, we were awarded change orders on the job, and our contract went from $4 million to $12 million.”

Solving the Problem
Improvement required the team to identify the true root causes of the utility hits. The project team used a technique called root cause analysis to identify the underlying causes of the utility hits. It is human nature to quickly blame an individual and look no further than the obvious. Root cause analysis facilitates the process of looking beyond the obvious and drills down into management systems to uncover systemic flaws in processes. Once the root causes were identified, the team implemented the following changes to prevent reoccurrence.

The utility locating process was completely overhauled. The team had access to as-built drawings but they were not necessarily complete and accurate. Fox scheduled meetings with utilities to review the project scope. Weigand/Pepper hired a private locating service to locate allutilities and put them on one drawing.

Communications improved. Meetings called for all hands on deck-the GC’s superintendent, Fox, the road contractor, electrical contractor, landscaper, and private locate company. Drawings were reviewed and utilities marked. This evolved into a coordination meeting held every day before trades began work. The previous day’s progress was reviewed, and crews identified the day’s upcoming work. As-built drawings were reviewed and updated daily.

Point Man
The root cause process also identified this key to success: The general contractor designated one man, Josh Kirchner, Weigand/Pepper, to “bird-dog” the utility location process all day every day. Kirchner ensured that utilities were painted and staked, and verified the location of all shut-offs, valves, and systems served by utilities. Kirchner, along with the subcontractors involved, marked all utility locations on the master utility drawing to ensure that the most up-to-date information was available to the project team.

Subcontractors, including Fox, had to plan-and notify the GC of an intention to dig. The subcontractor would notify both public and private utility locating services and obtain a dig number, which was good for 20 days. Subcontractors physically observed the location of utility lines with the locating service. The GC supervisor verified utility locates against the drawings. Discrepancies were identified and investigated further for resolution before work continued. Newly found utilities were marked on the master drawing.

Before each underground task, the excavating crew was assembled to review the daily excavation plan, including protective systems, utility locations, and daylighting procedures for all located utility crossing points. These daily morning meetings, led by the foremen, ensured that all tradesmen not only understood the process but had buy-in and ownership of the process.

Management developed formal task procedures. The GC superintendent reviewed the excavation, digging, or augering, and established hand-digging procedures to expose a utility line. A subcontractor could excavate by machine, dig, or auger up to the 4-foot limit on either side of a utility without consulting GC supervision. A subcontractor would pothole with a vacuum truck or hand-excavate allutility crossing points until they were exposed. A Weigand/Pepper Construction supervisor observed all hand-digging and potholing.

After utilities were exposed, the GC superintendent updated the plans to reflect the location of installed utilities. A surveyor documented the precise locations of utilities. Upon completion of the utility exposure, copies of the location were made and distributed.

In high-level discussions between Weigand/Pepper and Fox, it became clear that future success called for a drastic overhaul of current practices. Company cultures needed changing, not just safety procedures. Superintendents and foremen needed to be “reprogrammed.” Says Adam Day, a Fox vice president: “When tradesmen are held accountable by the safety staff and management-and they in turn hold each other accountable-we will avoid accidents.”

Fox did respond to the problems at Parkview. The company identified the areas to be improved and developed a plan to improve. Fox hired Sheryl Wiser, a safety professional, to work with the crews. Additional safety reps were hired-one for every 12 tradesmen.

“The cost increase was only in the single-digit percentiles to meet the new standards,” says Ben Anderson, project manager with Fox. “But if a utility strike occurred because we didn’t follow the standards and were at fault, the cost could be well over six digits.”

Fox began to perform daily toolbox talks. Foremen developed task-hazard analyses nightly and when the work changed. Then, each morning, the task-hazard analysis was ready to be reviewed by the crew. All of the crews came together for safety meetings and training.

Fox’s president attended those meetings, stated the company’s position, and told those who did not agree to leave the project. Management raised its standards and required personal protective gear-hardhats, safety glasses, and high-visibility vests-all the time, even when inside equipment. Excavation and mobile equipment requirements were developed.

It all has worked wonders. “We now strive to identify potential hazards and prevent potential accidents in advance of the work ever occurring,” says Dallas Day, Fox Contractors’ president.