Safety: Coaching Your Team to the Next Level

Jan. 1, 2011
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Vince Hundley, MS, CSP, is the president and chief executive officer of the SMART Safety Group, a company that helps manage safety processes for some 40 construction companies in Southern California. Hundley is also the safety director of the San Diego chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America Inc. (AGC). We asked him to share some of his management principles and beliefs about construction safety.

When you correct someone about an unsafe behavior or condition, it’s important to take a coach-like approach. It is an important skill. You cannot just jump on people. That will turn them off. The bully approach does not work, especially with the younger generation.

So I often give what I call my silly speech. I say, “Joe, it would be silly to lose your job over something like this. So let’s make sure we don’t do this again.” That would be all I would need to say as a superintendent or foreman to an apprentice or worker who is making a mistake.

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I think my disciplinary process works because I always involve the supervisor of the person I’m correcting. And we keep logs of these safety interventions, if you will, these conversations. When you have a quick discussion with the person’s supervisor, the supervisor has to endorse the discipline. He cannot undermine what I have just done. So I have to make sure that I am not writing the guy up or discussing a new policy that I just made up. It has to be a written policy.

I have a little acronym that I use to train people; it is called SAFE. When I spot the unsafe player, I say something about it. That’s the “S”-spot. Then I acknowledge the situation, “A,” and fit the behavior, “F.” And finally, I enlist agreement in future behavior, “E.”

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I used to work for a large nationwide general contractor, and I would give new-hire orientations. The orientation would always be capped by my boss (let’s call him Rick). Rick used to do this same speech every time. He’d say, “Vince, when you are finished with the new person, bring them in to me; I want to talk with them for a minute.” It was repetitious; he used the same speech for everybody, but they had never heard it before-and it was effective. It had three steps:

1.         State the company’s policy. You tell them what the written policy is.

2.         Endorse the company’s policy and explain how it is different from other companies. So Rick would say, “At Acme Underground, we always place shoring for trenches. We always wear hard hats, safety glasses, and work boots, and there is never an exception. I feel very strongly about that.” At the same time you say “and I feel strongly about that,” you should also show that you have caring for the individual. You want them to know that you are doing this for their own safety-not just because it is the policy. So you say, “I feel very strongly about that because I want you to go home just as healthy as you were when you came here.”

3.         Ask the person for a commitment. A coach will always end a situation by saying, “Are you with me?” Ask for that cheer or that chant that says, “Go team!” That should all fit together with a one-two-three punch. It should be a 20-second speech. It would be different for each company.

That speech has really been helpful, not only for me, but for all of the foremen we work with. They have what they call their safety speech, and they take an hour to build that in a classroom. We get up and give our safety speech, and we may come back and visit it at the next foremen’s meeting. We talk about where we used the safety speech, and so it is a multimonth process to implement the safety speech.

If an employee hears that safety speech from one foreman and then he goes to a new project and hears the same speech from another foreman, that’s great. That’s when your team is winning. The employee will say, “Wow, this company is really serious. They are not just saying it in the new-hire orientation, but I am hearing it out here in the field from the supervisors, the foremen, the people who are the pushers.”

Core Values
I have core values, and they are:

  • you have to be religious about safety;
  • you have to work harder than everyone else;
  • if you are a consultant like I am, always follow up; and
  • if you are a safety auditor, say it when you see it-call attention to a safety problem, that is.

My system of discipline is a three-step process. After you spot, you acknowledge, you enlist their cooperation, and you start with a formal written process. I’m still old school, so I use a triplicate form. The person involved signs it, their foreman signs it, and the office gets a copy.

You also explain that we are going to help them. This is just a written warning. It doesn’t mean that they are going to lose any time from work. But it does mean the company will not tolerate this behavior any more. So it is really important to say it that way. And you explain that you are going to talk about this in a monthly safety business meeting. That is where the owner or general manager and maybe an HR person are involved in a monthly meeting where we look at the incidents, the audits, and the discipline.

The discipline is something that a field employee knows that it is not going to stop with Vince giving me the written warning and the foreman hearing about it. But the superintendent is going to follow up with me, and he is going to give what he calls the “silly speech”-and then the incident will be logged and looked at in monthly meetings.

After you give them one written warning, if they do the violation again, you can follow up with a more aggressive written warning. And you may send the person home. And the third time, you fire them. But we don’t have those cases, I like to say. It is rare that you have to go that far. But that is in the log, too. We have a disciplinary incident log. We share that with the field manager, the foreman. They can see who we have written up in the company and where they stand. Usually, if you write up somebody once or twice, the problem takes care of itself. Once everybody hears about it, the news travels. It is, “Hey, don’t screw with this rule-this is something they are committed to, and you are either on board or you are not.

It is important to acknowledge people when they practice safe behavior. It is important to pat people on the back when they do a good job. I like to see management in the field. I like to see them engaging in quarterly meetings or in the get-togethers in those meetings. I like to see them give credence to safety. I always say, “Safety first!”