Safety: Lessons in Safety From the Best

March 12, 2015

Talk about a safety culture. Western Construction Group, St. Louis, MO, recently announced that it has achieved an Experience Modification Rating (EMR) of 0.55, which indicates that the company has an exceptionally good safety record.

“Western is proud to make note of its EMR rating of 0.55,” says Ken Black, senior director, Enterprise Risk Manage­ment at Western. “Anything less than 1.00 is good and indicates that the company is operating more safely than the average company within its industry. In short, an EMR of 0.55 is virtually unheard of in the construction industry.”

A company’s EMR is calculated by the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), an independent agency that gathers data, analyzes industry trends, and prepares objective insurance rate and loss cost recommendations. To determine a company’s EMR, the NCCI compares a company’s three-year payroll to the number of workers’ compensation losses the company has experienced over the same three years.

Western Construction Group says it is the nation’s largest specialty contractor in masonry, concrete and façade restoration, waterproofing, and specialty roofing. With 33 branch offices and more than 1,200 salaried and hourly professional employees, the company works nationwide. Some 70% of Western’s employees belong to a trade union and the rest are non-union.

We at Grading & Excavation Contractor believe that Western’s safety practices and policies can serve as examples for grading and excavation contractors, so we interviewed the company’s Safety director, Eric Olson, to learn more. First of all, every contract that Western performs, no matter how large or small, gets a Site Specific Safety Plan. In that plan is a Job Hazard Analysis that lays out each work activity for the project. The plan contains the known hazards and the safety precautions the company will take.

“Additionally, we do a daily huddle,” says Olson. “Every morning, or at the beginning of each shift, the foreman brings his entire crew together and they list out the activities for the day. They list what the employees are going to be doing and what types of safety activities should be undertaken, whether it’s for our employees or the public. That five-minute daily huddle log has a sign-in sheet that each employee must initial.”

Western also uses a weekly Toolbox Talk that comes from the corporate office. “It’s one side of one sheet of paper that has a specific topic for each week,” says Olson. “One week it might be about scaffolding and the next week it might be razor knives. We also do a monthly mandatory branch safety meeting. We have 33 offices across the country, and each one of them is required to have a monthly safety talk with all of the employees in that branch. And then Mondays at noon, central time, the Safety Department sends out a voice shot. It’s about a one-minute recording that is sent out to every cell phone in the company.” That is an automated call.

Company superintendents run the monthly meetings. “We encourage the superintendents to talk about the activities that are happening in the branch as a whole,” says Olson. “For example, right now we’re encouraging branches to talk about our accident reporting procedures. Next month it might be fall protection, or blood-borne pathogens, or any number of subjects.”

The branches communicate with each other regarding safety matters. “We’ve got more than 1,000 employees, so we want to make sure that if something happens in New York, that the guys in Los Angeles know about it so that it doesn’t happen out there.”

For example, a few years ago one of Western’s branches rented a scaffolding from a rental company. “The rental company brought it out and set it up, but I guess they didn’t inspect it properly,” says Olson. “Some workers were working 30 or 40 feet high on the scaffold when some welds broke and the deck fell. The employees were wearing their fall harnesses, so there were no injuries. But when they got down and started investigating, that’s when they found the cracked welds.

“Nobody got hurt, but it was one of those situations where we wanted all of our offices to understand that as good as rental companies are, we definitely want to inspect that equipment before we use it,” says Olson. “So we sent that message out to all of our branches to remember that.”

Western administers extensive safety training programs. All new hires sit down with one of the branch superintendents and go through an hour-and-a-half PowerPoint presentation that provides an overview of nearly everything they need to know about working safely for Western. That includes fall protection, scaffolding, personal protective equipment, proper work procedures, injury reporting, and so forth.

New hires receive a green hard hat and work under a coach for six months to make sure they work safely. “It’s almost like an apprenticeship,” says Olson. “At the end of six months, if they have worked safely and have shown that they can work properly, then they graduate to a white hard hat, which is our standard hard hat. It’s a kind of coach-mentoring program.” The coaches are often senior experienced craftsmen. Or a laborer might be assigned to a laborer with a couple of years’ experience at Western.

New employees also receive task-specific safety training. “If it’s below-grade waterproofing, then we’ll give them excavation training, or confined space training, or training for whatever their activity is,” says Olson. When employees reach the two-year anniversary mark, they are required to have OSHA ten-hour course training. And all foremen are required to have the OSHA 30-hour training. “If they’re working from a suspended scaffolding, we have an in-house training program that is five or six hours long,” says Olson.

We asked about Western’s disciplinary system. The company uses a standard progressive disciplinary program. The first violation calls for a written notification; the second violation is a potential suspension from work. And the third and fourth violations are possible termination. Western also operates a system of heightened awareness, which involves a set of inviolable rules.

“If you violate those specific rules, there is increased disciplinary action. To violate our Fall Protection Policy is immediate termination,” says Olson. “If you get caught working in an exposed area without a harness, you are subject to immediate termination.”

Terminated employees, however, can work their way back into the company. “They have to sit out for 30 days,” says Olson. “Then they have to go through a task-specific, violation-specific, third-party training program. They have to be retrained properly. And they have to lead a safety meeting at their branch and then they record a voice shot, detailing the violation and what they learned from the termination.

“I’ve actually been very pleased with that program,” says Olson. “We’ve had two or three people who were in violation. Every single one of them came back and every single one of them has been a huge advocate for safety. They say ‘Look, don’t do this. Be safe.’ It’s been wonderful actually. I’ve been pleased with that process.”

In the past couple of years, Western job sites have been inspected by OSHA 18 or 19 times. “We get inspected all the time, but we keep coming out with zero citations,” says Olson.

Daniel C. Brown writes on safety and technology in the construction industry.