By: Thomas H. Welby Published: May 2015

Leading from the Top: Safety Weeks and Stand-Downs

If you own or manage a construction business, your company’s success depends upon its employees.  Safeguarding your employees’ health and safety in what is, unalterably, a dangerous industry is not only the right thing to do, not just “good business,” but indispensable to your company’s prosperity.  Since OSHA violations can impair your ability to get public work — and, increasingly, private work — compliance with OSHA is likely to be essential to your company’s survival.

Among the reasons why construction is inherently dangerous is that there are multiple employers on most worksites, and the circumstances, and dangers, on the site are highly fluid, constantly evolving as the project progresses.  Although having well-trained, highly safety-conscious supervisors is key to minimizing incidents OSHA violations, on most projects the rank-and-file are not constantly beneath a foreman’s watchful eyes.  Assuming, further, that your company isn’t one in which the owners and executives spend a lot of time onsite wearing hard hats, if you want to deter your workers from cutting corners and taking risks, they need to know that management really and truly values the life and limb of its workforce more than maximizing production to the very last drop.

There’s no substitute for “Leadership from the Top” on employee safety, and one thing you can do to underscore your commitment to safety is to sponsor a “Safety Week,” or to take part in events such as the upcoming “Stand-Down for Fall Safety,” from May 4-15, 2015.

The “Stand-Down,” now in its fourth year, was started by OSHA, in partnership with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH’s National Occupational Research Agenda, and the Center for Construction Research and Training.  In 2015, joining as sponsors are the American Society for Safety Engineers, the National Safety Council, the National Construction Safety Executives, the United States Air Force, a number of state-administered “Little OSHAs” and OSHA Training Institute Education Centers.

The “Stand-Down” focuses on fall protection, because falls are the #1 cause of construction fatalities, resulting in nearly 300 deaths (and thousands of serious injuries) per year.  During the two-week period from May 4-15, more than a million workers (OSHA is hoping for as many as three million), employed by tens of thousands of construction employers, will pause during their workday for tool box talks, demonstrations and training in the use of safety harnesses, guard rails, and other means to protect them from falls.  Labor organizations, universities, and community and religious groups have joined in the effort to promote and to organize participation in the “Stand-Down.”  In 2014, not only construction companies of every size and stripe, but many general industry employers, the U.S. military, various government agencies, unions, employers’ trade associations, worker advocacy organizations, institutes, and safety equipment manufacturers reported to OSHA their participation in the “Stand-Down.”

A parallel effort now underway is a nationwide “Safety Week” from May 3-9, 2015.  This initiative is sponsored by CISI (the Construction and Safety Initiative) and the IIF (Incident & Injury-Free) Forum.  CISI is a group of 12 large contracting firms, that holds two-day meetings twice a year exclusively devoted to safety.  Every two years, CISI brings together a larger group of approximately 30 major contractors for a “Safety Summit,” with the same purpose.

The IIF Forum is made up of the CEOs of a number of leading construction and engineering firms, and meets bi-annually to discuss ways to transform the safety performance of the industry.

Participation in the “Stand-Down” or “Safety Week” programs is entirely voluntary, and if the May dates are not convenient, you can schedule these or similar events at any time of the year.

Details concerning “How to Run a Safety Week” can be found at the website safetyweek2015.com.  The following is based on just some of the suggestions made.

  First, to show a top-down commitment to safety, management personnel should make safety-specific visits to each jobsite during the week.  Management can take part in toolbox talks or safety committee meetings, complete a jobsite safety audit/inspection, and have safety-specific discussions with foremen and other crew members. 

In engaging with employees, management should actively solicit feedback, asking questions such as:

  • What are we doing well, as a company, in terms of safety?
  • What needs to be done better?  How would you suggest that we accomplish each item?
  •  Do you feel safe on the jobsite?  If not, what specifically are the hazards not sufficiently addressed?
  • What does Safety Week mean to you, and what suggestions do you have, that might make it more meaningful and effective?

The employer should make project-specific and personal commitment safety pledges.  These, it is suggested, should be based upon an evaluation of the answers to the following questions:

  • How engaged are management personnel in company safety programs?
  • Can management increase its engagement levels with the project teams?
  • Can management make a difference to our workers’ safety by engaging more?
  • Does the company empower senior management to make a difference in workplace safety?
  • How, in concrete terms, can individual managers help improve safety performance?

The project safety team should evaluate the current project, focusing on items such as safety culture, training, communications (Best Practices, incident reviews, etc.) evaluations of subcontractor performance, and how “Best in Class” status might be achieved.  Craft personnel should be engaged to join in this effort.

Hold events during Safety Week, which can include (among other things) inviting OSHA, representatives of the union Local, and emergency response teams (Fire Department, EMTs, or other) onsite; inviting vendors, to showcase new tools and safety equipment, and training sessions on topics such as fall protection, ladder safety, trench safety, and other items particular to your trade.

Other matters that would profitably be reviewed during Safety Week include fire safety requirements; first aid and emergency response protocols specific to the jobsite; site housekeeping, cord/tool inspections, rigging inspections and storage, assured grounding inspections, PPE inspections, and fire safety inspections; and disciplinary policy for OSHA and other safety rule infractions.

Construction safety is much more than avoiding OSHA citations.  As Terracon President David R. Gaboury put it, safety must be based on an “uncompromising commitment to our employees going home safely to their families each and every day.”  Achieving that goal requires sustained effort, and observances such as “Safety Week” and the fall safety “Stand-Down” can be valuable parts of that effort.

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