By: Thomas H. Welby Geoffrey S. Pope Published: November 2018

Safety Strategies for the Small or Startup Contractor: Where to Begin (Part 1)

The construction industry continues to be a fertile field for the small entrepreneur, and an engine of upward mobility for immigrant and low-income populations.  And, if OSHA (approaching its fiftieth anniversary) has not yet fully achieved Congress’s stated purpose of providing every working man and woman with a safe workplace, we should take considerable satisfaction that the number of workers killed and seriously injured in workplace incidents has dropped sharply (as it has).

The entrepreneur looking to start a small contracting firm, however, faces significant challenges and competitive disadvantages in operating his or her business in a manner that will minimize injuries in what remains a hazardous sector, while keeping the OSHA inspector at bay.

Especially if you aspire to outgrow small, home improvement jobs and move up, say, to becoming a subcontractor on significant commercial or public projects, to compete successfully, you need to build a record and a reputation for safe operations.  However, you may not have the funds to hire a full-time Safety Director or industrial hygienists with master’s degrees, or to bring in consultants to evaluate the hazards of each new project and customize training for your employees accordingly.

How, then, does the small or startup contractor begin to establish a sound safety program?  That will be the subject of this month’s, and next month’s, installments.

A first step, an essential one although obviously not sufficient of itself, is that every co-owner and senior manager in your company must firmly resolve that, as long as your company is in business, sending all employers home every night, alive and uninjured, will always be a top priority.  Good intentions don’t get the job done, of course, but your company’s commitment should be in writing, signed by all owners and senior personnel, and communicated not only to office and field employees but, at appropriate times ,to subcontractors, staffing agencies, temporary employees, suppliers, customers, and visitors.

While your field supervisors are critical players in a successful health and safety program, leadership and the commitment to safety must always be seen as coming from the very top.  Everyone from the CEO on down must faithfully observe the safety rules that the rank-and-file are expected to follow, and most meetings concerning operations should not only  have an agenda item devoted to health and safety concerns, but that item should be at, or near, the top of the list, not an afterthought.  Rank-and-file should never see the company president in a bucket lift while not tied off, or a project superintendent without a hard hat, or going down into an unshored trench.  You have to lead by example.

Something else you need to do from the start of operations is to plan for foreseeable emergency situations, including but not limited to fires, weather emergencies and natural disasters, serious injuries and other medical emergencies, incidents of workplace violence, the collapse of walls or ceilings in structures, and releases of chemicals and hazardous substances.  Don’t go on your first job without a well-stocked first aid kit, and without knowing how to summon first responders and get injured employees to an emergency room or urgent care facility without delay.

As your company grows, goals and expectations regarding safety and health should be formalized and communicated to all managerial and supervisory personnel, and expectations prescribed for all employees and for the program overall.  OSHA standards relevant to the work that you do should be studied, and compliance made a priority.  However, while avoiding OSHA violations should certainly be a high priority, that should always come behind your #1 top safety priority, which is avoiding serious injuries and fatalities.  It’s probably unrealistic to expect to stay in business for ten, twenty or thirty years without being cited for an OSHA violation now and then (especially if you work on larger projects, which attract more attention from OSHA inspectors).  You should aspire, however, to avoid fatalities, and you should strive for 100% success in avoiding deaths and serious injuries.

Management should develop plans to monitor OSHA compliance (with special emphasis on perennial, and deadly hazards, such as falls), implement and improve employee training, enforce safety rules, and involve employees in reporting issues as they arise.  Assessment of success in these areas should be continuous, and if shortcomings are reported or detected, appropriate personnel should be assigned to devise and implement remedial measures.  Such individuals should report directly to senior management.  If appropriate (for example, if you experience a spate of injuries or “near misses”) it should be announced, company-wide, that shortcomings have been discovered, and that correcting them must be given a high priority.

A safety program cannot succeed without resources being allocated to it.  That means not just safety as a budget item, but time must be allocated in workers’ schedules for training and further participation in the program.

It’s essential, also, to expect success and to require accountability.  Establish ways for all employees to communicate freely, and often, about successes and problems encountered.  It’s critical that employees (some of whom may be immigrants from cultures in which worker safety is not exactly a priority, and speaking up can get you fired, or worse) have confidence that there will be no retaliation if they report problems.  Retaliation against workers raising safety issues with their employer, or reporting them to OSHA, is unlawful.  Not only should you have a policy of non-retaliation, but you should have an “open-door” policy.

Workers should be assured that reported information will be used only to make safety improvements, and when improvements are made, based on information imparted by employees, that should be made known, so that your employees will know that their input is welcomed, and has a positive impact.  Workers should be empowered also to order, or at least request, temporary shutdowns of operations they believe to be unsafe.

Workers can participate in your program in a meaningful way only if properly trained.  OSHA-sponsored programs are useful, but not really sufficient.  Regular toolbox talks are essential, and training must (as a matter of effectiveness, as well as OSHA compliance) be in languages understood by your workers. Apropos of this, if you’re running a construction company in the Greater NYC area, chances are good that some of your employees have Spanish as their first language.  Here’s a website that has a useful set of “toolbox talks” in both English and Spanish:  https://www.cpwr.com/publications/toolbox-talks.

In next month’s continuation, we’ll talk about further things you can do to make health and safety a company-wide activity, involving every employee, and how you should go about identifying and controlling conditions that are non-compliant with OSHA, or otherwise hazardous.

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