Measuring Safety Performance in Construction

Can business growth and improved safety performance go hand in hand? They can when a company makes accountability a key ingredient.

In safety, if you don't move forward, you fall behind. Is there a safety director who hasn't reached the realization that long-standing safety programs are producing, at best, mediocre results? This realization led to The Winter Construction Co., a general contractor, re-energizing a solid, but lackluster, safety program. Since Winter implemented its system for measuring safety performance in 1996, its accountability program has helped the company attain some noteworthy improvements in its safety performance:

  • Experience modification rate reduced from .89 to .59;
  • Incidence rate reduced from 12.47 to 3.26; and
  • Lost workday case rate reduced from 2.34 to 0.

Winter is a $200 million Atlanta-based general contractor and construction management firm employing between 400 and 500 people. Some of its markets include retail, hospitality, multifamily, academic, telecommunications, government/institutional and corporate facilities.

In 1995, Winter was heavily engaged in projects related to the Summer Olympic Games due to open in Atlanta in July 1996. Added to Winter's regular operations in the 17 Southeastern states were projects such as the Olympic tennis stadium, projects on the Georgia Tech campus, site of the Athletes' Village, and those included in the makeover of Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport.

The number and sizes of jobs in the "pipeline" at that time also were predictors of substantial growth following the Olympics. Safety's marching orders were to ensure that company growth came without sacrificing safety on the job sites. The company's safety culture had to extend to the new superintendents, project managers and hourly workers coming on board, and new subcontractors had to understand Winter's safety requirements.

Winter's injury rates were improving, and there was a growing willingness by field supervisors and managers to embrace the idea that safety was everyone's responsibility, not just "the Safety Guy's." Safety training for superintendents, weekly safety training for hourly workers, regular site inspections by safety officers, site inspections by superintendents and accident investigation procedures were well-established. Nevertheless, there was recognition that Winter had reached a plateau in the energy and effectiveness of its safety program. Winter had to inject new vitality into its safety program to get off that plateau and, at the same time, ensure that the expanding work force remained safe. Winter needed a fresh approach.

Corporate Culture

Choosing a new program required a close examination of the corporate culture to determine what defined The Winter Construction Co.'s character. What was its management style? Was safety a core value? Would bottom-up change (i.e., a behavior-based safety program) be more appropriate than a top-down, management-driven program? At Winter, the top-down philosophy set the style. Historically, strong leadership and energetic management at all levels had been rewarded. Safety was an established core value. Working safely was truly a condition of employment, and unwavering presidential support for the safety program was acknowledged throughout the company. It seemed natural, therefore, to promote the concept that safety should be perceived as a management function the same as productivity, quality and profitability, complete with performance measurements and appropriate consequences.

Product or service output is measured daily by the amount created. Quality initiatives are reinforced continuously. In general, employees are taught that production and quality are intertwined. Safety, however, is often relegated to a list of rules and regulations. A successful safety and accident prevention program factors safety into the production and quality mix because it directly impacts both. Lost man-hours, increased insurance premiums and other related costs affect a company's bottom line in a variety of ways, just like production and quality. Production and quality are managed with accountability. It only makes sense that safety should be managed in the same way.

Field Generals

The initial focus of the new program, it was decided, would be on Winter's project superintendents. Because the superintendents were the field generals who made things happen, their activities were critical to achieving improvements in the company's safety performance. Winter developed ways to measure its safety performance in a way that had direct impact (i.e., negative or positive effects on annual bonuses) on the superintendents' compensation. Superintendents had always been responsible for safety on their sites; now they would also be accountable. That accountability is based on a variety of measurements against specific goals set forth in the safety program:

  • Establish safety as a management function that is measured.
  • Demonstrate that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the safety efforts of superintendents and the business viability of the company.
  • Effect continuing reductions in injury rates as reflected in the incidence rate and the workers' compensation experience modification rate.
  • Kindle a healthy competitiveness among superintendents for achieving excellence in safety management.

What to Measure

Winter decided its safety performance program would measure two basic elements: safety activities and safety results. Each element is weighted to provide 50 percent of a participant's total score.

The safety activities selected to be measured are those already incorporated in the company's safety and accident prevention program, including:

  • Regular and frequent safety inspections by the safety department,
  • Weekly site safety inspections by the superintendent,
  • Weekly safety training for hourly workers, and
  • Injury reporting and accident investigation, including separate scoring for promptness of notification and for the quality of written reports.

A standard was developed for each of these activities along with corresponding point scores having a possible total of 100. The activity score is weighted at 50 percent of the total score.

Winter decided that the measurement for safety results would be the incidence rate (IR) achieved by a superintendent for a calendar year measured against a target IR. The safety department, however, believed that incidence rates alone would not necessarily reflect the true caliber of a superintendent's safety performance. Many safety professionals look at incidence rates as measures of luck.

Dan Petersen once wrote, "[Incidence rates] do not discriminate between poor and good performers. They do not diagnose problems. They are grossly unfair if used to judge individual performance." Factoring in the measurements of safety activities offsets this shortcoming and provides balance to the program. Like the activities portion of the scoring, a maximum of 100 points can be earned for scoring at or below the target IR. The results score is also weighted at 50 percent of the total score.

A superintendent's IR is derived using the totals of work hours and work-related injuries of Winter's employees, plus those of its subcontractors, on a superintendent's project(s). As a general contractor, Winter self-performs approximately 20 percent of its work, meaning that its subcontractors typically represent a superintendent's most significant safety management challenge. To measure only 20 percent of safety on a project would ignore a superintendent's duty to provide a safe work site for all workers. This method of developing an IR also serves to underscore Winter's safety responsibilities as a controlling employer under OSHA's multiemployer work site doctrine.

After months of development, Winter's accountability program was submitted to management for approval. In response to the recommendation, management agreed to tie 20 percent of superintendents' bonuses to their safety performance, thus providing the final, critical element of the system - tangible consequences. Management also approved a parallel program designed to provide monetary rewards for superintendents who reach certain milestones in the total number of work hours supervised without a lost-time injury. This program, with its challenging standards, creates opportunities for recognition of exceptional accomplishments throughout a calendar year and beyond until a lost workday injury occurs.

Getting Everyone on Board

The implementation program focused on gaining the support of the players - the superintendents. Informational meetings were designed to show how the new accountability system would energize the safety program and help to achieve the long-term business benefits of safe operations for the company, as well as for superintendents and managers personally. Superintendents received instructions on their new weekly reporting process, how the scoring worked, what reports they would receive and how their safety performance would impact bonuses.

It also was essential to demonstrate to superintendents that the system was objective and fair. The safety department showed them that the system scored safety activities that they were already accustomed to performing. During the three months preceding the field test of the system, Winter also arranged for all executives, managers and superintendents to complete Argonaut Insurance Co.'s S.T.A.R.T. course, which provides an introduction to the concept of accountability.

After testing the system with field data for 30 days and producing the first test reports, the accountability program went "live." Thanks to some very bright information technology people and a development budget, what started as a "manual" system carrying a considerable clerical workload was soon upgraded to a database system. Since automating the accountability system, home office data entry time has been reduced to four to six hours a week. Subsequent improvements allow Winter to take advantage of its communications capabilities. For instance, superintendents anywhere in the country can file weekly safety activities reports via e-mail and receive monthly reports showing their performance scores and relative standings.

Accountability for Now and the Future

Future applications of the accountability system are on the drawing board. This year, project managers will join the safety performance system as full participants, and there are plans to include project teams. Because the system tracks project activities differently from the conventional information systems in use by the company, managers can access project information in formats not available elsewhere. Detailed and summary reports are available for use by management throughout the year for a variety of reasons, including evaluations for promotions, raises and assignments.

When Winter committed to developing its safety accountability system, it knew it had to make the system flexible. Moreover, the system had to be objective, relevant and make sense. Winter knew that it had to be willing to make changes if something didn't work.

Finally, like other safety endeavors and ideas, accountability was not a magic bullet. It was not meant to stand alone, but to provide an energy source for the tried and true safety efforts - training and education, inspections, communication, motivation and leadership.

Today, measuring safety performance is a part of the fabric of Winter's culture. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the superintendents at Winter would actually miss it if it went away. There is a healthy, friendly competition among them for good standings in the accountability program that goes beyond the prospects for annual bonuses. It is not unusual, for instance, for a superintendent to call to ask for an explanation of why he lost two points out of a possible 100.

Earning exceptional safety performance scores has become a matter of pride extending beyond monetary implications. These are the attitudes found in a safety culture. They translate into intelligent, proactive safety management in the field, and that carries Winter a long way toward the goal of sending everyone home healthy at the end of each day.

Sidebar: Goals of the Safety Performance Program

  • Establish safety as a management function that is measured.
  • Demonstrate that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the safety efforts of superintendents and the business viability of the company.
  • Effect continuing reductions in injury rates as reflected in incidence rates and the workers' compensation experience modification rate.
  • Kindle a healthy competitiveness among the superintendents for achieving excellence in safety management.

About the author: John M. Cohen, director of corporate safety for The Winter Construction Co., Atlanta, can be reached at [email protected]

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