For Contractors, Safety Means Planning

In the construction industry, an emerging consensus points to pre-job planning as the key to an effective safety program.

When it comes to construction and subcontractor safety, there is good reason to listen to what Matt Frandsen has to say. Frandsen is the corporate safety director at The Weitz Co., a Des Moines, Iowa, general contractor that just won the grand award in the Associated General Contractors of America's (AGC) 2005 Construction Safety Excellence Award Program.

"Planning and accountability lead to execution," is how he sums up the company's philosophy. "Pre-job planning at all levels, planning early, plus holding people accountable is at the center of how we approach subcontractors. I think that's what differentiated us and won us the AGC award."

Planning Why Now?

This is a "breakthrough time" for pre-job planning, according to Jim Lapping, director of Illinois' division of elevator safety and former chairman of the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) A10.33 committee (Safety and Health Program Requirements for Multi-Employer Projects).

"At our last meeting, we decided to start a new standard that is strictly on planning," said Lapping. The new committee number for the planning standard will be A10.1 and it will be joined by A10.2 for safety, health and environmental training.

"That was done on purpose, to indicate our priorities," asserts Lapping. "Planning is number one and training is number two. As old safety guys, we thought that was pretty clever."

A number of factors have come together in recent years to drive construction safety leaders to agree that planning is the most critical component in contractor safety performance.

Skyrocketing workers' compensation insurance premiums or in some cases the difficulty of obtaining insurance at all is the most important factor behind the trend, according to Pete Chaney, director of safety and health for Mechanical Contractors Association of America, a Rockville, Md., industry group.

"Pre-job planning has been around for a long time," says Chaney, who chairs the new ANSI pre-job planning workgroup. "But since this insurance crisis hit a few years ago, I've seen a lot more interest in it."

Lapping cites several other factors behind the recent trend. Computer technology has made it easier to do, and owners have gotten behind more detailed planning. "With technology and the mandate from the owner, interest and capability have come together," he explains.

Owners, who not long ago rarely mentioned safety and health, are now playing an active role, according to Richard King, senior vice president with Black & Veatch, an engineering and construction firm based in Kansas City, Mo. "Now you see owners putting out two or three pages of safety and health contract requirements for contractors," says King, now serving as chair of the ANSI A10.33 committee. "It seems like every major owner requires general contractors to pre-qualify, by looking at their OSHA history, EMR (experience modification rate) and other indications of a strong safety and health program."

Lapping adds that the popularity of "wrap up" insurance programs and growing levels of self-insurance are behind increased owner interest in safety. "It's like a 'perfect storm'; now any time no one gets hurt, there is more money in the pocket of the owner."

Planning Guidelines

What does a good construction safety plan include? The short answer for most experts is it must begin with a comprehensive hazard analysis.

Frandsen says his company uses a task hazard analysis approach. "We use a separate heading beginning with site organization, that goes on to environmental exposures and protection, project phase and task, hazards, methods of protection and abatement," he explains. "The final column is who has the primary responsibility for a particular component, us or the subcontractor and this is where we start to talk about accountability."

Lapping points out that most major projects use a "critical path method" (CPM) that identifies all the major phases in the project, such as production, materials delivery and hiring. The next step is to identify the major activities and hazards under each phase. "The critical path part is when you have it all lined out, you see what has to be done to meet your deadline," he explains.

For example, most projects begin with trenching to prepare the site. "So before the project even starts, you know you need to order trench boxes, make sure you have competent persons and do the proper training," says Lapping.

Greg Smith, president of Construction Safety and Health Inc., a non-profit safety service organization in Austin, Texas, believes good planning and scheduling can be the key to effective training. "Training needs to be done just before it's needed," Smith explains. "Workers can lose it if they don't use it."

King says the current ANSI standard calls for a construction process plan, describing the construction sequence for the safe completion of the project. In addition, pre-work planning is required of all subcontractors. This means they must conduct a physical survey of the job site before they begin working.

While the ANSI standard provides some help with pre-job planning requirements, the reason for the formation of the new workgroup is to make more specific recommendations.

"I would recommend contractors put together a checklist to use as a guide when doing pre-job planning," suggests Chaney. "I would divide it into two parts: job hazard analysis and task hazard analysis."

When Subcontractors Resist

Ensuring that subcontractors execute an effective safety and health program is one of the thorniest issues confronting general contractors. Pre-job planning, if done right, can help here too, according to Frandsen and other construction safety experts.

Establishing clear expectations in writing from the beginning reduces the ambiguity that often leads to conflict and can help to resolve problems more quickly when they do arise.

"Involving subcontractors in the planning process is critical for success," says Frandsen. "It doesn't work well if we impose it on them. We establish our expectations up front, everyone has a chance to participate, we document it and then we use it to manage safety over the life of the project."

Moreover, general contractors often rely on the special expertise of subcontractors, who may know more about the hazards of the particular job they will be performing.

Sometimes the planning begins even before the subcontractor is hired, as many general contractors now look at a subcontractor's safety record during the bidding process. "When we have many subcontractors bidding on a project, I try to get my project managers to ask how they will perform their work in a safe manner," says Tim LeBlanc, corporate safety director at Boston-based Shawmut Design and Construction.

"All subcontractor bids should include a task hazard analysis for the work they will be doing," says Chaney.

King and Chaney believe the issue of using safety measures to guide the selection of subcontractors is so important that it ought to be on the agenda for a future ANSI construction standard.

What do you do when a subcontractor resists during the planning process? "When subcontractors fail to come through on completing the documents, we will not allow them to proceed until they complete their own specific safety plan and have a pre-construction meeting with us," says Frandsen.

Experts agree that auditing the safety performance of subcontractors is also critical for success. "But you have to have something to audit against," says Lapping. "What you audit against is your safety plan."

Ultimately, holding subcontractors accountable means rewarding good safety performance and having consequences for non-performance. "It can be as stringent as removing them from a project," says Frandsen. "We use the same three strikes approach with them as we do with our own employees: first a verbal, then a written warning and finally termination."

As for rewards, for Weitz subcontractors that means being paid on time and having the chance to work on future projects.

The Best-Laid Plans ...

Even homeowners who have tried a little remodeling know that in construction, things rarely go according to plan. What happens to the safety plan when owners make change orders, or a missed delivery destroys the schedule?

"That's why I think you need pre-task planning," answers Chaney. "As the project goes forward and you come upon a task that hasn't been addressed, you deal with it that way."

Even if change orders smash a plan to pieces, "it's better to enter into that with an effective plan than without one," says Frandsen. "We have a process and can adjust our plan." One part of this is a job safety analysis.

The other way Weitz handles change is to hold weekly coordination meetings on all levels. "Typically our meetings start with safety and we discuss adjustments, deliveries that didn't show. You then coordinate the safety changes that must take place."

There is a flip side to pre-job planning: A good plan allows for the unforeseen because departing from it can lead to disaster.

"In my 30 years of experience investigating construction catastrophes, almost invariably it was when the schedule changed and they were not working in areas or activities they had anticipated," Lapping asserts.

If it sounds like it can take just as long to prepare a good safety plan as to complete the project, that's because it does, according to Lapping. "When you look at best practices in construction and contractor safety, the best safety programs spend as much time planning the work as they do executing," he says.

Twenty years ago, that kind of attention to detail in planning was rare, Lapping adds. But now about one out of every three projects includes safety in pre-project planning.

And if present trends continue, before long what is now a best practice will be common practice.

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