When Tim Gottberg walks through a Ferguson Construction site, he"s treated like the most popular man there. Workers wander over to say hello, shoot the breeze and, in many cases, ask him questions about safety.
"Most of the time, these are just simple conversations about nothing too important," said Gottberg, "but they help me get to know our people on the jobsite, and it helps them get to know me."
Regardless of how the conversation starts out, Gottberg said the topic usually gets around to safety. "They learn to trust me. They learn it"s OK to tell me that we haven"t been doing such a good job with safety on this job. And they always suggest a couple of things to make it better," he said.
Gottberg"s philosophy, one that is shared by Gene Colin, the owner of Ferguson Construction, is simple: Safety is the responsibility of every employee, regardless of his or her position or title.
"Ultimately, the owner of the company is responsible for safety. He accepts that responsibility and does what he can by providing training and equipment and supporting our safety program to ensure a safe workplace. When we are on a jobsite, there are safety rules and regulations which must be obeyed. All of our employees are well-trained and understand the safe way to do their jobs," said Gottberg.
The company utilizes training, accountability, enforcement, open communication with employees, and continuous improvement in its successful efforts to promote safety as a corporate value on its jobsites. In addition to the award from the Business Roundtable, which Gottberg calls "the Malcolm Baldrige (National Quality) Award for safety," the company has been recognized for its excellence in construction and safety by the state of Washington.
Safety has reaped benefits on many fronts for Ferguson and its employees. The company"s experience rating, which determines its workers" compensation rates, is .4329: 40 percent of the average experience rating for similar construction contractors in the state. Since the state requires employees (just like employers) to pay into its workers" compensation fund, having a lower experience rating saves each worker $800 to $900 per year.
"Since pay rates are set by the unions, that extra money is like a raise. We have some happy workers. Not only do they have a safe and healthful worksite, they have extra money in their paycheck every week. I can demonstrate to them that safety pays. It helps me sell them on safety," said Gottberg.
Gottberg has been corporate safety director for Ferguson Construction, headquartered in Seattle, for the past seven years. He started at the company 19 years ago as a project manager and later became a senior project manager. He understands the industry and the people who work in it, which he says is just as important as formal training in safety.
"I can hire a techie [to conduct testing or abate lead or asbestos]. I have a software program for my computer that can give me every rule and regulation. I don"t need to know them verbatim. It is my job to present all of that information to employees the best way I can, so that they will understand it and continue working in a safe manner," said Gottberg.
"I"m a salesman. I sell safety to management, to employees, to supervisors, to subcontractors and to property owners. I make them believe that safety is the right thing to do for the right reasons," he added.
Ferguson employs union workers, and Gottberg said he has noticed that the younger employees coming up in the trades are learning safety as part of their apprenticeships. "I"ve seen a real improvement in attitudes toward safety. It"s getting easier and easier to get workers to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), for example."
When employees resist following safety rules, Gottberg"s sales abilities come in handy, for he then "sells" safety to employees who aren"t interested. "I have to convince them that they can be every bit as productive and fast if they take the time to put on their full-body harness and tie off correctly. I educate our employees and management about the benefits, financial and otherwise, of safety."
Gottberg started his professional life as a teacher. With a wife and three children to support, he turned to construction as a way to earn more money.
When he was first offered the job of safety director at Ferguson, he turned it down.
"At that time, we thought about safety, it was important, but it wasn"t a company value. Whoever had free time on the jobsite was the safety person. I came back the next day after thinking about it and asked management, "Is this something that"s really going to happen? Are we going to take this on like it is a really important construction project? Are we going to be serious about this?" They said "yes," so I took the job," said Gottberg.
Right around the same time, a court case in Washington, known as the Stute Decision, got the attention of many employers and "struck fear into their hearts," according to Gottberg. The case involved a subcontractor employee who was injured on the job and sued the general contractor, claiming the general contractor had not maintained a safe work environment. The injured employee won.
"That court decision reversed about 50 years of case law and was the driving factor for a number of contractors to get serious about providing a safe and healthful workplace," remembered Gottberg. Ferguson was no exception.
"We"ve been in business 50 years. We"ve always had safety as a priority, but priorities can change. In the last year, safety has become a company value. Values don"t change, and I think safety will always be a value at Ferguson," said Gottberg.
Ferguson is a privately held company with one owner. At quarterly meetings, Gene Colin tells his managers that safety won"t suffer because of a schedule or productivity goal. Managers are told not to cut corners to try to save money. Money spent to maintain a safe workplace is well-spent, according to Colin and Gottberg, especially money spent for employee training.
Employees receive initial training from their unions. They are taught how to perform their jobs in a safe manner. When they come to work at Ferguson, they receive information about company safety policies and site-specific training, such as forklift training. Employees take drug tests when they are hired and are subject to random testing during their employment. Gottberg said it is rare for an applicant or employee to come up positive for drug use.
Ferguson supplies employees with head and eye protection and any other PPE required by their jobs. In return, employees are expected to wear it religiously and ask for replacements when necessary. All employees are expected to wear hard hats and eye protection on the jobsite, said Gottberg, even if they are just walking from one construction trailer to another.
"It"s too hard to enforce a policy if it only applies to certain areas or employees," he admitted.
Ferguson employees are told, from the first day they are hired, that unsafe behavior will not be tolerated. Gottberg said he will accept no excuses from employees for not following safety procedures. "I tell them, "Do it or work someplace else." I cannot stress enough the seriousness of our safety policies."
A construction site is a unique workplace, said Gottberg, and can be extremely dangerous for employees who do not follow the company"s safety regulations. Working conditions change daily, depending on what is happening on the site. To keep employees informed about their workplace, Ferguson supervisors hold weekly toolbox talks to discuss site- and job-specific hazards, said Gottberg.
"If we are doing demolition that week, then the toolbox talk might be about asbestos awareness -- how to recognize it, how to handle it safely, and what type of personal protection or respiratory protection is needed," he said.
The talks might be five minutes or 45 minutes long, whatever is necessary to inform and educate employees. Gottberg said he will also bring in outside experts to talk about specific topics, "because employees get tired of regular toolbox talks with the same person telling them the same things. If they think the person is an expert, they listen more closely."
Ferguson wants management employees to be knowledgeable about safety, so supervisors, project managers, foremen and lead men attend a 10-hour safety training course offered by Washington"s Department of Labor and Industries. They also participate in quarterly safety meetings. Those meetings usually cover a single topic, such as silica training, asbestos awareness, lead in construction, or the company"s responsibilities and liabilities on a jobsite. Ferguson encourages managers to participate in additional safety training and will cover the cost.
"We give employees the tools to work safely. Then it"s up to them. It becomes their responsibility," said Gottberg.
"I"m passionate about safety," said Gottberg, "but I"m not foolish enough to believe people will do safety because it"s the right thing to do. They have to have some kind of incentive to do it, and there has to be accountability."
Safety starts from the top down, Gottberg believes. He counts on the support and cooperation of Ferguson"s upper management, as well as the support of project owners in his safety efforts. Two of Ferguson"s major clients, Home Depot and Costco, support its safety program and encourage Ferguson to hire subcontractors with good safety records and programs. In some cases, the project owners include language in their contracts with subcontractors requiring them to have safety programs.
Gottberg said Ferguson requires subcontractors to prove their employees have whatever safety training is required by their job. He will work with subcontractors to develop a safety program or improve an existing program.
A subcontractor who has untrained employees or disregards safety policies is dangerous for a number of reasons, said Gottberg. Seeing subcontractor employees without their fall protection or safety glasses encourages Ferguson employees to do the same, he said. Employees who work in an unsafe manner endanger not only themselves, but other employees working around them, he added. In addition, Ferguson, as the prime contractor on site, could be held liable for any injuries or violations caused by a subcontractor.
"I"m willing to spend time with them to improve their programs," said Gottberg. "If they are not willing to do that, then we"re not willing to work with them."
He said he"s proud of the fact that the safety programs of many of the subcontractors Ferguson hires improve during their association with Ferguson. "Do they continue with that once they go on to their next job? I hope so. I know some of them do," he said.
All employees, both Ferguson and subcontractor, who violate company safety policies receive verbal warnings. Next comes a written warning from Gottberg which is sent to the employee, his employer (if he"s a subcontractor employee) and the safety manager for the site. If a third violation occurs, or if the safety violation created a dangerous situation for the employee or others, then he is terminated. Gottberg said he"s asked both Ferguson and subcontractor employees to leave a jobsite.
Accountability extends to supervisors and managers as well. A manager who disregards safety will be chastised more severely than any employee, said Gottberg. Enforcement is on "a continuing and even basis," he added. In addition, Gottberg participates in employee reviews and 30 percent of merit raises for management is based on the safety performance of their projects.
Gottberg conducts walk-throughs of each project, and tracks the safety performance of supervisors from job to job. Both their current safety performance and previous performance are considered when review time rolls around.
If a group of employees "forget" to wear safety glasses or tie off their fall protection, then the problem might be the supervisor or a foreman, said Gottberg. He said he will discuss the situation with the supervisor or lead person, but if it doesn"t improve, then he or she may be replaced.
One factor working in his favor, Gottberg noted, is that construction is "an extremely competitive business, and the project managers and supervisors are very competitive with each other. They don"t want to be looked at like they"ve got the worst safety record in the company. They talk to each other, compare notes. Communication is a useful tool."
The Value of Feedback
"When I"m out in the field, I"m viewed as an expert by employees," said Gottberg. "The fact is, I tell them what not to do. The employees are the real experts on how to do their jobs. It"s part of my job to listen to them when they have concerns and help them understand why safety is important through training and education. They know how to do their jobs. I show them how to do their jobs safely."
Part of being a good salesman is the ability to listen to the "buyer"s" needs. When Gottberg discovers a jobsite or group of employees with higher-than-average injury rates, the first thing he does is talk to the employees. "They generally know what the problem is," he said, "and they can generally tell me how to fix it."
Part of Gottberg"s job is to get to know employees. He spends time at every jobsite talking to employees about safety and asking them what they need. Gottberg calls the rewards from these casual feedback sessions "huge." Ferguson stresses the value of acquiring feedback from clients about safety, production and quality issues. Every subcontractor, project owner, architect and engineering firm is asked to evaluate Ferguson"s performance for each job. Ferguson, in turn, evaluates every subcontractor. The evaluations, along with employee feedback, are part of the company"s process for continuous improvement.
Many of these continuous improvement efforts focus on safety and building long-term relationships with employees. The company recently began encouraging its lead people to learn Spanish, since many workers are non-English-speaking. The company pays for the classes, and rewards the employees who participate by factoring in their newly acquired language skills when reviews and merit raises are handed out.
The company also offers a light-duty return-to-work program, something which is not often found on construction sites. "Some companies have an all or nothing attitude about it," admitted Gottberg, "but we want injured employees back on the site as soon as possible. We also want them to do something constructive, not just busywork. It helps them feel useful and it helps us out."
Gottberg said he looks at the program as an "opportunity to educate and make a better employee." For example, a carpenter was hit by a backhoe and ended up with serious injuries. Nothing was broken, but he was bruised and sore from his waist to his ankle.
He spent six weeks on light duty and was assigned a number of tasks, including helping the site supervisor with timecards in the main office and making calls for bids on carpentry projects.
"He learned something about the administrative side of the job. After four weeks, he was itching to get back out in the field. He"s never going to complain about how easy people have it in the office. He now has a good understanding of what it takes for us to bid a job. He has turned into an excellent, loyal, well-educated employee," said Gottberg.
That employee, and the experience he has on the job, will likely remain with Ferguson. In an industry where turnover is high, Ferguson manages to hang on to employees. Gottberg attributes that phenomenon, in part, to the safety program.
"Our safety program, and the benefits it brings to the company and our employees, has made us a better, more competitive company. Our employees have a safe and healthful workplace. We are able to competitively bid projects because we have lower costs for accidents and injuries and insurance than some of our competitors. Our clients trust us because they know we maintain a safe jobsite and they know their project will not be delayed because of accidents. Safety is the right thing to do, and it makes the best business sense," said Gottberg.