Constructing a Successful Message

Champions of Safety finalist D.H. Blattner & Sons uses communication and employee involvement to solve safety issues facing its far-flung construction work force.

How does a one-person safety department coordinate the EHS effort for a construction company with 200 to 400 workers spread across 20 to 30 sites throughout much of the western and central United States?

That was the toughest question facing Stephen Prozinski, CSP, when he became risk management director 11 years ago at D.H. Blattner & Sons, an Avon, Minn., heavy construction and mining contractor. Prozinski's answer: a comprehensive communications strategy and help from workers at every construction site.

The ability to communicate the safety message to employees at varying worksites and resulting low injury and illness rates were factors in Occupational Hazards' editors selecting the construction company as the 2001 Champions of Safety finalist.

"Construction safety is definitely more challenging than a static work environment for one simple reason: job sites are dynamic," Prozinski says. "By the end of a project, you've had varying levels of exposures and risks that you can't put your arms around on a consistent basis."

Hazards vary as much as the type of work performed at Blattner's highway and railroad construction sites, which include earthmoving, drilling and blasting, and demolition and salvage. While working in hot and cold weather in terrain from swamps to mountains, employees deal with hazards involving falls, trenches, confined spaces, cranes, mobile equipment, trains and vehicle traffic.

Blattner's effort to have safe worksites has resulted in a consistent drop in its yearly workers' compensation Experience Modification Rate from 1.03 in 1990 to 0.56 in 2001 (through April), more than 30 percent lower than the industry average of 0.82. The lost-time rate of 1.25 so far this year is less than half of the company's 1998 rate of 2.51 and more than 50 percent below the industry average. The OSHA recordable rate of 6.86 through April this year is nearly 35 percent lower than the company's 10.3 rate in 1998.

Communication

Like many companies, Blattner strives for the difficult goal of zero accidents. Prozinski says he drives home the injury-free concept by passionately believing the message and communicating it to all workers.

Because Prozinski also must deal with property casualty insurance administration and senior management issues at the corporate office in Minnesota, he cannot visit worksites on a consistent basis. He counts on other methods to communicate the safety message.

One of the most visible methods is a weekly risk management newsletter that goes to every employee. It includes:

  • Injury updates. The newsletter explains how and why an injury occurred and what lessons employees can learn from the mishap.
  • Near-miss updates. Blattner does not wait for an injury to happen before it communicates about unsafe acts and lessons learned.
  • Safety quick quizzes. A new question each week tests the knowledge of each worker.
  • Fatal facts. Information about a fatal accident at another company's construction site reinforces the need to work safely and points out best practices to help avoid a similar fate at a Blattner location.
  • A "Standards Simplified" section. A summary of a federal regulation refreshes workers on a rule's requirements.

"That's had a tremendous impact on getting out the message that the company believes in safety," Prozinski says of the 9-year-old newsletter.

In addition, Prozinski holds conference calls as needed for anything he deems significant, such as immediately communicating information about an accident that prompts a change in a safety policy. The calls include site supervisors and possibly the affected employee when firsthand knowledge will help prevent similar mishaps.

A typical day for Rodney Crawford, who is a project superintendent at railroad sites, includes supervising tasks such as moving dirt, pouring concrete, installing drainage pipe and crane lifting &endash; all performed quickly because of tight schedules. Because of the varying work, supervisors ensure that employees take a few minutes at the start of each task to talk about safety issues.

Crawford points out another way Blattner emphasizes communication. "It's not only the willingness of the company to communicate concerns and a safety commitment to the employees, but also to provide means of communication in the field." For example, all mobile equipment, if it has a seat on it, has a two-way radio. While this constitutes a large investment, he says, operators are able to keep in contact with each other and workers on the ground to avoid struck-by accidents.

Maintaining contact with co-workers is crucial at many of Crawford's job sites, such as his current assignment of grade and bridge work for a Union Pacific double-track project in western Nebraska. Workers must watch out not only for moving equipment, but also for 10,000-ton trains running at 25 to 60 mph within feet of workers and equipment. "If you focus on one or the other without focusing on both, one of them is going to get you," he says. "Our work with railroads is, without a doubt, as dangerous or maybe more dangerous than mining or any other type of construction. Every minute of every day, if you make a wrong move, you can be hit by a train."

When trains go by, the amount of noise and dust, already at potentially hazardous levels, increases. Workers cannot hear backup alarms, Crawford says, making it "extremely necessary that everybody pays attention and looks out for other workers."

Employee Involvement

Because Blattner's EHS department consists of only Prozinski and an assistant, employees at each worksite are responsible for day-to-day safety. Taking the lead at each location are site supervisors, such as a project superintendent like Crawford.

"The primary responsibility of a project superintendent is to lead by example," he says. "If the project superintendent does not buy into the safety program, he cannot sell that program to his crew."

The key, Crawford says, is to always emphasize safety, not only at daily production meetings and weekly safety meetings, but also during task management and day-to-day supervision. "If I see a safety issue, I bring it up right then. I don't wait for a weekly safety meeting."

Even though project superintendents have plenty of issues to handle, extra time spent on safety actually frees up time for other tasks, Crawford says. "If I'm not running around putting out fires and taking care of accidents and injured people, I have time to do my administrative management."

Workers who do not catch on to the safety message will not look out for their own safety or the safety of co-workers, Crawford says. A construction company can be out of business in a short time with a bad safety record caused by a few unsafe workers.

"Even with the drastic help shortage there is right now, the modern-day construction company cannot afford an employee who will not buy into safety," he says. "In the construction industry, a safe environment can only exist by total commitment."

Other Keys to Success

Communication and employee involvement are only two components in the Blattner safety program. Top management and budget support play a factor, as does an equipment and tool maintenance program.

Like Prozinski, Scott Blattner, the company's president, is not always able to visit every worksite. That does not prevent him from being concerned for workers he has never met. "You have to have compassion for the people in the field you don't really know," he says. "If you don't get to that point, you may not be thinking about the things that are going to give you an accident-free worksite."

Management puts its pocketbook behind safety. If an item not included in a project's bid becomes necessary for a safe work environment, the company purchases the product, Blattner says, because "safety is nonnegotiable."

Blattner's safety efforts go beyond minimum compliance. Five years ago, for example, the Federal Railroad Administration began an effort to have contract workers wear high-visibility garments. The company had some employees wear high-vis vests on a trial basis. Management liked the results and instituted a companywide policy that workers wear the vests. A voluntary standard for high-visibility apparel was not released until last year.

If Blattner cannot find personal protective equipment on the market for a specific situation, it develops its own. For instance, engineers designed a fall protection system that allows employees to work on bridge decks from an upright position.

The safe operation of equipment and tools also is a critical part of Blattner's EHS program. The company has learned through the years that properly working and maintained equipment reduces the risk of injury to workers.

To diagnose problems with mobile equipment, Blattner produced an inspection walkaround video to train operators on what to look for during daily inspections. By producing its own video, the company included specific reports and procedures designed to keep each piece of equipment and all of its safety features in top condition.

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