Leaders: Award-Winning Construction Safety

March 24, 2005
From his perch on Associated General Contractors' (AGC) construction safety awards committee, Tim Gottberg sees many excellent programs. What do the winners have in common?

Since its inception 6 years ago, Tim Gottberg has chaired AGC's Construction Safety Excellence Awards (CSEA) subcommittee, the panel that decides which programs deserve national recognition. An author, Gottberg has been involved in the construction industry for 25 years. He has worked as the safety and risk manager at GLY Construction of Bellevue, Wash., since 1999.

OH: Do you see any characteristics uniting the construction companies that win the CSEA awards?

Gottberg: A common thread I see is the emphasis on training, and it's now far more extensive than it was before. This includes utility, general and specialty contractors, from the little guys with just 10 employees all the way up to the $4 billion companies. Through their management commitment, they are now doing pre-hire and initial training, as well as periodic updates. They identify how people work, how they should be working to verify they are thoroughly trained even if they are very experienced workers. They do updates to be sure the equipment, types of materials and operational techniques are thoroughly understood.

OH: Can you give me an example of how an award-winner handles training?

Gottberg: We had a very small utility contractor out of Texas with 12 employees. We asked him about behavioral training all the trigger words you might hear. He had no idea what we were talking about. But what he did know is that everybody has to be trained.

"Everybody I hire," he said, "I take out in my yard and they become proficient in every piece of equipment we have." That sounded good. I asked what happens if somebody has a problem on a jobsite.

"We go back to the yard and we start all over and I take them through every piece of equipment again until I'm comfortable that they're totally safe." Now that's pretty great training. Then he told us about his monthly safety meetings.

"I invite everyone in the company, their wives and their families. We have a barbecue and we talk about the safety issues, because I want them to understand it's not just them it's their families that are involved in their safety."

Now if that's not behavioral safety, I'm not sure what is.

OH: How are finalists addressing the foreign language issue?

Gottberg: There's not one finalist that hasn't addressed it in some way. You've got to make sure there's at least one person who is bilingual, who speaks the language of the crew. But that's a Band-Aid. If you have a subcontractor and 15 of his workers speak only Russian, what if the bilingual supervisor is on the other side of the building? One finalist is providing at his own expense English classes for both workers and their families. Others are using international signs. You've got to get as many people as possible trained in whatever your approach is.

OH: What changes have you seen since you started handing out awards?

Gottberg: We're seeing a lot more employee involvement in programs. I've already mentioned training. We are keeping our workers in better condition, seeing them as "industrial athletes." We're seeing more 'stretch and flex' programs on company time. The term du jour is "take safety home." That's another reason why that contractor invited the whole family it takes the whole family to keep a worker safe. How about proper eye protection at home? Are we warming up before we work at home?

Addressing health habits is not as prevalent, but I see rapid moves to more health and wellness programs. For example, those who smoke will have to take a physical before they can wear a respirator. Obesity is not being addressed now, but it will have to be.

OH: What is the best thing a company can do to improve its safety program?

Gottberg: Listen to your workers. They will tell you what their problems are, the types of injuries they are having, and you will be able to develop a program that responds to these exposures.

We've been doing this on productivity issues, but we haven't paid enough attention to workers about safety. That's starting to change.

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