Having A Heightened Sense Of Safety

July 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — It's unfortunate, but a construction executive here says that one of the most dangerous industries seems to have a cultural problem with the notion of promoting safety.

Chris Beckering, a project manager with Pioneer Construction, says that the notion of safety has a negative connotation in the industry.

"There's a common misconception that productivity and safety are inversely related," Beckering said. He ridicules the notion, but said it nonetheless has been prevalent.

"Sometimes, it is very difficult to shift the mindset of your employees from productivity to safety because employees often perceive the two to be at opposite ends of the spectrum," he said.

But he also said that with some creative help from the insurance industry and some hard work by a committee of executives, employee representatives and project managers, Pioneer has caused its entire staff to look at the question in a new light — a green, folding light, one might say.

As opposed to monitoring and nagging and threatening workers and treating safety as a burden, Pioneer adopted a program that it has entitled "Pioneering Safety." It is a so-called safety accountability and incentive program that gives a financial bonus to safe behavior and financially punishes its opposite.

For the program's purposes, Beckering told the Business Journal that Pioneer arranged its employees in six groups based on the types of work they perform.

"We wanted to create an environment of positive peer pressure because monitoring and safety policies had not been working. To create this environment, we provided a generous monthly safety incentive to every employee."

He explained that the employee can only lose the incentive, what might be called a routine safety bonus, if:

  • That employee knowingly violates a safety policy

  • That employee has a lost workday incident

  • An employee in the group causes at-fault property damage over $500.

In addition to losing the positive financial safety incentive, Beckering explained that the accountability program has progressive disciplinary tiers.

He said the first level of discipline actually involves no discipline.

"If an employee unknowingly acts unsafely, he or she is not punished," Beckering said. "We learn from the incident and train the rest of our employees."

At level two, he said, if an employee knowingly acts unsafely, he or she is given three days off without pay while also saying good-bye to the monthly incentive.

And if a level two violation means, "ouch," the third involves termination, coming if a worker commits two level two violations.

Beckering terms the program strict but fair. "It has created an environment in which employees watch out for one another and strive to be safe," he said. "The program involves everyone from laborers to the president of the company — a consistent 'top-down' management approach."

Beckering said the industry's traditional problem with safety programs was that they wasted time and threatened productivity.

He believes Pioneering Safety not only doesn't waste time, but it also militates against the human costs of having valuable, skilled workers injured.

Above everything else, he said, construction companies just flat don't want people to be hurt. "All employers want their workers to return home safely to their families each and every night," he said.

"Although it may take a little more time to ensure that unsafe behaviors are avoided," he said, "the efforts more than pay for themselves."

For instance, he said that if a construction company has a bad injury rate, it's a no-brainer that rising insurance premiums threaten its profitability.

Worker's compensation premiums rise, and having people off the job also creates a scheduling headache for project managers.

"Many contractors also point to the high costs of personal protective and safety equipment as an explanation for their unsafe behaviors," Beckering said. "This is another poor argument. The costs of reduced productivity due to injured employees, worker's compensation and increased insurance premiums far outweigh the costs of safety."

And just as financially injurious, he said, is that a bad injury rate can bar a firm from major construction jobs.

"Many owners and developers — especially institutional customers — will hire only those contractors that have the safest work records," Beckering said.

"The theory that safety hurts productivity is not only weak, but also untrue," he added.

He explained that Pioneer started restructuring its safety program in October of last year.

"Prior to the implementation of this program," Beckerking said, "Pioneer Construction had not gone a single month without a lost workday, and had averaged approximately 30 lost workdays per month."

Since implementing its new program in January, he said the firm has had one lost worker day. "And that was a true accident," he said, "when a worker kind of stumbled over his own feet.

"With over 300 employees," he added, "bringing down the accident rate this much is quite a feat."           

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