Construction and Human Resources

Safety first: GRC director keeps sites injury free

Savings on insurance premiums eventually are passed down to clients.

September 9, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Grand River Construction
John Spavale says 99 percent of safety issues that arise on job sites are attributable to workers who forgot their training or were not trained correctly. Courtesy Grand River Construction

John Spavale walked onto a construction site and asked a worker hanging off the roof if he had heard about the most recent construction death in Michigan.

The worker hadn’t heard of the death. A worker doing a similar job fell more than 20 feet to the ground because he wasn’t tied off.

Spavale, Grand River Construction’s safety director, told the worker — who was 15 feet off the ground — about the incident.

“You probably won’t die, you’ll just be crippled,” Spavale said.

“You’re telling me I should tie off?” said the worker, who added he couldn’t in the position he was in.

Spavale asked him to come down and showed him three ways to tie off and remain safe while doing his job.

“He’s a new guy, he needed to be taught and he appreciated it,” Spavale said. “We get busy on this work, and the guys do stuff without thinking. Construction guys tend to be macho and don’t want to say they don’t know how to do something.”

Spavale has been with GRC since 2009 but has worked on the safety side of construction for nearly 30 years. Construction workers have a largely negative view of safety directors, Spavale said, but they’re necessary for the industry. Construction jobs account for approximately 3 percent of the workforce in Michigan but nearly 50 percent of the on-the-job deaths in the state.

The accident Spavale was referring to was a 50-year-old construction worker who died after an accident at a Holland Township plant.

Hospital officials said Gerrit Blok of Ada died Aug. 26 from injuries he suffered the day before, after falling down an elevator shaft at a plant operated by drug maker Perrigo.

The long-time employee of Dan Vos Construction Company in Ada was doing contract work for Perrigo.

Sheriff's officials said Blok had worn a harness while working but removed it after completing the job.

He was trying to get an extension ladder from the shaft, when he fell more than 20 feet.

This year, GRC passed more than 1.5 million hours without a recordable injury in Spavale’s time. Along with the injury-free hours has come a cabinet of awards.

Prior to joining GRC, Spavale said his previous employers on the east side of Michigan had lost the passion for safety, something the ownership group of three brothers and a brother-in-law at GRC continue to hold.

“Before I left my previous employer, they asked me what I did, and I wrote up this huge page and they didn’t believe me,” he said. “The owners here gave me a sheet with my responsibilities that was almost verbatim. That blew me away. They understand what it takes to be a safety person, and with the ownership behind you, you can do anything.”

Some construction companies handle safety issues with disciplinary tactics, which ultimately turns workers against the protocols, Spavale said. He said 99 percent of issues are workers who forgot or haven’t been taught correctly, and the remaining 1 percent is “stubborn old-timers.” Those old-timers also are among the most injured, he said, as they lose the fear of the tasks they perform daily.

“You can’t lose sight with what you’re doing,” he said. “I’ve come across a lot of guys who have had a bad experience with safety. When I see something, we take care of it.”

Along with the safety come benefits. As injuries have gone down at GRC, the company has become eligible to self-insure with a group of contractors from across the country.

The cost savings translates into savings for potential clients, Spavale said.

“It makes us more profitable and more competitive,” he said. “We can secure work at a more profitable rate and keep our guys working.”

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