Construction and Human Resources

JB Builders stakes reputation on safety measures

Subcontractor’s proactiveness helps it win a diamond safety award.

October 25, 2019
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JB Builders of Grand Rapids has been recognized as a top name in safety. The local subcontractor is a recent recipient of the Associated Builders and Contractors STEP Diamond Award.

Jeff DeVries founded JB Builders in 2005 as a subcontractor providing rough framing, finish carpentry and general trades construction for commercial projects.

DeVries said rough framing and general trades are typically the most dangerous job on a construction site outside of structural steelwork.

“We’re always working at height, above height, so we’ve really tried over the years to take steps to minimize that kind of stuff,” DeVries said.

While MIOSHA requires a minimum worker safety structure to be in place, DeVries said he was inspired early on to be proactive about his workers’ safety. Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t much safety on a job site, he said, citing an incident he witnessed early in his career where another contractor almost fell off a roof.

“Your second or third day on the job, they throw you up there and expect you to walk around like it’s nothing,” DeVries said. “When I experienced seeing somebody almost fall, that kind of brought the, ‘What if somebody did fall? What are the consequences of that? How do we make sure that doesn’t happen?’”

JB Builders joined ABC Western Michigan in 2016. The move was initially to get more notoriety for the contractor’s name, but DeVries later found out about STEP, the Safety Training and Evaluation Process, through other contractors.

“We thought, well we’re a really safe company. Let’s dive into this and see what we can get out of it,” DeVries said.

The ABC National Environment, Health & Safety Committee established STEP in 1989. The program offers an organized approach for developing safety and loss prevention programs. Contractors are graded based on a scale of bronze, silver, gold, platinum and diamond.

STEP Diamond and Platinum recipients are eligible for the ABC National Safety Excellence Award and the Construction Users Roundtable’s CISE award.

JB Builders achieved STEP bronze status in 2017, which DeVries said was easy because the company already was doing what it needed to before it became involved in STEP. After winning, the company started to look internally at what it needed to do to win silver.

DeVries pointed to his safety director, Adam Frost, as instrumental in forming the company’s safety culture. Frost joined JB Builders as a framer in 2017 and quickly took charge as an on-site safety lead, identifying areas where the team could improve overall safety and mitigate risks.

“I spend a good amount of time covering fall protection since that’s the No. 1 killer on job sites, so I really stress fall protection and what kinds of hazards are associated with working at higher elevations,” Frost said.

Even in the late stages of projects when dealing with finishing, JB Builders’ company policy requires workers keep 100% of their protective equipment on 100% of the time, DeVries said.

In his current role, Frost is responsible for JB Builders’ education programs, training, new hire safety orientations, on-site inspections, policy administration and strategic planning.

Frost led the process of earning JB Builders’ STEP Silver Award in 2018 and the coveted Diamond STEP Award in 2019.

JB Builders is the only rough and finish contractor to achieve this status in West Michigan, according to ABC Western Michigan.

“A lot of it has to do with your incident rate, your EMR (experience modification rate), but there are specific things you can do like having a safety committee, how much training do you do and how frequently you do it,” Frost said. “Do you do daily job task analyses or hazard assessment? Things like that.”

Companies that have a low EMR also have lower insurance rates. JB Builders argues fewer expenses related to worker downtime allow for greater investment in the form of better equipment, higher wages and better long-term stability.

Frost also is the founder of Construction Safety Advisors, a separate firm providing safety consulting to other industry professionals.

JB Builders has claimed over 500,000 man-hours without a major injury since its inception.

“If you’re going to remain relevant and competitive in this industry, you’ve got to stay ahead of safety because it’s just getting more and more important,” Frost said. “It’s always been important, but people are paying more attention to it.”

JB Builders’ client portfolio includes many of the big-name contractors in West Michigan, like Pioneer Construction, Wolverine Building Group, Orion Construction and First Companies.

Being a stand-out company for safety also helps land high-profile projects, DeVries said. Being contracted for Diamond Place Apartments, a $42 million 143,500-square-foot, mixed-use development jointly owned by Third Coast and PK Development groups, was a big win for the company.

JB Builders also has provided services for 20 Monroe Live in downtown Grand Rapids, The Knoll Townhomes of Ada and other large-scale projects. The company now is working on Westown at Wilson Apartments in Walker alongside CopperRock Construction.

DeVries also noted worksite productivity is no exemption from practicing safety. While there was a mild productivity curve for the company at the beginning, his team quickly understood what it needed to do to work well and be safe at the same time and began to pick up speed.

“This Westown Project we’re doing for CopperRock right now, we’re a month ahead on every building,” DeVries said. “Once these guys buy in, you get over that moment of, ‘Oh, this is going to take too long. I got to do this, do that,’ it’s just fluid now. These guys get it. They think ahead.”

“It (STEP) takes into account your total history,” Frost said. “It’s not just a snapshot of your company safety. It’s a track record and something that maybe wouldn’t have been possible for us to get last year, but because of what we did last year and the year before … it’s year after year having an incident rate of 0 and an extremely low EMR.”

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