Blueprint for Success Chapter 9: Do the smart thing

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A good safety program can save money and lives.

December 01, 2001
Respiratory protection - as well as gloves and safety goggles - is often needed when handling fiberglass insulation. OSHA and the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association worked together to develop recommended safe work practices for this procedure. A well-conceived safety plan will protect employees’ health as well as prevent losses to the company.

Companies of all sizes should be concerned about worker safety for a number of reasons. First, work-site injuries can be serious and even deadly. From foundation excavation pits to power tools, from roof framing to demolition, equipment and activities on a remodeling job site can cause serious injuries to employees. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration statistics, there are eight cases of injury and illness out of every 100 workers in the general building trades (8.9 among special trades contractors). A grave enough injury could even cost an employee the ability to work.

Second, there is a cost factor to the company. An injury at a job site not only stops work, it also requires the company to pay medical expenses for the injured employee. While some of these costs might be absorbed by the company’s worker’s compensation insurer, other expenses will ultimately be incurred by the company, including increased worker’s comp insurance premiums.

Third, ignoring job safety might result in significant penalties from occupational safety compliance officers. Companies are obliged to provide a safe working environment, and lack of knowledge of the law is not a defense against safety violations.

Ultimately, personnel remain healthier and on the job, projects can be completed in a timely fashion, and potential losses can be eliminated if a remodeling company adheres to a well-conceived safety plan.

"Safety on the job site is a factor in controlling the well-being of your employees and the well-being of your company, and it reduces the attendant risk to the employer," says David Pekel, owner of Pekel Construction & Remodeling in Wauwatosa, Wis. If Pekel maintains safe job sites for five years at his 10-employee design/build firm, he expects to receive reduced worker’s comp premiums. Those savings alone will provide a multiple return on the approximately $125 he spent to buy a safety program with reproducible rights. The manual is reviewed annually with the director of production, who is also the company’s safety officer, and new employees are taught safe work practices. "It’s the right thing to do," Pekel says.

Developing a safety program

A comprehensive safety program for a remodeling company should be composed of multiple parts: selection of one employee as the safety officer; preparation of a written safety plan; instruction to employees about the plan; implementation and enforcement of the plan; and continuing education.

The safety officer: The designation of an employee as the safety officer has to be more than just in name only. For a safety program to have credibility among employees, the safety officer must be empowered to enforce the safety policy.

The safety officer also must be motivated to learn about job-site safety. Whether motivated by a bonus based on a reduction in workdays lost because of injury, or by personal interest, it’s important that the safety officer understand problems unique to the remodeling industry and how they should be addressed. The safety officer should also know where to find pertinent information and be compensated for time spent researching and understanding the subject matter.

In most small remodeling companies, the owner will probably serve as safety officer.

The written plan: Many insurance companies that provide worker’s comp coverage also provide, at no additional expense, a written safety plan, valuable information on job-site safety, and technical bulletins through their risk-engineering or risk-management departments. The insurance carrier has a vested interest in your company’s safety: The fewer job-site claims you file, the more profit for the underwriter.

Companies can also purchase "canned" plans that can be customized. OSHA’s Web site (www.osha.org) is filled with helpful information about government standards for job-site safety, as is the OSHA publication Selected Construction Regulations for the Home Building Industry.

Any safety plan should include job-site standards (including site-specific safety requirements and prohibitions); how to report a work injury; obligations of the employer and employees to the safety program; and a statement emphasizing company commitment.

After the plan is drafted, the safety officer should circulate it among employees for review and suggestions. In larger organizations, circulation could be limited to managers. In smaller companies, all employees should receive a copy. A safety officer should assume that concerned employees will want input, and their ideas and comments should be seriously considered.

Instruction to employees: Insurance company risk engineers can attest to how many safety manuals are left unopened. Essentially, the mere presence of a manual constituted a safety program.

Armed with the knowledge that workplace injuries occur with regularity, owners should have a real interest in ensuring a reduction of injuries and lost workdays. If they don’t demonstrate that commitment to their employees, the staff will never commit to the program.

When a safety plan is adopted, the safety officer should distribute it to all employees. They should sign a document indicating they will read and abide by the policy, and agree to report violations to their supervisors immediately. In addition, employees should attend, on company time, a program that details how the program will affect them directly. They should also have an opportunity to ask questions about the program.

Implementation and enforcement: If certain equipment is required for job-site safety (harnesses or masks, for example), it should be provided or reimbursable by the company for all affected employees. For subcontractors, agreement to abide by the company safety plan should be part of every contract.

The safety officer should not only demonstrate procedures and safety equipment, but should also observe whether employees are following safety instructions. Employees who don’t follow procedures should be retrained until they are in compliance.

Violations of the safety policy should be dealt with in a formal manner as prescribed in the written safety plan. For example, a first offense of a relatively minor indiscretion can be dealt with by admonishing the supervisor and/or the affected employees. Subsequent violations should be documented and placed in the employee’s (and supervisor’s) personnel file. More severe violations should be handled with suspension and subsequent loss of pay, attendance at a retraining program on the employee’s time, and/or dismissal. Employees who don’t comply represent a potential liability to the company.

Continuing education: While implementing a safety program is commendable, it’s not the last step. In fact, there is no final step; company safety is an ongoing commitment. To demonstrate that commitment, the owner must ensure that the safety officer keeps current on procedures, techniques and equipment that might make job sites even safer.

Besides subscribing to industry publications with job-site information, such as OSHA bulletins, the safety officer should attend safety seminars offered at regional or national trade shows or by governmental agencies. In addition, the safety officer should contact a representative from the company’s worker’s comp carrier and/or a representative from an OSHA (or state) field office for an on-site inspection. Rather than fearing a site visit, a company with a well-conceived safety program should look at safety compliance inspections as another way to upgrade procedures for the best interests of its employees.

Ultimately, a company that commits to a safety program will find that the investment pays handsome dividends in the form of fewer missed workdays, fewer employee injuries and increased profits. That could bring a smile to even the most seasoned professional remodeler.

 

TheBig Four safety hazards

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