Abrahamse & Co. employs more than 30 tradespeople; we work
on projects ranging from custom homes to large office buildings
and churches. But when we started in business 31 years ago, it
was just three guys and a pickup truck. Like many small
contractors, we were fairly relaxed about safety issues, more
or less expecting everyone to take care of himself.
Over the years, as our company grew, our awareness of safety
issues expanded as well: We felt we were doing a good job of
following safe work guidelines. Then, in 1989, a laborer
slipped off the bottom rung of a scaffold and fractured a
vertebra. Even though he fell from a height of less than 2
feet, he suffered a serious spinal injury that ultimately
resulted in insurance claims of more than $150,000.
Because we'd had a few minor claims previously, this accident
was all it took for our workers' comp carrier to cancel our
policies. Our costs for continued coverage went through the
roof. Fortunately, we learned that these rates could be
softened if we implemented a viable safety program, subject to
periodic monitoring — including surprise site inspections
— by an agent of the insurance provider.
We decided to ask one of our project managers to assume the
role of safety officer. He would direct a companywide overview
taking stock of where our weaknesses might lie and what
improvements we should make. His most important job was to
establish a companywide culture of safety.
From the beginning our safety program has been a team effort.
We told the safety officer to recruit two field workers to
serve as safety coordinators; their job is to ensure that our
safety policies are followed in the workplace, and they're paid
extra for accepting this level of responsibility.
Working together, the three staff members drafted our "Safety
Manual and Employee Handbook" (see Figure 1), which clearly
spells out the company's policies concerning
personal-protection equipment, power tools, scaffolding, site
work, and other issues of general workplace safety. Insurance
companies consider such a handbook the foundation of a viable
safety program. All our employees receive a copy of this
booklet, which also sets out company policy on troublesome
issues like absenteeism, drugs, and sexual harassment.
Figure 1. A good safety manual spells out
company policies on personal-protection equipment, power tools,
scaffolding, site work, and the like.
Our membership in the Associated General Contractors of America
(703/548-3118, www.agc.org) proved to be valuable during
the drafting of our handbook; contractor groups can provide a
wealth of resources for improving worker safety and health. If
you're not a member of the AGC, NAHB, or the like, a Google
search using the words "job-site safety" will get you more
information than you need to get started.
One of the earliest tasks assigned to the safety team was to
perform an assessment of all the company's tools and equipment.
Anything found to be substandard was either repaired or removed
from service. We got rid of all of our wood-pole pump-jack
scaffolding and replaced it with more reliable aluminum poles,
planks, and guardrails. We also banned plastic fuel containers
from our job sites; now we permit only spillproof, self-closing
As the team members assessed our tools, they also recorded
their condition and location, plus scheduled maintenance or
replacement dates. This tool catalog has also proved its worth
on those few occasions when our sites have been burglarized,
because good documentation streamlines the process of applying
for insurance compensation.
Although our two safety coordinators spend the majority of
their time working in the field like any other tradespeople,
they're also expected to sniff out — and correct —
unsafe procedures and equipment. In addition, they're charged
with conducting quarterly inspections of all electrical cords
and equipment and marking them with color-coded tape in
accordance with OSHA directives. This practice lets a worker
(or an inspector) know at a glance whether a piece of equipment
is certified to be in safe condition.
To guard against complacency, the safety coordinators
periodically conduct surprise job-site inspections and submit
written reports of their findings to the safety officer and the
individual job supervisor.
Supervisors are critical to the success of our safety program.
Each is expected to have a full understanding of how to
properly erect frame-type scaffolding — including the
appropriate use of guard rails and access ladders — and
how to set up roof ladders and ridge-line fall-protection
rigging. Every supervisor maintains a binder of MSDS (material
safety data sheets) containing emergency info on all products
used on a given project.
Because we know that accidents can happen even on the safest
job site, critical information — the location of the
nearest emergency room, 911 directions to the job site,
employees' emergency contact numbers — is written down in
the supervisor's job log. All supervisors receive mandatory
first-aid and CPR training (any interested employee can also
take these courses at company expense). And every job site has
a properly equipped first-aid kit and a fully charged fire
extinguisher, both of which are readily available in a
convenient, well-known location.
We're strict about personal safety equipment, too. We require
hard hats and stiff-soled shoes on every job site; new
employees are furnished with hard hats (we retain a $5
deposit), disposable safety glasses, earplugs, and dust masks.
For hazardous operations we provide whatever safety equipment
the job calls for. To make sure we never run short of a
potentially life-saving item, we have converted a closet at our
company headquarters into a stockroom for first-aid and safety
supplies (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Back at the office, a closet
well-stocked with first-aid and safety supplies ensures that no
employee is ever sent into the field
Of course, if subs don't work safely, all of these precautions
will have little effect, so we include language in our
contracts requiring subcontractor personnel to adhere to the
company safety standards.
Despite our best efforts, construction will always be hazardous
work. That's why, like most conscientious builders, we're
constantly on the lookout for even better and safer methods. We
subscribe to all the respected trade publications and send
representatives to various local and national trade shows;
everyone makes it part of his or her job to pass along good
information to supervisors and field staff. We hold quarterly
meetings for supervisors, during which we seek input from the
field on how to improve operations.
We network with other builders, primarily through memberships
in trade organizations like AGC and NAHB; there's no need to
reinvent the wheel when we're all facing the same kinds of
challenges. Instead of always sending the president of the
company to chapter meetings, we ask supervisors and project
managers to represent us. This encourages individual
involvement and underlines our commitment to the concept of
safety and community in the trade.
Manufacturers are another source of useful information. For
instance, the Wood Truss Council of America and the Truss Plate
Institute jointly produce an excellent manual that clearly
spells out the proper procedures for safely handling,
installing, and bracing wood trusses (Figure 3). We give all
supervisors a copy of this handbook (608/274-4849,
www.sbcindustry.com) and insist that they
follow it to the letter.
Figure 3. Produced by a consortium of truss manufacturers,
the BCSI (Building Component Safety Information) guide is a
good source of information on how to safely assemble these
unwieldy building components.
Regular Safety Meetings
At our weekly management meetings, the safety officer reports
on any problems and successes he's encountered in the field
over the previous week. We take note of what's working and what
isn't, and use that knowledge to upgrade operations on our
jobs. In addition, each supervisor conducts a weekly "toolbox"
safety meeting. Attendance is mandatory for our employees and
optional for our subcontractors' employees. Everyone who
attends signs in on the lesson sheet; this adds to our
documentation that a viable safety program is in force.
Rather than struggle to come up with relevant topics, we
subscribe to a service that provides prepared "toolbox safety
meetings" (Figure 4). For a modest fee, we can choose from more
than 400 prewritten safety meetings covering a range of
subjects, including ladder safety, proper lifting, and general
job-site manage-ment (877/201-8923,
www.safetyservicescompany.com). Each week a
different crew member reads the lesson and then we discuss how
we can apply the information in the real world.
Figure 4. Available by subscription,
prepackaged "toolbox safety meetings" take much of the hassle
out of holding regular safety meetings. Each lesson includes
space for employees to sign in, which helps provide proof that
a viable safety program is in force.
If we've had an accident of any sort in the previous week, we
forgo the canned topic and talk about the accident, exploring
ways to avoid problems in the future.
Since there's no formal apprenticeship in the building trades
these days, we mine the skills and experiences that exist right
under our noses by recruiting senior staff members to provide
specific training on the safe operation of dangerous tools and
equipment. Beyond lessons learned, this type of mentoring
fosters respect among the workers and supports the team spirit
so conducive to a safe work environment and a healthy
To keep up with the latest safety trends and legal
requirements, we've paid for a number of field workers to
attend OSHA training courses and become certified as "OSHA
Competent." Topics covered by the two-day course include fall
protection, electrical grounding, and proper setup for ladders
and scaffolding. Sending a worker through the training costs
about $200 plus wages, but the knowledge gained spreads
throughout the company, making it a valuable investment.
Ultimately, no safety program can succeed without the personal
involvement of every employee. A company policy, a safety
manual, well-stocked first-aid kits, fully charged fire
extinguishers — important as they are, these safety
measures aren't worth much without the interest and
participation of the people with their hands in the work. It's
taken us years to get our safety program to where it is now,
and it remains a work-in-progress, but we don't doubt for a
minute that the effort's paid off. We have an excellent safety
record. We're considered one of the best builders to work for
in our region. And our workers' comp premiums are way
Gerry Sackett is project manager for
Abrahamse & Co., Builders, in Charlottesville,