For construction businesses, workplace accidents have ripple effects which extend beyond the initial claim and the worker’s wellbeing – any injury can hold up project timelines, which in turn costs businesses more and may increase their workers’ compensation premiums.
To address these issues, a Puget Sound-based construction contractor association has doubled down on safety measures by hiring its first safety director, which National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Puget Sound Chapter staff and contractors say will give smaller firms a break when resources and staff run low.
The construction industry is one of the most dangerous and accident-prone. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 19.5 percent of all workplace deaths from 2002 to 2012 were within construction.
In 2012, the “fatal four” injuries which led to worker death were from falls, being caught between objects, electrocution and being struck by objects. These workplace injuries made up 57 percent of construction worker deaths in 2012, and elimination of the “fatal four” is estimated to save the lives of 435 workers each year.
In January, the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Puget Sound Chapter hired Jamie Stuart as its first safety director to help push “the safety climate throughout the construction industry,” according to Chris Reigelsperger, director of services for the chapter.
NECA’s Puget Sound chapter primarily focuses on jobs within King, Kittitas, Clallam and Jefferson counties and represents around 50 electrical contractors. Its contractors handle jobs that range from wiring residential homes to working on the Washington State Road (WSR) 520 floating bridge project or major stadiums such as Century Link Field.
“(NECA contractors) are working at record paces to deliver projects on time, on budget and right the first time,” said Chapter Executive Director Barry Sherman. “The addition of a NECA Safety Director to support them increases their ability to meet all regulations and keep skilled workers safe.”
Stuart told Lens his position allows him to help NECA members with specific safety training through L&I and offer consultative visits and inspections at job sites to identify potential safety hazards. He is available 24/7 to any contractor who needs a safety professional on staff, and he offers safety classes every two months with guest speakers to discuss current safety topics.
“Our goal is we want to make safety and production work together,” Stuart said. “Safety is a production-driven culture. If it’s just ‘go, go, go’ with no concern for individual workers, the potential for injury increases.”
A small injury might shut down the construction process for hours if not days, he added. If a worker were to fall and break his or her leg, that section of the job site – if not the entire site – would be shut down initially for medical responses and any follow-up investigations, Stuart continued. “Safety can either be handled proactively or reactively. The goal is we are now proactive. We want to prevent the accidents instead of showing up after an individual has suffered an injury.”
According to Reigelsperger, safety measures also play a role in a business’ “financial bottom line.”
“The longer a project takes, the more it costs”, he said. “So, safety plays a big role for keeping projects on time and keeping employees safe.”
For construction contractors, the cost is also borne out of increased workers’ compensation premiums.
Since Washington is one of four states in the country that doesn’t offer a private workers’ compensation option, businesses either self-insure or purchase insurance through the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I).
If a firm goes through L&I, they are assigned a risk category and pay premiums based upon an “experience modification factor” which is multiplied on the hourly worker rate for each employee. The factor can increase or decrease based on the frequency and severity of workers’ comp claims, according to Stuart.
In the construction world, this factor often determines whether a firm receives a project, according to Rick Rothermel, vice president of Pacific Coast Electrical Contractors Inc., a NECA member. The firm employs between 30-40 electricians to work on projects for the state, city, county and government work, including schools and hospitals.
“When you bid some jobs with particular contractors, one of the first things they ask you is what is your safety factor number,” said Rothermel. “If you are, say, a 1.25 or 1.5 and have (workers) with (outstanding claims) you may not get the job, and they might go to the next contractor that has a 0.75 or 0.5 rating.”
“They don’t want to have a contractor that is going to be loose with safety practices or has a history of people getting hurt,” he continued.
To help encourage safety on the site, NECA has developed a safety app for their contractors to distribute to their employees’ tablets or smartphones.
“I can put the safety app on my foreman’s phones and once a week, typically Monday morning, they can hit the safety app button, gather people around, and the safety app allows them to take roll very easily…and then…pick out what safety topic they want to talk about for the week,” said Rothermel.
The most important part of the app is its ability to hold weekly safety meetings which are documented on the devices and backed up, Rothermel added, so the company can have records of those meetings in case there is a problem with L&I.
According to Stuart, the app includes a section where the job site team can go over the tasks for the job at the start of a shift and identify hazards and any means to eliminate or protect from the hazards.
According to Rothermel, the appointment of Stuart to the NECA safety director position will give smaller firms like his a leg up when they lack the resources for a dedicated safety position.
“We have six or seven people in the office and we don’t have enough revenue to have a full-time safety officer like the larger firms,” he added, estimating that only five or six large companies within NECA have their own safety officer positions.
“For the rest of us (Jamie’s) position has already been especially beneficial, especially for my firm with an apprentice that got injured. Jamie came on in the right time for us…and gave us direction on how to handle the particular case.”
“As a contractor, we’re hoping Jamie’s involvement as NECA safety director and our safety app will let us be able to maintain a safe job which keeps people working and ultimately …helps with our L&I insurance rates,” Rothermel said.