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OP-ED: Safety must be embraced as a core value

DJC300This column originally appeared in The Daily Journal of Commerce in Buildings Bridges and Roads
By: Mike Salsgiver

Mike SalsgiverAs our economy and the construction industry at large have gone through a complete reboot, so too should our industry’s view of safety in the workplace. Many companies talk about the importance of safety, but rarely do they truly embed safety as a core value. Many corporate leaders have yet to embrace safety as part of their culture.

While it is easy to use the words “safety” and “culture” in the same sentence, actually doing that is hard work. So another way to look at the importance of safety requires us to strip the morality out of safety and monetize high-level or world-class safety performance. When that is done, it can be easier to see a marked difference in the workplace.

Safety can be monetized both directly and indirectly. Direct safety costs are costs from an accident, such as the medical bills of an injured worker or broken equipment that requires repair. Indirect safety costs are the peripheral costs associated with an accident, such as increased insurance costs and the need to find a substitute worker while the injured worker recovers.

Why does safety matter? When employees leave their workplace in good health and under safe conditions, workers’ compensation and insurance costs are reduced. Simultaneously, productivity improves when employees know they are performing in a safe environment under the supervision of caring management, and the outside community benefits by knowing that the employer values safety.

The employer’s commitment to having a safe workplace is communicated to its employees, their families and the community. The positive perceptions created about the value of workplace safety and health can yield many positive outcomes for bid opportunities and new partnerships within the industry. Perhaps most importantly, as our industry focuses on building the construction workforce of the future, one challenge we face is surveys that show young people avoiding the industry because they believe it is dangerous and unsafe. A company’s strong safety culture can improve efforts to recruit and retain new talent.

Overall, members of leadership and management within our industry are not in the safety business­ – they are in the business of making money and, therefore, conducting their work safely. Traditionally, people associate profit in the workplace with a specific product or successful marketing plan, but profit can also be associated with safety performance.

Having a well-oiled safety program translates into improved performance among employees. These concepts can, in turn, migrate to other departments within the company and improve productivity, efficiency and even employee satisfaction.

At the government level, Oregon OSHA sets minimum safety standards for companies to follow. If these standards are not met, penalties are assessed and the offending companies must pay. As these citations stack up, insurance rates increase and cost the company more – therefore affecting the company’s bottom line.

As of 2013, failing to regularly hold safety committee and safety meetings were Oregon OHSA’s top violations, even though the safety committee rule has been in place for nearly two decades. Following close behind, fall protection violations – including failure to protect against injury near holes, wall openings, ladders and rooftops – were also in the top violations and accounted for the most frequent source of violations on the list.

It must be accepted that these violations are not trivial – the protective measures exist to keep people safe on the job. The culture of acceptance around rule violations and occasional penalties needs to change.

Work zone safety standards related to highway construction have also been a hot topic as of late. According to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, an average of 130 workers die each year in road construction activities (a direct safety cost). The primary causes of these fatalities in recent years were:

• Run-overs/back-overs: 48 percent

• Collisions between vehicles/mobile equipment: 14 percent, and

• Caught between or struck by construction equipment and object: 14 percent

Work zone crashes also have a pronounced impact on construction schedules and costs. Twenty-five percent of contractors reported that work zone crashes during the past year have forced them to temporarily shut down construction activity. Those delays were often lengthy: 38 percent of those project shutdowns lasted two or more days (an indirect safety cost).

As we look to build the construction industry of the future, it is important to recognize that safety standards have improved, but that crucial changes are needed to continue to move forward. Within the industry, it has become apparent that the participation of companies in safety awards programs results in a reduction of safety-related accidents as well as increased employee morale and improvement in overall business.

For example, the Associated General Contractors of America’s Construction Safety Excellence Awards (CSEA) can be added to bids and are, in fact, required on Army Corps of Engineers projects. When this information is front and center on a bid it can help companies with higher safety standards win the bidding process. Participation in the awards process has proven beneficial; however, it does not help the companies that do not participate in the awards process.

Change is difficult and it is hard to break down the paradigm of prioritizing workplace safety standards over the bottom line. Especially as our industry emerges from tough economic times, there is a new opportunity to refocus on the value of safety and instill the culture of safety within a company.

For those companies looking to actively participate and engage in a safety dialogue, AGC’s and NWUCA’s Joint Safety Forum on Feb. 27 will provide attendees the opportunity to effect change within their companies and allow for active participation in the construction industry of the future.

I hope that your company will join us, for the sake of the bottom line, and – most importantly – for the sake of your employees.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or

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