Smart, Safe, Successful – Why Contractor Safety is Good for Business

Spotlight: An Interview with Kent Smith, Former Senior Safety Manager, Merriwether & Williams Insurance Services, Inc.

Kent Smith has extensive knowledge about the importance of safety. Kent started his safety-related career as a paramedic in the 90’s, moved into child and senior care safety, conducted health inspections in the military and then was asked to oversee large-scale construction safety for the military in Kuwait. Currently, Kent oversees project safety as consultant to the risk management department for the City and County of San Francisco, focusing on the San Francisco International Airport. As his schedule permits, he also facilitates OSHA certification workshops throughout the State to help contractors get certified in work-related safety procedures. Kent took some time to share with Contractor Tools why Contractor Safety is a vitally important but too often an overlooked aspect of operating a business.

Contractor Tools: Kent, can you give a little more detail about what it is you do to oversee project safety – what does that involve?

Kent Smith: At the beginning of a project, I sit down with the project owners and the contractor(s) to determine what the potential on-site risks are, so that we can plan ahead. At the San Francisco International Airport, we’re often talking about very large and complex projects. Right now, for example, we’ll be starting a project that has over 1,000 people working on-site. I ask questions and look for documentation that the contractors involved have written procedures in place to address safety issues specific to each project. Then, once the project is under way, I visit the site regularly to make sure that those safety procedures are being followed. If I see something going on that looks like a potential hazard, I work with the contractors and project owners to resolve the issue immediately, so that we minimize the risk of anyone getting hurt.

CT: What should every contractor know about safety?

KS: Making safety a priority is good for business in many ways. Project owners and prime contractors notice when a job site is clean, work is being performed in a safe and professional manner and workers have been trained and are being supervised to follow standard safety procedures. For sub-contractors, this means a higher likelihood of getting repeat business and referrals for new business. Contractor safety also saves money in the long-run, because a better-than-average safety record will qualify your company for lower insurance rates and you’ll also avoid the expense of lost time, work and other potential costs resulting from work injuries. Also, when workers feel that you genuinely care about their health and well-being, they tend to be more loyal and perform better, which results in lower turnover and higher quality work. Even if you’re a one-person operation, you can start by taking free OSHA workshops to learn basic construction safety practices – getting OSHA certified in the types of construction work that you’re currently doing and that you want to get into is the first step.

CT: What are the top causes of job site accidents and how can contractors avoid them?

KS: The top causes of job site accidents are not actually creating and implementing project-specific safety plans, but trying to cut corners, and not having someone who is trained in safety on-site to effectively supervise workers. Don’t use a generic safety plan for every project – there are different types of hazards and procedures depending on the project, so make sure you have a plan that is site-specific and project-specific. Make sure that your project supervisors are properly trained in safety and are actively part of creating your safety plan. Don’t take short cuts – keep your job sites organized and clean and make sure that your workers have complete instructions before starting a job. If a work site is disorganized and messy, there’s a higher likelihood of someone getting hurt. If workers are not being instructed and supervised by someone who knows how the work should be done, that’s also going to increase the potential for injuries. With a little planning, forward-thinking and clear communication, you can avoid job site accidents.

CT: How can contractors fulfill their obligations under OSHA or the rules of civil liability / tort law?

KS: Contractors that don’t make the effort to do things right and don’t treat their employees well are the ones that fail. Too often, contractors will say that they have safety plans but have put no effort into customizing their plans to address the specific hazards of the projects they are working on and in the long run, that is not going to fly. You can’t just have an employee download generic safety procedures from the internet and think that’s going to be good enough – there is no such thing as a “catch-all” safety plan.

From a company standpoint, safety has to become part of the culture by involving the employees in developing the safety standards specific to the work that they do. First, get OSHA certified for the types of work you do and make sure that your supervisors are trained as well. Second, if you are starting out with a generic safety template, before you start on any new project, sit down with your superintendent and some of the workers who will actually be on site to determine what the potential hazards are and how to address those – what tools and equipment are workers going to be using? Who should they call about utilities? When your team includes people who know the site layout and the work to be done, then it doesn’t take a lot of time to customize a safety plan for each project.

Then, take the time to get to know and build rapport with your workers, so that they feel like valued members of your team. If they know that you care about them and want things done right to help protect them, they are more willing to cooperate with supervisors and follow procedures. If workers trust you, then they are also more likely to tell you if they almost got hurt doing something – learning about those “close calls” gives you a chance to address and minimize potential risks. If a worker does get injured, follow up with that worker. Care about your workers and treat them well.

CT: What steps do you recommend contractors take to improve their safety record?

KS: First, if you already have a bad safety record, don’t try to hide it by changing the name of your company or changing the owner on record – that will not work because we have databases that track all of that information and you won’t fool anyone. The only way to improve your safety record is to educate yourself on safety regulations, get help in learning how to comply with them, and then make safety management, compliance and enforcement a priority. As a business owner, this means that you and your on-site supervisors need to be OSHA trained. OSHA offers free guidance, resources, and construction safety workshops – so take advantage of all of these. Cal-OSHA also has a very helpful website and a knowledgeable construction safety consulting branch which offers free consulting, so I have often contacted them for advice. If you’re not sure about how to do something safely on a project site, you can even call or email them anonymously and ask questions and they will help you. If you want them to, the OSHA Consulting Department – which is separate from enforcement – will come out to your construction site for free to consult with you on safety issues – their only requirement is that if they find something wrong, you agree to correct it, and they will help you out with that. Cal-OSHA’s staff is extremely experienced and can help you develop and implement a good safety plan. They field questions on all sorts of construction safety issues, from how fast dirt-movers can legally drive when there are pedestrians around to how to safely secure various types of scaffolding – you name it, they will help you with it. Also, Municipalities often have programs to assist local small businesses and contractors, so contact them to see what resources they offer. I often get calls or texts from contractors asking for advice on job safety and I am always happy to help, so contact me.

CT: Is there any other important information for contractors to know about safety?

KS: The most successful contractors are those who make safety a priority. The businesses that think that they don’t have to make safety a priority – or those that just go through the motions without really putting safety measures into every day practice – they don’t last long.

For more information on Contractor Safety and developing a Safety Plan, visit Cal-OSHA’s website here.
To learn more about or to contact Cal-OSHA’s free Consultation Service Department, visit here.

For information on Merriwether & Williams Insurance Services’ OSHA-related workshops contact Anthony Malson, Senior Safety Manager at 415-986-3999.


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