Keeping Safety at the Forefront


The construction market has been steadily growing for the past 9 years, reaching unprecedented highs at the national level.  But like all good things, nothing lasts forever and it is just a matter of time before this run is over.  Like many other contractors across the country, you are winning the work, scrambling to find additional skilled labor to do the work, and yet experiencing margins that are barely covering your costs.

With the margins getting tighter than the deadlines, it is forcing Contractors to get more and more work out of the labor, which in turn forces the work force to literally fly by the seat of their pants. We all want to make hay while the sun is shining, but having crews fly by the seat of their pants leaves you exposed to all kinds of risks at the job sites.  How many of you have had to deal with injuries on the job site because someone tripped over an empty pallet while moving material?  Or watched a co-worker get hit with 440 volts because they were in a hurry and thought they could work  hot?  So, now you’ve got a good worker who is out, and when they come back they will have some sort of restriction.  This turns into a double whammy, not only from lost production while the worker recuperates, but also the lack of production from them when they come back while they are on a temporary restriction.  You also have to deal with the additional costs of extra manpower from either having to approve overtime, or bring on a new worker for the short term to keep the job on schedule. This reminds us of the old adage that, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  You want  crews to work as efficiently as possible, but how often do you hear, “we can’t do that because every job is different?” This is where planning at the job level becomes crucial in order to deal with the fluid dynamics of the job site.  If you want to manage the job, you need to manage the work.  If you want to manage the work, you need to manage the labor.

Managing the labor begins with pre-planning the job at the task level. Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) can be used to evaluate the risk associated with certain activities, locations, phases, or any other element of the project.  Once all the work is made visible, the project team can review the work and their supporting activities and evaluate the overall financial risk of the project. They can specifically evaluate any safety risks that may be possible or present. There are two aspects of this process that should be visible on the project’s WBS once it is complete:

  1. The activities listed on the WBS to accomplish work that is regulated and required on the project pertaining to safety.  In other words, activities that are required by OSHA, the GC or owner, your own company policy, or any site-specific requirements that need to be specifically planned for, should show up on your foreman’s WBS.  For example, their WBS should include activities such as the following:
    1. Weekly toolbox talks
    2. Daily task look aheads for safety hazards
    3. Stretch & flex
    4. Make-safe activities

If these activities are not recognized and integrated into the schedule by the project team, then they become afterthoughts and not seen as part of the project. They become secondary to a “whatever it takes to get the job done” mentality, which in turn exposes you to more risk and leads to safety incidents.

  1. Activities and more detailed planning on the WBS for identified safety risks on specific parts of the project (see Figure 1).  As the project team reviews the WBS and evaluates for safety risks, the risks should be prioritized by:
  • Frequency – how often is this risk likely to occur?
  • Severity – how severe

will the outcome of the risk be if it does occur?

  • Detectability – what is in place now to detect or prevent the risk?

Based on prioritizing these three elements, which is part of a larger process called Failure Mode Effect Analysis (FMEA), the project team can select the top-prioritized items and create specific plans for those activities of the work to reduce the risk.  This should be a focused effort of the project team to identify:

  • What is the risk?
  • What is the underlying cause?
  • What can be done to prevent it?
  • What can be done to detect it?
  • What can be done to contain the risk should it occur?

These should lead into specific work activities that are associated with the task on the WBS to ensure the project team has planned and will

track the activities as part of the project.

Another process that can be used to ensure that the up-front planning effort - involving data forecasting and WBS are both happening is Short Interval Scheduling (SIS®). The daily schedules should reflect the activities that were identified in the plan listed in the two

items above.  An example of this is shown in Figure 2.  Here are obstacles that have been reported in SIS® related to safety that may not otherwise be visible:

  • “On site power distribution panel not labeled as to what feeds what”
  • “Contractor was removing scaffolding over top of the work area”
  • “Asbestos Abatement”
  • “Fire on site”
  • “Demo company hit a live 480 volt pipe in wall”
  • “Found multiple hot spots on bolt tees (splice)”

In addition to just “focusing on safety”, tangible approaches such as WBS and SIS® can be used by the jobsite crews to ingrain safety into job planning, daily task scheduling, and reporting, without expending additional labor hours. In a separate study conducted by MCA Inc., we found that the differentiating feature in terms of safety incidents on the jobsite was not the number of hours or the contract size, but within the direct control of the supervision and management of the jobsite.  The number of safety incidents was found to be directly related to the visibility of the jobsite through the use of Agile Construction® tools and to the overall jobsite productivity.  The more productive your job is, the safer your job is.

The results of this study, as shown in Figure 3, shows that jobs that were visibly tracking their productivity, and were operating at a level that was on par or better than planned in terms of productivity, had fewer than half the incidents per $10 million of contract value than jobs that were either not tracking productivity at all, or were tracking it but were not able to maintain their initial estimated level of productivity.

Different types of work do have different levels of risk, but the results are still the same. Figure 4 shows the same story across multiple divisions of a company performing different types of work in each division. In this comparison based on field hours instead of project revenue, the result does not change: productive jobs have significantly fewer safety incidents across the board. This tells us that most accidents or incidents are not random occurrences.  They are a product of management or lack of management on the jobsite.  By planning the job and identifying issues that prevent the job from proceeding according to plan, jobsite management and supervision have a greater opportunity to control the fluid dynamics of their jobsite, which reduces the risks associated with the unknowns that allow unexpected incidents to occur.