Damage control

New workplace safety calendar showcases worst practices in attempt to improve safety

Two construction workers will die this week in Washington. And two more will die next week.

That’s according to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. The statistic accompanies a photo of a worker laying lifeless while co-workers work to revive him. You can find it the week of April 22 in the department’s new jobsite safety calendar. The calendar is a collection of 52 photos of actual safety violations recorded by L&I inspectors last year. Inspired by a suggestion from King County-based Pageantry Homes Foreman Bryan White, department officials hope it will serve as a cautionary resource for jobsite foremen during their safety briefings as well as a reminder throughout the year. L&I offers four free copies of the calendar to any company that calls requesting them. The photos range from the laughable to the sobering, and no doubt contractors will relate to the images, and the struggle they face in keeping their crews safe.

A local effort

"It’s just really a constant battle to make sure everybody’s being safe out there," said Vancouver-based Pacific Lifestyle Homes construction manager Russ Tiedeman. "Enforcing safety is the number one time-consumer for site supervisors."

Tiedeman said the hardest thing to do as a general contractor is to make sure the 20 or more subcontractors working on average at a job are being safe. And it’s especially serious for generals, he said, because the actions of subs will reflect badly on the general contractor’s record.

"There is a real opportunity out there for subs to create all kinds of safety violations, and we can’t catch all of them," he said. "And if they end up getting fined, then we get fined."

To mitigate this potential pitfall, Tiedeman said Pacific Lifestyle Homes includes in its contract for subcontractors the imposition of fines for unsafe habits.

"Sometimes the only way to get them to comply is to threaten to take their money," he said.

Tiedeman said resources such as the L&I calendar are also good ways to get compliance, because looking at a picture and reading a statistic is more powerful than a foreman yelling at you to wear your hard hat.

The popularity of the calendar is a testament to its value as a resource; L&I ran out of copies in the first week it was offered. And it is much more than a conversation piece. It drives home the point that what is at stake is not only the safety and security of workers and their families, but the reputation of the company, as well as the cost – and in some cases even the permission – to do business. L&I gives each company a rating based on safety records, and sets mandatory workers’ compensation insurance rates for each type of work performed in the construction industry. The amount a company pays, even before showing a safe track record, grows with the danger of the work; flooring contractors pay a lower rate than roofers. In fact, roofers are the highest, paying an average of $4.93 per employee per hour.

Last year, L&I received $1.5 billion in premiums, and incurred $1.4 billion in benefits due to injuries. The latter number indicates the amount of claims received, and not necessarily the amount L&I will pay out.

The amount a company pays in premiums can rise and fall based on performance, and more and more contractors are checking the L&I website for the safety records of the subs before they decide whether to hire them.

"One of the things contractors do is look at a sub-contractor’s claims history," said L&I spokesman Robert Nelson. "There are contractors who won’t consider hiring a sub with a rating above one."

A rating above one is not desirable because it shows an increase in accidents since the company was formed. All construction companies start out with a rating of one, and from there can earn their way to a better rating – or not.

"Just under one is normal, .96 is about average," Nelson said. "If you have a .74, then you are safer than average."

Nelson said a history of bad safety ratings can put a company out of business.

"It pays to be safe," he said. "If your workers’ comp costs are four times higher than your competitors,’ you’re not going to be competitive."

How to stay safe

In the bid to remain marketable to the generals, subcontractors work to instill safe practices into the company culture. This is not an easy task with such high turnover in the workforce.

"One of the keys is to keep the same crews for a long time and to keep them aware of where they are," said Vancouver-based Northwest Roof Care and Construction Owner D.H. Reamer. "I had one new guy start work and the very first thing he did was fall off a roof. And then I hurt his pride when I read him the riot act. He didn’t last long."

With 12 employees and $1 million in business annually, Reamer said he preaches safety to his crew, and cannot tolerate anything less.

I just wrote a check to L&I for $12,000," he said, "That’s a very good reason to preach safety. I always say there are two things that are going to happen if you fall: you’re gonna get hurt and then you’re gonna get fired."

Another incentive to stay safe is the workers’ compensation "retrospective ratings program," offered by organizations like the Southwest Washington Contractors Association and the Building Industry Association of Clark County, where companies that follow a regimented program and keep accidents down receive an annual rebate from Labor and Industries.

Others, like Vancouver-based excavation and grading contractor Nutter Corp., work to create an environment where employees will communicate about safety concerns. The company requires its 20 crews to keep a log of "close calls" on the jobsites in an attempt to keep people aware of the dangers.

"If you almost lost your hand yesterday and didn’t tell anybody," said Nutter safety manager and IT director Charley Ebel, "what’s going to happen when the next guy does lose his hand because you didn’t warn anybody about the danger?"

Ebel said Nutter has maintained a safety rating between .57 and .47 since its second year in business, 14 years ago.

Reamer said his safety rating is 30 percent lower than the average as a result of his hard-line approach, and that only two of his workers fell last year.

"Safety is just not a part-time job," he said.

Reamer himself said he’s fallen off two roofs in his 30 years in the business, and both times he was lucky.

"As far as I’m concerned," he said, "all accidents are preventable."

On the calendar

Little mishaps as well as big ones can greatly affect a company’s bottom line. Even a fall from less than six feet can cause serious injuries. In fact, more injuries result from these types of falls than from any other. Workers’ compensation claims from ladder-related injuries average 99.7 days off work each year. Falls from the same level, mainly caused by poorly-placed entry ramps, average 12 days off the job. A "fall from elevation," or from higher than six feet, carries an average claim of $20,120 and 245 days off work. Skylights and trap doors are killers; eight workers in five years died when they fell through an unguarded skylight, and 28 workers in the state died between 1999 and 2005 when they fell through an unguarded floor opening.

Respect your power tools. Two thirds of 3,616 workers’ compensation claims last year for nail gun injuries involved fingers (42.7 percent) and hands (23.3 percent).

Dirt can kill. Each year in Washington, at least two workers die in collapsed excavations.

In case you weren’t listening, wear ear protection. Out of 40 construction supervisors surveyed, 39 had significant hearing loss.

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