By Sharon Thatcher – Safety is an issue that builders understand is important, but how to comply with a growing list of safety regulations—and still get the job done efficiently and cost-effectively—is not so clear. So just what is the status of safety in the post-frame industry and how can you have both safety and productivity on the job site?
Frame Building News went to Mike Fackler for answers. Fackler is a safety consultant for Safety Management Services Company whose client list includes Wick Buildings and Lester Buildings, as well as smaller builders from the post-frame world. He is also a former safety compliance officer for OSHA.
As one might expect, Fackler maintains that safety can save time and money in the long run. In the future that argument may have even greater support.
“As the availability of skilled labor continues to decline, coupled with the rising cost of healthcare and insurance, employers who are committed to sustaining and developing an effective safety and health program see safety (and injury prevention) as means to gain a competitive advantage over other contractors,” he said.
To illustrate the point, Fackler pointed out that some of his customers are large regional builders “who have staked an incredible investment in developing a comprehensive safety and health program, and are still able to compete with small, independent builders in terms of quality, price and productivity. The larger builders are able to compete because they are better able to keep their key personnel and crews working and intact, which results in higher productivity, morale and reduced turnover.”
Some builders argue that post-frame is not as hazardous as other types of construction. Fackler said the statistics don’t support that.
“Post frame is, and continues to be, a high hazard form of construction,” he said. “According to BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) injury statistics, post-frame contractors average eight recordable injuries per every 200,000 man hours worked, doubling the average of the construction industry as a whole. (See table below)
What kinds of injuries do post-frame contractors typically experience?
“While falls, including falls from ladders and same-level falls are often what one thinks about when discussing worker injuries in post-frame construction, our experience tells us otherwise,” Fackler said. “Over the years, the construction industry [as a whole] has continued to struggle with increasing frequency and severity of musculoskeletal injuries (muscle strains and sprains) and the same holds true for post-frame contractors. We have had years where a customer’s experience is such that muscle strains and sprains account for only a third of all injuries in terms of frequency, but account for nearly 85 percent of claim severity in terms of costs.”
What underlying problems are helping to cause these injuries?
“There are several factors common throughout the construction industry (including post-frame construction) as to why organizations struggle to effectively manage muscle strains and sprains including: aging workforce, lack of available/adequate material handling equipment on site, poor job site planning, poor post-injury management, limited availability of return-to-work/transitional work opportunities, etc.,” said Fackler, adding: “All contribute to increased frequency and costs associated with musculoskeletal claims.”
What time of year do most accidents happen?
“One would think that summer is where one would see a spike in the number of accidents due to increased activity,” Fackler said. “However, our experience shows us that the winter months is where workers are more prone to sustain an injury as ice and snow create a myriad of problems for post-frame builders. This past year we saw an increased number of same-level slips and falls due to employees working in the snow and ice, but also the mud that occurs after a thaw. Couple that with climbing ladders and roofing, one can easily see the hazards crews must negotiate to get the job done. In winter, employees are wearing extra clothing which prohibits their mobility and may require the employee to sustain awkward positions or increased use of force.”
What is a small contractor to do?
It’s easy to say that builders of all sizes should have an effective safety program, but even Fackler recognizes the limitations. “The challenge those contractors face is limited resources, limited knowledge among the management team (you don’t have the dedicated safety managers) and small crews. Their struggles are not unique.”
He contends that there are viable solutions. “If I say you need a job site planning process or an inspection process, that might look a lot different for a small contractor as opposed to the big contractor. The huge contractor may use iPads, tablets, or may have special devices to take pictures. A small contractor may be just doing it on an Excel spreadsheet or a sheet of paper. So the struggle is to find the scale and to try things that are effective and efficient. We don’t want to overburden contractors, and still there are elements we can implement that improve safety.”
What is required by all companies, both large and small, is commitment. “Highly effective and successful safety programs cannot be bought off the shelf, they must be built internally, founded on a principle of visible management commitment,” Fackler said. “Management commitment can take many forms and it requires not only visible action but adequate resources in terms of both time and money.”
“An example that comes to mind is one in which we helped a small contractor develop a Job Safety Analysis process. In the beginning, many of the employees grumbled and the organization almost abandoned the newly implemented process. The owner was discouraged and concerned the JSA process was not delivering the results he wanted. I encouraged management to stay resolute, and in a meeting several months back, the owner spoke of how happy he was to have maintained his commitment. The JSA process was not only helping crews identify safety concerns, but quality and job site planning had improved. It turns out, developing a process that required employees to think critically about the work they are about to perform improves safety, but also has collateral benefits in terms of quality and productivity.
Companies that have shown this commitment are reaping the rewards. “Throughout the years our post-frame contractors have demonstrated an undeniable commitment to safety, and in turn have experienced a reduction in the severity and frequency of injuries, as well as reduced costs,” Fackler said.
Fackler points out that there are some OSHA resources to tap into. “I’m a huge advocate of using local OSHA resources,” he said. “They usually provide that service free of charge. So when we deal with smaller contractors, we try to find something local because we realize they don’t have the resources to bring in someone from outside for training. Those cost money.”
Contractors may fear contacting OSHA for help, however. “Inviting in the enemy, that’s always the fear,” Fackler said, “I try to talk customers through that fear, because who better to educate you than the people who’s going to be out on a job site looking for hazards if and when they come to your job site? It’s best to learn from the regulators.”
Another good source is professional organizations like the National Frame Builders Association. See this issue’s Safety Update (page 10) for more information.
The argument that safety equipment is cumbersome and counter productive also does not resonate with Fackler who points to advances in safety technology.
“Retractable reels are now smaller and lighter weight. There are also harnesses with more padding that are more comfortable to wear, especially if you’re wearing it all day long.”
Although cheap systems are available, they likely are both cheap and uncomfortable. “All harnesses are not created equal,” he said.
In some areas, he has been able to secure grants to help contractors purchase fall protection equipment.
Where to learn more
Want more tips on how to incorporate safety into your company? The 2016 Frame Building Expo will offer several opportunities. The NFBA’s Safety Task Force will be doing a hands-on fall protection demonstration on the exhibit floor plus a fall protection seminar. Also, a panel will address how to create a culture of safety where participants can ask questions.
As well, Wick Buildings is scheduled to offer a workshop with presentations by Mark Werbeckes and Katy Tiller. The workshop will offer real world safety practices, an explanation of proper tools and personal protective equipment and best practices.
Tiller, who is field supervisor for Wick, said all the Expo safety sessions will focus on the “what’s in it for me” for contractors. “One fall from a building will pay for the time, effort and dollar investment in a solid fall protection plan,” she said, noting that once builders create and foster a culture of safety, it becomes second nature and in the long run reduces costs while increasing productivity and efficiency.
“Utilizing safe practices does not mean loss of efficiency,” Tiller said. “You just have to utilize the knowledge of the workers to figure out how to achieve both. Getting the input and buy-in from the workers is the key to success: authorship equals ownership. If the workers have a vested interest in the plan, they are more likely to work to achieve the goal.”
To learn more about the safety sessions at the 2016 Expo, check the NFBA.org website for updates.