Safety is important and no contractor would actually say otherwise. But a look at unsafe conditions and lax safety practices at many jobsites suggests actions may speak louder than words. Nor is it a surprise in the gutter business, where installers face low-ball competitors and the pressure to put up as many linear feet per day as possible, safety can itself become a casualty.
Yet for gutter installers who privately complain about the added costs of safety measures or who think safety is only an issue of altruism, Rick Mirabito has an answer. “When the state sets your workers compensation insurance rates,” explains the owner of Rick’s Rain Gutters in Manhattan Beach, Calif., “they take into account your safety record. By being a safe company, I’ve saved 15 to 25 percent on what I pay for workers comp.”
In California, where workers comp rates have at times doubled or even tripled in recent years, those savings have added up for Mirabito. How so? The state insurance fund looks at employers’ safety records and assesses a “modification rate” by which the basic workers comp premium is adjusted upward to account for at-risk businesses. “If you don’t have any accidents,” he points out, “then your modification rate will be lower.”
Rick’s Rain Gutters runs five installation trucks with two-man crews and services single-family homes, multi-family complexes, and homeowners associations throughout Los Angeles County and beyond. For Mirabito, who has won safety awards from the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, safety begins before his crews ever leave the shop. “Our vans have beepers when they back up,” he says, “and we always send out at least two installers so they can cover each other — or three men if we have to use a 40-foot ladder.”
Mirabito also makes sure crews are provided with properly working equipment and with personal protection. Ladders have levelers so their feet can be adjusted for uneven ground surfaces, along with a stabilizer that prevents ladders from “walking” and ensures ladders are always at least 10 inches away from the wall. “That way,” he notes, “the person has plenty of room for their hands to grip the ladder.”
The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal OSHA) requires the use of body harnesses through fall protection. Yet Mirabito goes beyond the minimum personal protection requirements and equips his crews with safety goggles to guard eyes from dust and debris, plus gloves with grips on the palms. By the same token, he adds, “We prohibit our workers from wearing personal headphones, because they need to be able to hear when somebody is shouting a warning or alarm.”
The notion that safety begins at the shop, before crews ever reach the jobsite, is illustrated by the training Rick’s Rain Gutters provides. New employees are instructed in such safety practices as how to use ladders and body harnesses, and the safe operation of gutter machines. Weekly “tailgate talks” are held so employees can hear presentations on current safety issues and review handouts developed by Mirabito or furnished by Cal OSHA and the state workers comp insurance fund.
Employees must sign their handouts to certify they understand the information. Similar forms are signed at Mirabito’s monthly safety training meetings, where workers might watch a video or see a demonstration. And to ensure safety is kept uppermost in employees’ minds, their weekly time sheets are pre-printed with safety rules on the back. Among those company policies are the issuance of verbal warnings for a first safety violation, a written warning for a second, and possible termination for a third.
In addition to being company owner, Mirabito assumes the role of safety coordinator. He pre-inspects jobsites and notes potential safety hazards. “For example,” he says, “we want our crews to be least 10 to 12 feet away from electrical lines. If necessary, I’ll call utility companies and have them temporarily re-route the power lines.”
Even when power lines are at a safe distance, electricity remains a safety issue. Because gutter machines operate with electrical motors, Mirabito protects power boxes by using ground fault interrupters. “And while I know some gutter installers are located in areas with lots of rain,” he adds, “here in Southern California we can afford to lose some rain days. We think it’s better for us not to work when it’s raining, since our work involves climbing ladders and being around electricity.”
As his company’s safety coordinator Mirabito has implemented a “lock out/tag out” program. If a ladder or other piece of equipment is not working properly and safely, the item is tagged and locked up in area of the shop which is inaccessible to employees. In the same way, vehicles are kept in proper condition by regularly checking tire pressure and fluids. And any flammable materials in the shop are denoted with signs.
“Then there’s one more safety precaution we take before our crews even start their work,” continues Mirabito. “Our gutter machines are in enclosed vans. So once our crews get to a jobsite, one person stays on the lookout while the truck is being backed up and put into position. Then we use wheel chocks to keep the van in place and we cone off our work area. A gutter can be pretty long and we don’t want somebody who might be driving by our worksite to get hurt.”
Safety Throughout the Day
Across the country in Milford, Conn., co-owner Frank Heneghan of Connecticut Gutter LLC also is serious about safety. With three crews and six employees, about half of the company’s work is performed directly for homeowners and the remainder for contractors. Heneghan and his partner still serve as crew foremen and “though we don’t have a formal safety program,” he explains, “we talk about safety throughout the day because all of our tasks involve safety issues in some way.”
While the crews of Connecticut Gutter confront safety concerns shared by other contractors, Heneghan points out gutter installation has its own unique challenges. “Since other trade contractors are on the job for days or weeks,” he observes, “they can build scaffolding. But we’re only on the face of a building for a few hours and so it’s not cost-effective for us to use anything but ladders.”
Moreover, Heneghan continues, “Terrain can vary greatly. On one jobsite we might have to set down our ladders and negotiate around expensive landscaping, and on the next job we might be dealing with loose gravel. It’s rare that we get a straight shot. So you’ve got to make sure your ladders have cleats and foot extensions. And be sure to have a variety of accessories handy for properly leveling a ladder. You don’t want your crews to look around and then just grab a rock to shim a ladder.” Since employees spend so much time on ladders, he also worries that aluminum models might be a hazard if they hit a power line, so he favors fiberglass.
Being safe around electricity prompts Heneghan to recommend rubber-soled boots. Steel toes are also a good idea, he believes, “because we’re constantly hoisting and dropping ladders and heavy tools, and walking around decks and uneven surfaces. Also, you can push off better from steel toes.”
Cotton gloves coated with latex are another “must” since they “protect you from cuts and punctures, and help you keep your grip when there’s dampness or vibration,” Heneghan advises. On commercial jobs where Connecticut Gutter crews are working alongside other contractors and do not control the jobsite, hardhats are worn.
“Safety glasses are another huge and underrated safety item,” Heneghan continues. “For one thing, we’re drilling into stone and using saws with metal-cutting blades. And though we use a buddy system for safety so workers can always spot one another, sometimes a co-worker above can drop something on a co-worker below.”
Shaded glasses that guard eyes from glare and ultraviolet exposure are likewise helpful for gutter installers. “We’re working outdoors and the metal we’re handling, especially copper, can be very shiny,” says Heneghan. Crews are likewise equipped with earmuffs to mask the noise of drills and saws. “Sunglasses and earmuffs,” he points out, “also protect your people against prolonged exposure, since the danger of UV rays and high-decibel noise can be cumulative over time.”
Just as highway maintenance crews guard against danger from local traffic, Heneghan insists his crews plot out their work areas and check out prospective neighborhood traffic, especially if they must run long lengths of gutter coil that may stick onto into the street. Adequate workspace is likewise needed for crews to lay down gutters once they are formed, so the lengths can be accessorized with hangers and other items.
“Marking out a safe work zone is the first thing we do when we arrive on a site,” Heneghan says. He also checks out jobsites to see whether or not the roof is walkable and then plans out the job accordingly.
While Connecticut Gutters has had “no real accidents in the last five years,” Heneghan reports, he fears for the safety reputation of the gutter industry, “There are a lot of companies out there which are more focused on selling than on quality,” he contends, “and they generate so much work that any real quality control is impossible. Some companies even sell gutter jobs and then subcontract out the installation. Then you get a lot of untrained workers so accidents are waiting to happen.”
Incentives to Do Right
At Austin Gutterman of Austin, Texas, president Bill Frazier acknowledges, “Workers often don’t like to be encumbered by regulations and practices designed for their own safety.”
Frazier tries to meet that challenge in three ways. First, he says, “Since we’re deeply concerned about safety, we strive to hire the best people and then retain them, though that’s getting harder because people change jobs more frequently today.” Second, Austin Gutterman promotes safety by making it fun and using incentives.
Bonuses are given for accident-free records. And every morning before work, the company runs a unique bingo game. The rules are the same as any other bingo contest, but the dollar prize increases for each day the company goes without an accident. Conversely, if an accident occurs the pot is wiped out. In that way, the longer that Austin Gutterman remains free of accidents, the larger the prize grows the bingo players can win.
Third, Frazier’s firm promotes safety through a consistent safety program. New hires receive a full training regimen that includes a company-produced video “on things like how to safely run a gutter machine, how to use a run-out stand to support formed gutter, and how to correctly plug in your equipment,” he reports. Safety meetings for all installers are conducted weekly. “You can find a lot of good safety videos, including videos in Spanish, on the Internet,” he suggests, “and the people at your local OSHA office will do free safety presentations.”
Every month, trucks are looked over and cleaned out, gutter machines and their electrical connections are checked, and ladders are inspected. “We deal with a lot of uneven terrain,” Frazier says, “so levelers can get bent.”
Then at each jobsite, work areas are designated and streets coned off so gutter coil can be safely run. Fall protection is used where needed and hardhats are worn on commercial projects. Gloves, safety glasses, and sturdy hiker boots or steel-toed boots for commercial jobs are standard personal wear. “It’s also important to keep your employees hydrated so they don’t get dizzy,” Frazier counsels. “We had a heat wave in Texas this summer and temperatures on a black roof can reach 150 degrees. We have an ice machine in our shop that allows us to fill up an ice water or Gatorade cooler and send it out with every truck.”
Yet Frazier himself is more than willing to sweat the details because “the small stuff makes a big difference in your safety record.” In contrast to the major accidents that happen only rarely, he points out, “If you get a rash of cut fingers that need stitches, those all get reported to the workers comp commission. Little things like accidents to fingers, eyes, and toes happen more often than the big accidents, and so they have a larger impact your workers comp rates.”
So why not go without workers comp and liability insurance? “The smart homeowners who buy a gutter system,” Frazier replies, “only want to buy from installers who have insurance, because they don’t want any accidents to fall back on their own liability.”