Security on the job site

Protecting your job site means protecting your profits. Whether the project takes weeks or months, lax security measures can have disastrous consequences. In a down economy, theft goes up. And at a time when margins for builders are slim, it’s more important than ever to identify vulnerable assets and make smart investments toward securing them.

“Contractors don’t always give a high priority to security,” says Brian Deery at the national office of the Associated General Contractors of America in Arlington, Va. “Their sites are very vulnerable. It’s easy for thieves to walk out on the job site and take something when the workers aren’t out there.”

Part of the problem lies in the nature of the job site itself. “Typical security systems are usually made for a home or business where you can run power,” notes Chris Allen, president and CEO of Cattail Technologies in Annapolis, Md., which is associated with DeWalt Security Business Group.

“Home and business security systems can’t take care of what builders need to protect assets on a job site, so the systems are unpractical,” Allen continues. “That’s because your assets are just sitting there, not yet part of a building. Thieves know job sites are easy to hit in the middle of the night and will even steal storage boxes, knowing they contain valuable items.”

A San Antonio-based independent security consultant, Jonathan Lusher has international experience in crime prevention, guardforce management and building design. “Context is the key,” he emphasizes. “Consider not only the type of building you’re constructing, but also the location, and then tailor your risk assessment accordingly.”

As more builders expand their service areas to capture more business — thus entering unfamiliar territories — knowing the neighborhood is more important than ever.

“It saves you time, money, and aggravation,” Lusher points out. “If someone steals from your job site and you want your money back, you’ll have to go court. So spend time up front talking with local police and assessing the neighborhood to see what you need to prevent against.”
Deery agrees that checking in with  local law enforcement agencies is a great first step to theft prevention. “Let them know what’s going on with your job because it’s easy prey,” he says. “Nothing prevents crime more than a local police presence. Just a drive-by can help secure the site.”

Geography isn’t the only consideration. “In some communities there can be a huge unemployment rate,” relates Jonathon Jennings, a sales associate for Elk Products of Hildebran, N.C., a manufacturer of electronics for professional security installations. Along with economic desperation, he adds, simple boredom can also lead to crime: “Construction job sites are attractive to kids who want to hang out and vandalize.”

Costly mistakes

Prevention is the best medicine and there are many things builders can do to deter theft. It starts, however, with making security a top priority.

“Contractors become so focused on just getting the job done,” points out Deery, “because they’re on tight deadlines and, since profit margins are so small, they just want to move on to the next job. Often they’ll think, ‘I’m coming back the next day, so why bother?’ But laziness will get you in trouble.”

Just as damaging to builders is the misconception that insurance will protect them. As Allen explains, “If you’re tempted to just let insurance take care of any theft, you’ll find that can  actually be a rather costly solution.”

Thieves often commit vandalism, a loss that may or may not be adequately covered, in addition to stealing items. After a theft, making a claim may require considerable time and paperwork to document the loss. In addition, claims may put you into a higher risk category and raise your insurance rates. And because getting insurance money does not address the underlying security issues, thefts may continue to happen.

“Replacement costs will add up when you have to reorder products,” states Allen, “not to mention causing delays in the project.”

Another mistake builders make is not matching up the job site geography to the security solution.

“Builders shouldn’t assume they know the context of a building project,” says Lusher. “Commonly, they’ll put up a fence and have a guard at night. That may be enough at some places. But there’s a whole range of potential challenges a builder should look at. For example, maybe the real problem isn’t theft at night but shrinkage during the day.”

Employee theft isn’t a subject builders want to dwell on. “But it’s a mistake to assume you don’t have to check out who’s working on your job site,” continues Lusher. “In fact, though, doing such checks is easy and there’s often little cost involved. Some web sites offer the service for three or four dollars per person.”

Before making permanent hires, Lusher advises, “Make sure you see valid identification, like driver’s licenses, and then do routine background checks to make sure they don’t have a record for stealing equipment. A down economy means you can afford to be a little pickier in your hiring practices. Besides, it’s always important to comply with the law. When you hire laborers off the street without ensuring they’re legal, you’re taking a big risk.”

Vulnerable assets

Not all job sites are created equal, and neither are builders’ assets. “Thieves can take building materials, as well as tools and equipment,” explains AGC’s Deery. “Many of the metals used in construction, such as copper, have become valuable in the last few years.”

Some builders may perform trades that “use a lot of things which are easy to pick up, such as hand tools, saws, shovels and hammers,” Deery continues. Meanwhile, other builders use heavy equipment that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, “Those large pieces of equipment can be surprisingly easy to steal, especially in rural areas,” he explains. “They’re vulnerable when they’re out in the middle of a field and can be lifted onto a truck.”

In addition to setting up barriers around heavy equipment, Deery counsels, “You can park the equipment head to tail so that it’s not as easy to move around. And if you put the equipment up against a wall or all together in one place, it’s easier to keep an eye on. Also, you can use security devices that lock the hydraulics so thieves can’t get in and hotwire the equipment.”

Household appliances and air-conditioning units are also hot items to steal. As Allen of Cattail Technologies relates, “These are extremely high-risk item. So wait until the few weeks of the project to install them. Remember, even if you’ve wired a new home or business property for a security system, it’s not turned on until the owner takes possession.”

Appliance thefts are doubly harmful, Allen notes, because “let’s say the stolen appliance gets pulled across the hardwood floor. Now you’ve got a missing item and a damaged floor. Or if thieves take a dishwasher, don’t expect them to shut off the water and keep the property from flooding.”

Lusher advises builders to use some common sense. “The more expensive an item is the more security that needs to go into it,” he relates. “Air-conditioning units are fairly easy to take, worth good money, and especially attractive when they’re brand-new. Even nails, drywall, faucets, and tile are alluring because thieves can make a profit on any of those things.”

Before leaving a site for the evening, builders should take some simple steps to ward off thieves and vandals.

“Put valuable items out of sight and in a secure place — even if that place is offsite,” says Lusher. “You could even plan to complete one of the rooms early, just so you can use it as secure storage for valuable items. I admit that might seem like an inconvenience for your project schedule. But it’s an investment to create a safe and secure space.”

Still another option is not storing items onsite in the first place. “Work with your suppliers in terms of when they deliver the equipment,” Lusher suggests. “Ask them to keep valuable items in their warehouse until you need them. Getting deliveries that way can save you money — as compared to delaying your project because, when it’s time to install the air-conditioning units, you discover that two have been stolen.”

Safe investments

With an abundance of security gadgets on the market, some are better suited than others to builders’ needs. “Fencing is always a desirable thing to do, but not always easy,” says Deery.

“It depends on the nature of the site. At some sites, fencing might need to stretch out for miles. Nor are standard chain-link fences adequate for every site.”

Nighttime lighting can deter thieves at some job sites, but at others it can be an advertisement. As Lusher relates, “Bright lights won’t help if you’re building in a rural area. It can create a billboard to attract criminals and vandals. By contrast, if they can’t see, then they can’t do anything.”

Although gadgets may have their place, Lusher is an advocate for the human element. Occasional police drive-bys, or having a patrolman assigned to a site, can be effective. “But also consider investing in a decent night watchman,” he adds. “And if you hire a guard from a security company, make sure the company is reputable and has done their due diligence.”

Nevertheless, Allen believes, “Security guards can be expensive and aren’t always as effective as you may think.” Still, he agrees that “if you can stop a thief and make an arrest, you’ll see an immediate reduction in incidents at your site. Thieves get the message that yours isn’t a site they want to hit.”

Although home and business security systems are ineffective for job sites, Allen reports that products designed specifically for construction site security have advanced in recent years.

An example is DeWalt’s Mobilelock security system. Weatherproof and rechargeable, the compact device senses vibrations, door contact, tampering and temperature changes, and sends wireless intruder alerts via e-mail, text, or phone messages.

ElkGuard solution from Elk Products utilizes cellular radio signals that allow builders to control the system remotely. As many as two dozen devices can be linked to a single programmed key fob and alarms can be e-mailed or texted. The product works best for indoor applications such as office trailers.

“You can also be notified if the temperature drops too low, so that you can take steps to keep pipes from breaking,” says Elk Products’ Jennings. “The ElkGuard product also logs up to 60 days of event history, which you can access online. Thus, you can check when your employees got to the job site and if they were onsite when they said they were.”

In the end, builders must do their own homework and decide which security measures are appropriate for the individual needs of each job site.

“Talk to other contractors and people in the industry,” advises Deery. “Anti-theft solutions can work in the lab but not on a construction site. Your decision comes down to cost-effectiveness, what’s proven to be effective and, of course, the basic decision to make security a priority in the first place.”

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