Safety: Beyond Buzzwords and Lectures

I’ve been at the same big project site for over a year now. Every week, we sit through two safety sessions: one presented by our general contractor to all the tradesworkers and one by our electrical shop. In both cases, the advice given has – at times – swerved from developing a work place safety culture to irrelevant intrusions into my personal time. I feel angry at the presumptive tone because I yearn for more site-relevant discussions such as: celebrations of weeks and months when the entire site has been incident-free and examples when we’ve properly and safely executed a milestone on the project. Or regular debriefings after a close call/near miss so that all of us can be reminded to stay focused and to continually assess our work environment. Also, I have the right to know when our customer has had chemical leaks affect their construction workers.

Instead, we’ve endured inane talking points such as:
– Make sure you wear the right protective gear when engaged in home projects.
– If taking a road trip, stay focused while driving: don’t let little kids in the back seat or your talkative wife distract you! Check the tires and pack extra clothes and extra food and water.
– Drink plenty of water throughout the day and get plenty of sleep. (This one galls me because we work ten hour days. If I budget eight hours of sleep, this means I have less than three hours of personal time once I get home.)
– Don’t even get me started on the patronizing tone our superintendent dished out just before the Fourth of July!
– And my favorite: on an especially rainy morning, when others were driving as if they’d forgotten how to handle themselves and their vehicles in slick conditions, “Call your wife or your girlfriend right now and warn her to drive safely this morning.” (Because, you know, women can’t drive and all construction workers have a wife or a girlfriend who need to be told such things.) My heart ached for my friend on site who is going through a messy, painful divorce. I’m sure that’s just what he needed to hear that morning: a reminder that soon, he will have no wife to call.

It’s safe for me to conclude that neither the general contractor nor our shop think deeply about what they say, nor do they consider the diversity of the work crew. Yet they are in a tizzy of propelling this image of “We CARE about you and we care about your safety.” In fact, we are eagerly told at least every other week that each of us, as individuals, need to take responsibility for a safe work environment. We need to look out for each other and use the right methods and tools for the task. They’ve swallowed a corporate-speak formula like this one.

This week, the mood was somber because we talked about a fatality at a sister site three states away. A pipeline welder fell 17 feet to his death and he hadn’t been wearing his fall protection harness. My thoughts ache when conjuring the intensity of grief ripping through his family members and his crew.

Not less than three hours later, my journeyman and I arrived into a tense work scene. “Well, we need to keep things moving,” I overhear a manager say. A pipefitter safety representative asks a foreman, “Is this situation being resolved?” And the foreman is telling his welder, “I think you should call and talk to him. It’s an open office policy.”

Later, the welder told me he’d been directed by the general contractor to forgo a fall protection harness (despite OSHA regulations) and to use his orbital welding gear in a less-than-safe manner. He invoked his power to stop work and figure out a safer way of putting his welding rig near his elevated weld area – and his efforts were not appreciated. It’s not the first time the general contractor has shown such a lack of integrity. Two months ago, my crew was instructed to “just tie off there” in lieu of a properly rated fall harness anchorage point. After all, something is better than nothing, right? I opted out and stayed on the ground.

As an apprentice, this is a dicey situation which feels like the set up to a game of “Gotcha!” If an accident occurs, it would be my fault because of all the weeks spent talking about safety. The pressures to shrug and continue working come from different directions: the desire to get work done, the chain of command culture that shoves apprentices to the lowest level, and reflexively mimicking more experienced workers. It’s the mindset of, “Well, we need to get this done and if my journeyman is doing it, it must be ok. Plus, we’ve been assured by management that we won’t get in trouble for doing it this way.” This feels like a pivotal moment in self-advocacy.

Contractors and general contractors say they are working to change the safety culture. But when there is such a mismatch between talk and action, the end result is a loss of integrity for the company and an us-versus-them dynamic between workers and management. As a contractor, you can hire all the consultants you want and you can focus your attentions, your shout-outs and your punishments on the employee behavior. Fear and greed and slobbering thoughts of the bottom line will direct you to find ways to reduce claims and recordable injuries. Yet if you can’t embrace the philosophy you just bought, it’s all wasted time.

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