Although 2013 saw the fewest workplace fatalities since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began conducting its fatal injury census in 1992, there were still 4,405 workers killed on the job in the U.S. That’s an average of 85 deaths a week, or more than 12 a day, according to OSHA. With that in mind, employers around the country are making efforts to become more safety oriented in their daily operations, and those in the HVACR industry are no exception.

“Everyone wants to go home to their families at the end of the day,” said Steve Baker, safety director, River City Mechanical, Comstock Park, Michigan. “The ultimate goal is to keep people safe. Insurance costs and everything else trickles down from there.”

Baker took over as River City’s full-time safety director three years ago, after the previous director retired. Training employees on safety issues is essential, he said. The company holds weekly safety talks through each job site and conducts quarterly in-house training.

“Every job is unique to hazards and violations,” he said. “Typically, what we deal with is fall hazards and some confined space hazards. More training is always good.”

Changing the Mindset

Pleune Service Co., located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is one of many companies that has specifically created safety manager or director roles within its ranks. According to Ken Misiewicz, CEO, Pleune created the position decades ago, “when the construction part of our business grew to a certain point where MIOSHA [Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration] inspections on our jobs became the norm. Since then, the role has changed to protecting people as the primary focus, and compliance issues are in the background.”

Paul Bragenzer has been Pleune’s health and safety manager for less than a year, but he’s already updated the company’s field safety and health manual and procedures to comply with significant changes OSHA’s implemented the last few years. Now, he’s working on ways to streamline field safety assessment processes and provide health care.

“My main concern is making sure we’re in compliance with OSHA rules. Once that’s accomplished, the more important task is to help change the mindset of employees to look at safety in a proactive manner and not something that is just done,” Bragenzer said. “It’s about changing that culture to view safety as part of what we do and who we are, not just a program.”

One way to change how safety is viewed in the workplace is to build relationships with the employees and have conversations about the things that are important to them, according to Bragenzer.

“It’s about helping them understand what’s in it for them,” he said. “I talk to them a lot about the connection between what they want to accomplish and having the physical ability to do that. The other way is to shift the perception of safety from a top-down program to a bottom-up.”

Pleune has a health and safety committee made up of both management and field personnel that meets every two weeks. The company also holds monthly tool box talks about various safety topics — depending on the need — about fall protection, electrical safety, and more.

“The one message we try to get across loud and clear is being safe on purpose equals no regrets,” Bragenzer said. “So, we really encourage people to be safe on purpose, to intentionally view their situation with a safety mindset, and to do things intentionally to be safe. It kind of helps them not to fall into that unconscious competence where they’re just really good at their job so they go about doing it in autopilot mode.”

Surviving an OSHA Inspection

OSHA conducted almost 40,000 federal inspections in 2013 and more than 50,000 state plan inspections.

When it comes to passing an OSHA inspection, the Boy Scout motto: “Always Be Prepared” serves contractors well. Greg Bird, vice president of technical operations, Boretti Inc., Visalia, California, said preparation should be ongoing. Boretti is an integrated safety and environmental health consulting firm employing a team of certified safety professionals that develops safety, health, and environmental solutions for its clients. Bird recently spoke during The Unified Group’s Construction and Safety Forum in September about the top four OSHA violations — fall protection, electrical, guarding or caught in, and struck by something.

According to Bird, contractors are supposed to have safety meetings at least every 10 working days. The most important thing employers can do is to keep records on everything.

“I defend a lot of clients in hearings before the administrative law judge. I win cases when they document their safety activities. When they don’t document it, OSHA looks at it as if it never happened. This is where I win and lose cases, and where we can get substantial reductions in penalties. Without it, we have no ground to stand on.”

OSHA simply does not have the manpower to inspect every workplace each year, so contractors never know when an inspection will occur. “The main thing with anticipating an inspection is to always anticipate,” Bird said. “Right now, in the state of California, there is a sweep team going around to construction sites at random, wherever they see them going up, and checking on their fall protection. We’ve had quite a number of fatal falls in California this year, so they’re now targeting it.”

According to Bird, OSHA prioritizes inspecting workplaces with imminent hazards, injuries, and complaints. Scheduled inspections — where an inspector shows up at a selected facility — are very rare.

“They’re extremely busy now just taking care of the accidents,” he explained. “Right now, I’m involved in eight amputations and one fatality. All of these occurred in the last six months, and each case is active at this moment.”

On the other hand, Russ Donnici, president, Mechanical Air Service, San Jose, California, said he’s been fortunate enough to have never had an OSHA inspection at one of his job sites. “Thankfully, we’ve never been on a job site where there’s been a major injury,” he said. “The commercial buildings we work in are generally three stories or shorter, and we are usually doing interior work. The majority of injuries we see are cuts from sheet metal, wire cuts, or people not lifting properly and hurting their backs — things like that. So, we try to constantly reinforce [those safety procedures]. You can’t prevent 100 percent of all injuries. We haven’t had an accident in probably three or more years, and when we do have something, it’s pretty minor. We’ve never had a major injury. We’ve been lucky.”

Mechanical Air Service has a written injury and illness prevention program, which includes weekly safety meetings covering general safety topics. According to Donnici, the written program doesn’t matter much.

“If you want to protect your employees, you’re going to promote and teach good safety habits — not only to protect your employees and people on the worksite, but also to keep your workers’ compensation insurance under control. So, whether we have a written program that’s required by a general contractor or not, we have our own safety rules that we implement.”

When in doubt, honesty is always the best policy, Bird said.

“The best advice I can give contractors, big or small, is to never lie to an OSHA inspector,” he said. “Tell the truth — you can always discuss it later in a hearing. Don’t argue with an inspector. Don’t fight with him or her, because then he or she will go by the book, which will likely end up with more [violations]. It’s extremely hard to unload a wagon when they put too much on it. The judges don’t like to see a list of violations. And, if you’re uncooperative, that’s just what happens. Judges do not react kindly to this.”

Publication date: 12/29/2014

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