Stressing HVAC Contracting Job Site Safety Practices
HVAC contracting is a dangerous profession.
Technicians are threatened by electrical shock, burns, muscle strains, refrigerant gases, injuries from handling heavy equipment, and much more.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, fatal injuries among specialty trade contractors involved in foundation, structure, or exterior work rose 27 percent to 231 in 2015, up from 182 in 2014.
Those who fail to take the necessary precautions are often met with unfortunate, untimely, and/or dire consequences.
Therefore, it’s important to ensure new employees are well-versed on each aspect of the job and prepared to complete the job safely and securely each and every time.
BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
Anaheim, California-based South Coast Mechanical Inc. provides commercial HVAC, plumbing, and electrical service and maintenance throughout Southern California.
Joe Bucci, account executive, South Coast Mechanical Inc., boasts more than 30 years of experience in the HVACR industry and said, to this day, safety remains his top priority.
“Safety is the most important aspect of the work we do,” he said. “It’s always our goal to make sure our guys go home at the end of the day with all of their limbs intact.”
While each situation is unique, Bucci said it really boils down to three simple items: glasses, gloves, and boots.
“Personal protective equipment is an absolute must,” he said. “If you’re in a refined space, you must know where the exit is. Always be aware of those around you and what exactly it is they’re doing. The systems you’re working on may not be in compliance, which could make them dangerous. Of course, it’s your job to diagnose these issues and bring them into compliance.”
Bucci said one thing that sets South Coast apart from others is that the company’s service manager [Simon Cote] is very proactive.
“We always strive to go above and beyond the call of duty,” he said. “Our service manager, Simon, is out on our job sites and actually seeing what’s going on within our company, which I know is lacking in a lot of companies. This is important as he can make adjustments and corrections on a daily basis, if necessary.”
Bucci said contractors should not overlook the importance of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety courses.
“OSHA courses can be kind of boring, but they can also serve as real eye-openers,” he said. “These courses provide technicians a different perspective. In reality, a lot of this stuff is common sense. Everyone’s heard of the right thing to do, and now it’s just a matter of getting your guys to do it.”
GRP Mechanical Co. Inc., Bethalto, Illinois, was recently honored by Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) as a top safety achiever at the association’s 74th Annual Convention in Maui, Hawaii.
Ken Johnson, vice president, commercial division, GRP, said safety is of the highest importance.
“Even though we strive for the highest quality, safety even comes before quality,” said Johnson. “Safety comes before customer satisfaction. Most customers are willing to pay for a safe project.”
GRP meets regularly to maintain its impeccable safety record.
“We have daily safety meetings on job sites and one weekly meeting at our main facility,” Johnson said. “During our weekly meetings, we do safety training on proper lifting, hand safety, breathing, etc.”
Management at GRP insists techs always halt production in the name of safety.
“It’s imperative our guys have the proper personal protective equipment and are using it properly,” he said. “They know they have the ability to stop an observed safety issue immediately. We have to move away from the lackadaisical attitude toward safety — that train of thought that ‘it won’t happen to me.’ Everyone must know they are part of the team, mentor new employees, and help their workmates get home uninjured.”
Johnson said the best approach is to get the entire team invested in the business’s safety culture.
“Keep safety fresh and in front of your team,” he said. “Ask them for input into the program so they know what they say is important. It’s easier to get participation if they feel like they helped create the program.”
Headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, Service Logic is comprised of several HVAC service companies throughout the U.S., including PSR Mechanical in Seattle; Engineered Cooling Services in Orlando, Florida; Encon Heating, A/C, and Energy Solutions in Stratford, Connecticut; and others.
The company, which focuses on commercial HVAC and energy services, employs more than 1,100 technicians and 1,700 employees.
Greg Crumpton, vice president, mission critical & technology, Service Logic, said the company tends to stick fairly close to the suggested recipe when it comes to safety by requiring National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)-70E, OSHA 10, OSHA 30, and other standard offerings.
For new Service Logic employees, safety training begins well before they ever walk onto their first job site.
“If we bring people into our operating companies with the understanding that safety is serious and educate them, promote the concept, and train them — as well as our clients and their facilities — about the importance of being safe, it will sink into their concept of what we are all about,” he said.
While each of Service Logic’s companies approach safety independently, most hold monthly meetings to discuss new safety techniques and reinforce the company’s tried-and-true procedures.
Regardless how much time and effort the Service Logic field generals expel to keep everyone safe, accidents still happen.
“We, like many other service contracting companies, endure soft tissue injuries; cuts and abrasions; slips, trips, falls, and the dirty fourth; and distracted driving also occurs,” said Crumpton. “We are fortunate that we have very low numbers versus the industry average. Even with our low incident rate, 76 percent of our incidents fall into one of these four categories. We focus our training on lowering our overall count as well as the severity of each incident.”
Crumpton acknowledges safety often comes with a price tag, but, with a little creativity, insists this obstacle can and must be overcome.
“Not many small to medium contracting firms can afford a full-time safety officer,” he said. “Our solution is to divide and conquer. We use multiple folks to solve or work on an issue. If four people can give an hour each, that is much more likely to happen than one person giving four hours independently.
“When we hit a lull or are not making our numbers, we do not back off from safety programs — period,” continued Crumpton. “Numbers of employees, customers, EBITDA [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization], etc. all fluctuate. Our commitment to the safety of our employees, customers, and job sites does not and will not. Secondly, we partner with our insurance and under-writing partners, Lockton and Old Republic, who are both part of our team, understand our business, and work to support us in many, many ways. Our CEO gets it; therefore, many, if not all, of our employees get it. Safety is important. He and we believe it … We don’t employ any slogans, we just continue forward on the daily grind, working every day to improve our safety culture.”
PROTECTION PAYS OFF
The employees of A.O. Smith Corp.’s offices and distribution center in Fergus, Ontario, Canada, were recently honored with the Lloyd B. Smith President’s Safety Award for excellence in workplace safety by the management of A.O. Smith.
Kevin J. Wheeler, president and COO, A.O. Smith, praised the Fergus team for its efforts.
“Many people think of safety as a factory-only activity, but this team knows better,” Wheeler said. “The Fergus team has done a remarkable job of identifying possible hazards, preventing accidents, and continually improving the working conditions in the Fergus facility.”
The award is given annually to the A.O. Smith facility that achieves the best overall performance in workplace safety during a calendar year. A total of 23 facilities worldwide were evaluated based on statistical measures as well as evidence of having a comprehensive, sustainable workplace safety program.
The Fergus facility earned the honor due to an exceptionally low lost workday case incidence rate, a low recordable case incidence rate, and a low lost workday incidence rate.
To further its approach toward safety, operations manager, Robert Henderson, said the company recently implemented a new emergency management plan, an enhanced forklift safe driving program, and a pedestrian awareness Kaizen event.
The Fergus Joint Health and Safety Committee meets monthly to review safety data and disucss trends in the facility. The team also conducts monthly inspections throughout the facility to identify potential hazards or unsafe working conditions.
“During 2016, the committee did a lot of work to improve safety processes in the plant,” said Mary Shannon, human relations generalist, A.O. Smith, who also co-chairs the safety committee. “The committee revised the accident reporting process, which includes near misses. It is designed to identify the root cause of the accident or near miss and develop a corrective action that everyone involved must sign off on.”
All data is entered into an online dashboard that is available to every manager and supervisor in the facility. In the event of an accident or near miss, all managers and supervisors receive email notification of the incident.
Over the last several years, the company has made improvements to the building to make Fergus more energy efficient. As part of this effort, the team retrofit all forklifts in the distribution center with catalytic converters to prevent any build-up of carbon monoxide from the exhaust. They also conducted quarterly emission tests on all forklifts to maintain exhaust levels below legislated thresholds. As part of this effort, the team installed CO detectors throughout the warehouse area.
“Safety is first and foremost in Fergus,” Henderson said. “No single water heater is more important than our people’s safety.”
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Mark Walenz is as experienced as they come when it comes to ladders. Having worked many years as an HVAC technician, and more than 15 years as a volunteer firefighter, he unloaded and loaded hundreds of ladders in his career.
And, then, one day, while routinely unloading a ladder, he felt his back stiffen up. Reaching up and twisting to dislodge the ladder sent shivers down his spine. A visit to the doctor’s office confirmed the injury — a diffused back — and Walenz’s active contracting career came to a halt.
“It was kind of a strange thing that happened,” Walenz said. “I know we’re talking about safety here, but there was no way to prevent this. As our workforce gets older, it becomes even more critical to be extra careful.”
Despite his injury, Walenz landed on his feet at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he serves as HVACR program coordinator. Walenz’s curriculum is designed to equip students with the knowledge necessary to immediately step onto job sites. Once they’ve completed the course, students receive diplomas and apprenticeship training certificates.
“Safety is a major component of our curriculum,” Walenz said. “We cover a number of things, including the philosophy of safety, OSHA and ANSI [American National Standards Institute] requirements, drugs, prescription medicine, refrigerant safety, confined spaces, and much more.”
One important section of the course focuses on the various types of personal protective equipment (PPE) and vehicle safety.
“While construction sites typically require hard hats, service guys aren’t used to wearing them, so we typically start with bump caps,” he said. “We also talk about the cones on the side of the road, what they mean, and why those things occur. We also discuss how you park your vans, where you park them, etc.”
Walenz said teachers and instructors can only do so much when it comes to safety. The real work begins once students become technicians.
“Safety excellence has to come from the top down; it has to come from company owners and presidents,” he said. “Even if companies have safety directors, they’re not going to enthusiastically preach safety unless it comes from those in charge. A foreman on a job site should never ask an employee to do something he’s not prepared to do himself. As an industry we have to do better. Safety has to be a full-time component, not just when it’s convenient.”
Publication date: 12/18/2017