By Charlie Bacon

Why should Owners care about safety being a key driver of success on their projects? There are, in fact, very tangible benefits for virtually any project that can come with just small investment of your time and money. As such, it’s important to shift the idea of safety from a company “priority” to a company “culture,” since doing so is the key to achieving great – and incident free – project outcomes.

Twelve years ago, I took over the helm at Limbach, a national mechanical and electrical specialty contractor that offers design, construction, and service for large, complex commercial buildings. My experience since has touched on all aspects of the design, construction, and ongoing maintenance of buildings over thousands of projects.

In 2000, however, I had a wakeup call on the subject of safety after several fatalities occurred at the company where I then worked. It was then when I learned about another way to look at safety and embarked upon a transition at that firm to incorporate an integral approach to worker heath and wellbeing. That approach effectively shifted the company’s views on safety from that of a priority to a core aspect of its culture. And it has made a huge difference.

In that same year, we launched Incident & Injury Free (IIF). Today many contractors and EPC firms have adopted similar programs, driving safety in the industry to a new level. It’s wonderful to see these changes being realized since more and more people are going home at the end of every shift without incident, and more and more projects are finishing as home runs, with safety being a catalyst to those successful outcomes.

Setting a Safety Foundation

So how do Owners influence safety? Consider that outstanding project safety outcomes do not happen because safety is made a priority. Success is delivered when safety is culturally embedded in the project.

In my experience, project success is determined by the Owner. They choose the approach to a project; select the design professionals, consultants, and contractors; and determine what contracting method will be adopted. The Owner also provides expectations to the project stakeholders of what that success will look like at the end of the project or program.

Whether it’s stated or not, the Owner also defines the culture of the project. How? Design parameters are provided; the budget, schedule, and quality objectives are established; and safety is addressed as a priority since the Owner wants all the participants to deliver safe outcomes. I would hope the majority reading this would agree that their successful projects typically also enjoyed great safety outcomes. I would argue that on those projects, safety was, in some shape or form, culturally embedded in the execution of the project. A project with safety embedded in the minds of the project team and craft workers typically leads to higher execution quality, as well as on – time and on-budget project delivery. The attitude that safety costs money, which is a common response (or a typical thought that most won’t admit to), is not the case. Indeed, I would argue that safety pays huge dividends.

How is any cultural element embedded in a company, an institution, a project, or even a family? Just as the CEO of a company sets the tone for its culture, it’s determined by the leadership. It may not be written down, but the actions of the leader are adopted by the majority. So in our case, the Owner of a company defines the culture.

After all, as the head turns, the body follows. Culture is determined not by words in a Values Statement, but through a leader’s actions. Leaders are closely watched by their people, and the majority of staff fall in line while those that don’t either self-select out or are shown the exit.

Safety Culture Advantages

The tangible benefits are many when a project enjoys great safety outcomes. For one, I would start with the comments around the idea that lean management principles are naturally adopted. Lean is a growing focus in the design and construction industry. Planning one’s work around outstanding safety outcomes each and every day not only leads to the elimination of injuries, but causes foremen and craft workers to look ahead and eliminate barriers to smart and timely execution, which eliminates wasted efforts. More work in place and less rework equals better quality.

Secondly, the morale on projects improves when supervisors genuinely care about the craft workers’ wellbeing. This leads to the craft workers really caring about their work, which then leads to higher quality outcomes. Finally, as an Owner, you will feel great that you led such a successful effort. I caution you, however, that no one will thank you for getting them home safe at the end of every shift. Please take this last point as a “feel good” aspect of the job.

Getting Started

How do you create a safety culture on your projects? I could go on about each of the following points in depth, but for the sake of a quicker read, here are the basics:

1. With the Owner’s in-house team, discuss the safety goals of the project just as you would discuss budget and schedule. Then, write down your safety expectations.

2. Assign staff to come back with a plan of action around safety. I strongly suggest they employ a behavioral-based safety consultant if this is your first endeavor, so as to shift from a priority to a cultural focus, which are small dollars compared to the overall investment. If you stay true to the plan, the ROI will be present.

3. When selecting design professionals and contractors, present your project plan and start with safety, followed by budget, schedule, and quality objectives. Reinforce the plan and develop jointly agreed upon expectations. Monitor the commitment to the expectations on a quarterly basis with the principals of the firms you employ.

4. Start all meetings with a safety moment. It could be about the project or some other personal experience. It takes two minutes, but sets the tone of the session and reinforces the idea that a cultural change is in the works.

5. Remember that set backs may occur. Don’t give up; use them as a learning experience.

As noted before, as the head turns, the body follows. Owners can make a huge difference on their projects if they lead the project with a safety focus. You will realize better financial, schedule, and quality outcomes, as well as feel a sense of personal accomplishment knowing you did a great thing for the hundreds (if not thousands) of people that helped create your project.

Charlie Bacon is Chief Executive Officer of Limbach Facility Services