What is the value of safety for a construction company?
Adams County-based Conewago Enterprises Inc., one of the midstate’s biggest general contractors, put that question to the test this week.
The company shut down its 30 job sites on Wednesday to bring together its 360 employees for a day of safety training. It’s the first time Conewago has ever assembled its entire workforce in one place for training. Some employees came from as far away as Albany, N.Y.
“We’ve got a real good program and a good safety record, but good isn’t good enough,” said Don Smith Jr., president and CEO of the company. “One lost work day for injury is one too many.”
Smith said the event, factoring in employee wages and the expense of bringing in national safety experts, cost more than $100,000.
Add in a lost day of work on job sites and the cost of the shutdown was likely higher. Conewago, known for building large warehouses and manufacturing facilities, expects to post about $170 million in revenue this year.
But Smith considers the money well spent.
“If we can avoid a couple of injuries, it’s a good investment,” he said. “One relatively major injury, not even a major injury, and the true cost is in excess of what we’re spending today.”
According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the construction industry accounted for about 20 percent of worker deaths in 2015.
Falls were the leading cause, followed by object strikes, electrocution and being caught in or compressed by equipment or objects, or being struck, caught or crushed in collapsing structures, equipment or material.
Rich McElhaney, an independent safety consultant who spoke at the Conewago event, narrowly avoided death himself. In 2004, he almost lost both of his legs and bled to death after being accidentally hit by a high-pressure water apparatus on a job site in Washington, D.C.
But his co-workers acted quickly. Ambulances arrived within minutes, paramedics stopped the bleeding and he survived.
It took McElhaney more than three years to learn how to walk again. He said he still can’t feel parts of his legs. He speaks regularly at construction safety events, where he plays the 911 call from that day and then comes out in gym shorts to reveal the lasting impact of a construction accident.
His message is: Be proactive. Don’t rush through daily job safety reports in the field. And don’t assume something bad won’t happen, even among construction crews that work together often.
“Construction workers often get in a rush,” he said. “And you do something different in the field every day. Sometimes the work changes throughout the day and maybe every hour.”
His injury happened because the crew didn’t huddle up to review potential safety hazards that day.
“Pre-planning for safety is key,” he said. “The biggest thing construction workers fail to do is stop and correct for a new step in the job safety analysis. They don’t want to get behind and stop, but when conditions change, they need to stop.”
For Smith and Conewago, the message was received. His company’s workforce has grown by about 25 percent over the last two years. And the workload is growing, while buildings are going up more quickly to meet changing owner expectations, Smith said, making communication that much more important.
Smith can remember taking about 15 months to build a 500,000-square-foot warehouse in the 1990s. Over the years, developers began expecting a 12-month turnaround. Today owners want buildings ready in seven or eight months, he said.
“Due to internet sales and (the need) for more fulfillment centers, some need to be up and running in six months,” Smith said. “The big push (in the industry) is daily or multiple-times-of-day huddles with the team to make sure they all know the expectations. Communication is key.”
For construction workers, where there are a lot of “tough guys,” he said, it can be challenging getting everyone to understand the importance of looking out for each other and not being afraid to correct other team members.
“Constructive criticism is not something inherently natural to a construction worker,” Smith said.