Vested Interests. President Haug
(far left) and leadership director Maddox (middle) embrace a more subjective safety method.

About two years ago, Randy Maddox, a project manager for Manson Construction Co., had joined 50 co-workers for a safety meeting at its Seattle headquarters when he heard a line in a video being shown that jarred his thinking forever on injury prevention: “Everybody deserves a future.”

“That really hooked me because I was manager of a project that had some really tough injuries and guys got hurt,” says Maddox. “After I heard that statement I thought, ‘I’m going to listen.’”

During the meeting, Manson employees met with representatives from Austin, Texas-based safety consultant JMJ Associates and learned there’s more to injury prevention than making workers follow safety regulations. For the next four months, JMJ taught Manson employees to blend the company’s traditional object-oriented safety program, in which managers policed workers and recorded safety-related incidents, with a more subjective definition of safety built on relationships between employees. In March 2005, Manson shut down its northwest operations for a day and summoned 125 staff members to Seattle to hear presentations from those first 50 employees on the new approach. “This was way more than a safety meeting,” says Maddox.

A 497-employee marine and heavy construction contractor with $178 million in 2005 revenue, Manson’s history stretches back a century before when the company began driving piling on the Puget Sound waterfront. Family owned and staffed with several father-son pairs, Manson has workers who have been with the company for decades. Terry Hammerwold, northern California operations manager in Richmond, Calif., says the idea of working a long project without an injury was met by skepticism. “It took a while to get it through our thick skulls,” he says.

Civility Engineers. Haug (left) and Maddox (right) promote a new culture of caring—including politeness—to bolster safety efforts.

Safety has always been a top priority for Manson, says President Eric Haug, but he wanted to take it to the next level.  “Our safety program was fairly traditional previously,” he says. “We had a very good safety staff but we needed an extra something to really improve our overall safety culture in the company.” Haug and his management team reviewed proposals from several safety consulting companies before finally settling on JMJ. “When we first engaged JMJ, I didn’t fully understand just how it was going to affect the organization in the holistic way that it does,” says Haug.

The consulting firm’s approach added a new layer of commitment to Manson’s current safety processes and procedures. JMJ’s leadership development model reminds workers and managers that there is a human element to business and re-teaches them how to treat each other with dignity and respect. As a result, safety is transformed into a deep-rooted belief that drives the company’s actions and is never compromised. “It’s about bringing the heart back into the workplace,” says Cort Dial, JMJ’s Americas operations manager. “We work on the subjective half of safety, the part that can’t be seen.”

At Manson, safety has been transformed from an atmosphere in which top management played the role of “safety cops” to a culture of caring and appreciation that permeates daily operations, says Hammerwold. But such changes took time and have occasionally put management in uncomfortable positions. The program still is a work in progress.

The first obstacle was bringing everyone on board with the new approach. The turning point for Maddox, Hammerwold and others came at different points in the training. Maddox fully committed to the program in the initial commitment meeting at the beginning of the training. For Hammerwold, the turning point came during a role-playing exercise in Seattle at which he had to recite specific statements provided by JMJ to Manson workers he hardly knew. “For the most part I was walking up to total strangers and saying these sentences that weren’t mine and didn’t sound like anything I would say,” he says. “But the methods really worked.”

Not everyone has experienced a sudden moment of understanding.

Haug’s confidence grew with every step of the training he and other Manson employees received. “There wasn’t one event that committed me,” he says. “I realized this was really the way that Manson was going to be the safest company that we could be and that was my goal.”

At jobsites in northern California, Hammerwold no longer plays safety cop. Now, when he needs to speak to an employee, Hammerwold asks if that worker has time to talk and offers to come back at a more convenient time if necessary.  If Hammerwold needs to correct a safety problem, he has a conversation with the worker about what needs to be fixed. Work force morale has improved. “The guys no longer groan when a manager approaches,” he says.

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  • Interpersonal relationships among top managers also needed work. Regional managers had mainly kept to themselves, so Manson executives organized visits and took trips, including to Louisiana that included feeding alligators.

    Manson officials say they have already witnessed changes at jobsites, but did not provide comparisons of accident rates with its old safety program. “You can see better interaction, better communication between workers,” says Maddox.

    To continue improving safety, Manson created a new leadership position to manage and promote the firm’s incident and injury-free culture, which is Maddox’s current role. “We felt there was a need in the company to have someone responsible for helping Manson continue to improve safety,” says Haug.

    Maddox has worked closely with JMJ to learn how to maintain Manson’s current environment and move it forward. “You make a commitment and recommit everyday,” he says.

    (Photos by Jim Anderson for ENR)