Here it is: People die.
Yep. That's the one thing almost everyone -- again, including folks inside and outside of the industry -- agrees upon about construction.
Outsiders, well, their dismal view of the industry is due to a worn-out stereotype, you probably tell yourself. The industry's made great strides in safety in recent years, is something else you probably tell yourself. Maybe there's some truth there. But, there's probably also some truth to this fact: To one degree or another, you take it for granted that "people die." You accept it.
And I'll be honest. Even construction journalists are guilty of complacency and too readily accepting this fact as, well, acceptable. Let me give you an example. A couple or so years ago, when cranes seemed to be falling down on a regular basis all around this country, I was sitting in on an editorial meeting, and someone noted that another construction worker had died, though not related to a crane accident. At that point, a senior editor explained to everyone that just because a constructior worker died, it didn't mean it was news. Construction workers die all the time, was the basic argument and instruction. The editor was slightly apologetic for pointing out that sad fact, and everyone agreed.
People die. Like I said, it's pretty much the one and only "fact" about construction that we all agree upon. And I'm just about sick of it. I'm sick of hearing horror stories like the recent one out of Tulsa, Okla., where on Aug. 16 a contractor's tractor-scraper lost power and somehow continued running, apparently amock, until it finally ran over a worker, "graphically" killing him. Or, how, during the first week of a Duke Energy project in Kings Mountain, N.C., a motor grader struck and killed a 19-year-old kid who was working on the job.
This is unacceptable. Completely and totally unacceptable. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 816 construction workers died at work during 2009. If that stark number, along with the examples above -- not to mention the lifetime of your experience -- hasn't yet awakened you to the fact that there is an alternative reality that just might be possible, then let me share my "ah-hah" moment with you.
Earlier this month, I attended the Construction Industry Institute's annual conference, held this year in Orlando. During one of the keynote speeches, Craig Martin, president and CEO of Pasadena, Calif.-based Jacobs, spoke about "BeyondZero: Changing How We Feel About Safety." ("BeyondZero" is Jacobs' trademarked name for its safety program.) I was listening attentively, as journalists do, recording the speech and taking notes. Martin's delivery was measured and serious, with lengthy pauses peppered in between his remarks.
Slowly, I realized something. For maybe the first time in all of the conferences I'd attended, somebody was actually speaking out against the status quo. Contractors weren't doing their jobs as they should, Martin asserted. People shouldn't have to die; there was no need for that to happen. Describing the industry's current safety record as "pretty dismal," he then called on those in attendance to work to achieve something he thinks is really possible -- a zero incident rate. After all, whatever the industry -- or any individual company, for that matter -- was doing, it was clearly not enough. His message was clear. Complacency was not acceptable. And, in his slow, measured way, you could tell this contractor meant it.
I was kind of embarrassed. After all, through more than 20 years of covering the construction industry as a journalist, I'd carried around a version of that accepted "truth" of "People die" as a concrete, provable fact. I'd considered it tried, tested and true. Somewhere in my mind and in my heart, I'd shrugged off accidental death as an accepted part of life in a dangerous business. And here was this guy -- this contractor -- telling me I was wrong.
With that in mind, and with the hope that his words will also encourage you to question your own assumptions, I'm providing an excerpted version of Martin's speech to the CII crowd below. Read on. Then do something.
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(After closely reviewing safety data that showed their incident rate improving, Martin says management decided) "We were still hurting too many people. We really decided we had to do something different. Our historic focus on processes and procedures, on numbers and measurement … just wasn’t getting us to where we wanted to go.
"Without a doubt, we 'got' safety, intellectually. We had the intellectual commitment we needed to make it happen. But we just weren’t where we needed to be on the side of emotion and caring. We needed to add to that what we call Beyond Zero, the Culture of Caring.
"We began focusing equally on how do we care for our employees? How do we communicate an idea of safekeeping to our employees?
"(Because) when we talked to job sites that had extraordinary safety performance, and we asked them what they attribute doing so well to, they never said, ‘We have great processes and procedures.’ They always said things like, ‘We’re a family;’ ‘We care about each other on this job site;’ ‘We don’t want our friends to get hurt.’
"That was a focus that we saw was missing, and we tried to drive into our culture." (Martin admits at first the attention to "caring" made some folks uncomfortable.)
"The caring side is driving the improvement we’re seeing and I think it will continue to drive improvement for us as a company. We’re hurting 6% fewer people in absolute terms, than we were in 2004. That’s meaningful, because that’s a company that’s over twice as big as it was in 2004. We’ve doubled the size of the company, and we’ve reduced the absolute number of injuries by 6%. But we’ve still got a long way to go. Because that number is not zero. There’s plenty of challenge out in front of us.
"But we feel we’re making progress. And we feel very strongly that if we can stay the course, and we can continue to balance caring with good, effective safety processes and procedures, we’re going to continue to do greatly better as we move forward.
"If you look at the CII data, (CII members have) always been better than (the overall) industry, which is just dismal."
Lately, though, Martin says safety incident rates have shown little to no improvement in recent years. Martin reports the incident rate for CII members at around 0.60 over the last several years, with little to no improvement shown.
"I’m going to suggest that we’ve gotten comfortable with where we are. In the back of our minds, we’ve kind of thought, ‘Well, good is good enough.’ And I don’t think it needs to be that way.
"We’re going to have to re-commit to safety in new and more energetic ways. We’re going to have to change our mindsets.
"What could our industry be like? I believe for all practical purposes, our industry can get to zero incidents and zero injuries. We have to make that happen collectively.
"It's going to take the commitment of everyone in this room to something more than ‘good is good enough’ if we’re going to be successful. But if we do, it’s going to make a profound difference.
"It’s going to take a constant renewal of your commitment that nothing but zero is OK. And you’re going to have to do whatever it takes to make that happen."
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You'll hear more from me regarding safety, but right now I want to hear from you. What do you have to say about this? Share your safety stories here. And stay tuned.
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