Richard McElhaney and three other construction crew members considered the training session fairly routine. They didn’t huddle for a safety reminder.
But the training exercise for a 20,000 psi water lance ended catastrophically when one of McElhaney’s co-workers lost control.
The crew was training to cut concrete segments that had been improperly poured. McElhaney waited next in line, standing 12 feet away from the co-worker when the out-of-control lance hit him at full power. The water lance, capable of cutting through concrete, tore through both of McElhaney’s legs, exiting on the backside just above his knees.
He bore witness to “the Real Cost of Safety” as the featured speaker during the AGC – TxDOT Executive Safety Conference (Aug. 20), held via Zoom.
As he lay in an expanding pool of blood, nearing death at the Camden, New Jersey worksite, nearly 16 years ago, McElhaney thought of his wife and three children.
“I put my family through hell,” he told his conference audience. “This is the real cost of safety.”
He awoke from a coma on Christmas Day – 16 days after the accident. He endured 15 surgeries, struggled with three super-bug infections and spent three years in physical therapy.
His accident also carried an $8 million price tag.
Like many accidents, “we were in a hurry. We did not do our JSA (Job Safety Analysis).”
The construction company had too many near-misses on the safety front, McElhaney said: “Instead of being proactive, they were always reactive. They were waiting for near-misses doing this, doing that. Your leadership needs to be proactive.”
He emerged from his accident to focus his efforts as a safety consultant, emphasizing six safety management principles he considers key for any company’s safety success.
• JSA’s are the backbone for every safety program, with communication providing the essential element. “You’ve got to train them on how you want them to do it.”
• Daily safety huddles should be required and must involve two-way communication.
• Safety inspections should be done with a field level employee because they know the jobsite better than a safety professional.
• Behavioral Observation Surveys are indispensable because they empower employees to intervene if they see something wrong.
• Develop a robust “lessons learned” and “near misses” reporting program.
• The “boss” should always sit down with a new employee after completion of the new-hire safety orientation to review their commitment to the safety management process.
Bob Lanham, Williams Brothers Construction president and current AGC of America president, called McElhaney’s testimonial “moving” and embraced job safety training and practice as an investment. “We are investing in safety. It’s serious. It means we are going to put our money and our time where our mouth is,” Lanham said. “If it’s truly an investment, we just don’t talk it; we walk it.”
He likened safety investing to investment banking. The investment policy determines “what we’re going to do and how things are going to get done. We have an expectation of a return on that investment. So we need to have a net gain financially and then we need to evaluate and measure our performance. That’s the only way to get better.”
The primary purpose for the investment is altruistic, Lanham said: “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
The investment of time creates the largest influence on the workforce, he said. “This is all about winning the hearts and minds of your employees to make sure that your program is successful.”
TxDOT Deputy Director Marc Williams moderated a safety panel discussion highlighting the industry’s perspective. Steve McGough, president of HCSS and president of ARTBA, noted that his company develops software for the construction industry, including safety software.
“We believe that safety starts in the field and it really starts with changing the culture – a culture where there is zero work zone fatalities. And that’s the only acceptable outcome,” McGough said. “Safety is a process - not an achievement – and we have to continually look critically at what we are doing and seek improvement, even when we think we are doing well.”
Panel participant Lanham emphasized that Williams Brothers focuses on transparency and engagement with company employees.
“We share all the information with our employees about our safety performance and the incidents where we go in-depth with them … even to the point of sharing the cost information,” Lanham said.
And then company leaders engage with workers by making them part of solutions because employee input, Lanham said, helps make solutions stick
“They are the ones out in the field, having to actually execute. We’re not sending memos down from the White House telling them to do things a certain way,” Lanham said.
McGough credits the close working relationship between TxDOT and contractors for making Texas an industry leader and for understanding each other’s responsibilities and pressures. McGough complimented the state’s mobile barrier system and smart work zone technologies. Both McGough and Lanham, however, cautioned against overreliance on technology.
As automated vehicles become more standard, motorists may no longer perceive dangers.
“We could go a long way with some common sense – slow down, get off the cell phone and be aware,” McGough said.
Workers must always remain educated and trained about the hazards of work zone intrusions, Lanham said, “Because technology can fail and that could lead to some bad things.”
"Williams Brothers Construction is experiencing fewer incidents but more serious injuries in work zones and four fatalities in the past 10 years," Lanham said. The company is emphasizing a focus on avoiding serious injuries: “We talk about what can kill you every day. Understand it and be aware of it … If something changes, stop for a second and deal with it. Don’t wing it. Bad things happen.” Lanham and McGough agreed that national work zone traffic laws are necessary. Pilot projects in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey show the presence of law enforcement in construction work zones slows traffic by 15 MPH, McGough said.
“When somebody on the outside violates your office space, it rattles the employees’ confidence and the ability to work safely,” Lanham said. “It’s hard enough for us to do what we do and to do it safely without those added challenges brought about by someone else.”