Job site safety is a growing priority at many electrical contracting firms around the country. The simple reason is that a low experience modification rate (EMR) brings a corresponding reduction in insurance premiums.

Safety also enters the picture when a client selects a contractor as the bid winner. In fact, many contractors increasingly find that they can't bid on projects unless they have a written safety program in use. A Louisville, Ky., contractor found that on 60% of its current projects, a copy of a written safety program was required for attachment to the bid documents.

The most important ingredient for setting up a safety program is full support by management. This will help ensure that everyone else in the company is in step with the program as it develops, and thus everyone can be committed to making it a success.

Practical considerations To successfully develop a safety program, consider these basic steps: Define your needs. What are the hazards of normal or unusual company operations? What are the company's insurance and legal risks? What are your client's views on safety?

Define the safety goals. Set up a timetable schedule for implementing the program and establish a desired goal for a specific time period. For example, aim for a percentage reduction in reported incidents or injuries, or a stated reduction in EMR, within a year. The effort should be to set safety goals for the entire organization, but hold individuals accountable for specific safety objectives.

Spell out the steps to getting the program in place, including how the education will be carried out. Select the safety educational source, or sources, you will use. A good source is usually the Loss Prevention/ Industrial Hygienist Department of your (workers' compensation) insurer.

Write your policy. Call on the loss-control representative from your insurance carrier for guidance. Additionally, you can probably get sample programs or policy outlines from national or local construction associations.

Establish your budget. Remember that this type of program can provide a real return on investment. In addition, the expense of providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees is trivial compared to the costs and pain of a serious injury to a job-site worker.

Define who will carry out the program. You might select one of your employees to be the safety coordinator, or you could hire a safety manager or consultant. Consider purchasing a "train the trainer" program, as well as purchasing a program for teaching project supervisors how to identify and respond to unsafe situations at a job site or plant. A trained project supervisor is able to reinforce the safety consciousness of the crew and fortify the team concept.

Set standards for employee accountability and disciplinary actions. Organize and write the safety materials so they are easy to understand. Use simple headings, such as "lockout energy sources," so that each subject will get full attention and can be easily recalled. Some companies integrate safety into a worker's job performance review.

Distribute the safety policy and rules to all employees. Put up safety posters, and change their content periodically to retain attention to your messages. Provide each employee with a copy of your company safety program. Reinforce the program through visual material displayed on the job site, articles tacked on bulletin boards or brochures inserted in paycheck envelopes.

Monitor the program. Check how your safety culture is progressing through the organization by asking key questions such as:

How are employees responding?

Do the safety inspection reports result in follow up actions that make sense?

Is it easy for workers to report unsafe conditions or equipment?

Is the safety incentive (reward) program continuous?

Are employees following good housekeeping practices? Start the reinforcement process. Assign someone to audit inspections, safety meetings, safety tours and other regular activities. Assign certain workers to inspect production equipment and work areas for deficiencies, such as missing machine guards, damaged equipment, frayed extension cords or poor lighting.

Discourage shortcuts. For example, be serious about following the lockout/tagout requirements defined in the OSHA standards and continually informing your employees on these rules. For this subject, lockout/tagout training videos and manuals can help in the training.

From time to time you'll see employees take a short cut, and most of the time that will not result in an accident or an injury. But unfortunately, as time goes on, people taking short cuts have an accident, and in the lockout/tagout procedure, a very serious-if not deadly-event can occur.

Case study in formal safety training One 106-year old Georgia contracting firm has a peach of an enhanced safety program that uses training videos and prize incentives. The program is aimed at meeting a bottom-line goal of zero-accidents on the job.

Putzel Electrical Contractors Inc., with offices in Macon Ga. and Atlanta, Ga., first set up a safety incentive program in the early months of 1997. The basic plan was to reward qualified (accident-free) workers with an extra hour's pay per month. But, in September of the same year, the company beefed up the plan by adding a monthly cash bonus for all qualified employees. Any person, who works a complete calendar month without any accident or absence from work (other than vacation), and without any written reprimand, receives a $35 cash bonus. Those receiving the bonus are also eligible for a $500 drawing during that month. To qualify for the yearly grand prize of a Caribbean cruise, employees must have 10 accident-free months in the year. Additionally, each month, all supervisors whose jobs are accident free during that month, receive a $100 U.S. Savings Bond.

General Superintendent and Safety Director Harvey Hammock said the goal of the new incentive program is simple: zero accidents.

"The incentives are aimed at encouraging our workers to make safety their No.1 priority," Hammock said. "We want to make safety important to our employees. Now they have a stake in it. They know they have a chance to win and they're going to do what it takes to prevent accidents."

Since its inception, the program has resulted in a significant drop in the number of accidents. While 28 accidents were reported from January to July 1998, only 13 accidents were reported during the same period in 1999. At the same time, the Putzel workforce more than doubled from 1998, so the number of accidents per worker, over a period of a year, is down by 75%.

An expanding work force also presents a challenge, since many accidents result from inexperience. " We found that most of accidents involve new employees who are naturally inexperienced," Hammock said. To counter this situation, the contractor developed an orientation and safety instruction video for all new employees. In the 18-minute video, Hammock and Holley Purcel, special projects manager, review material in the firm's safety manual and the employee handbook. Jane Hawkins Products, a Macon, Ga. multimedia company, produced the video using current job sites and employees.

In addition to the video, the company has other regular safety training sessions, some of which are sponsored by the Associated General Contractor (AGC) Safety Van. Also, "specific subject" training sessions are conducted in conjunction with vendors, who explain subjects such as use of respirators, fall protection, scaffold erection, use of ladders, material handling, defensive driving and proper overcurrent protection on temporary electrical systems. Hammock also teaches safety classes, which involve from 10 to 30 hours of instruction.

All of the training procedures stress two basic types of hazards. The first type involves electrical equipment - such as working on high or medium-voltage circuits, or working around radiation hazards or laser beam instruments used to provide a reference for installing electrical equipment.

The second type of hazard is encountered when construction work is performed, such as climbing a lighting tower or handling and operating certain tools.

Throughout its program, the company stresses its interest in each employee's safety and the policy of the firm to provide safe equipment, adequate tools and the necessary personal protective equipment.

Subjects covered in the safety handbook, the video and other instructional classes include responsibility for tools, the assured grounding program for temporary power at the job site, attendance at daily toolbox safety discussions, drug policies and lifting procedures.

All Putzel employees must wear safety glasses at job sites, and protective (Kelvar) gloves are required when handling items with sharp edges, such as metal studs and lighting fixtures. A number of hand cuts from razor-blade-type knives (box cutters) used to strip back conductor insulation caused these box cutters to be banned (pen knives are used instead).

To prevent back injuries or muscle stress, anyone working with 250 Kcmil or larger cable, or installing 21/2 in. or larger conduit, must wear a back support at all times. Wearing gloves and back support while handling materials is particularly important, since the firm finds that 39% of accidents involve materials handling.

These are just a few rules developed by the firm's Safety Committee, which meets quarterly to review accident reports, develop ways of preventing similar accidents in the future and determine any trends that might require corrective actions.

Hammock said, "I don't dictate the meeting, I just ask questions to get them thinking." One trend discovered is that a worker with a poor attendance record is more likely to be involved in accidents.

Another area of concern is the fact when the job calls for 21/2 in. or larger conduits, a greater safety awareness is necessary. Hammock notes, "you have bigger benders, threading machines, reel jacks, and chain wrenches. This calls for increased attention to safety in movement and handling gear."

Putzel continues to use follow-up monitoring procedures to maintain the company-wide safety attitude.

A worker who is caught breaking a major safety rule receives a written reprimand. Any worker receiving more than three reprimands in a calendar year is fired.