Since clients and general contractors increasingly prefer to hire electrical contractors with formal safety programs, firms must invest more time and money in safety. However, lower insurance premiums often pay for these programs.

Why is job site safety becoming such a high priority at so many electrical contracting firms across the country? The reason is simple: A low experience modification rate (EMR) brings a corresponding reduction in insurance premiums. This spells big savings for contractors. But they're not only feeling the push for these formal safety programs from an insurance standpoint: Clients expect and demand it. In fact, many contractors increasingly find they can't even bid on projects unless they have a current written safety program in hand. In the case of one Louisville, Ky.-based contractor, 60% of its clients required a copy of the company's written safety program attached to the bid documents. So if you don't already have a safety program in place, that's incentive to get started.

Here's a list of 10 practical guidelines to consider before customizing your own formal safety program.

1. 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?

2. Define safety goals. Set up a timetable for implementing the program, and establish a desired goal for a specific time period. For example, aim for a percentage reduction in reported incidents, injuries, or a stated reduction in EMR within a year. 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 you'll carry out the education program. Select the safety educational source(s) you will use. A good source is the Loss Prevention/Industrial Hygienist Department of your insurer.

3. Write down 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.

4. Establish your budget. Remember: 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 with the costs and pain of a serious injury to a job site worker.

5. 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 or looking into 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.

6. Set standards for employee accountability and disciplinary actions. Organize and write the safety materials in an easy-to-understand format. Use simple headings, such as "lockout energy sources," so you'll get each subject's full attention. Some companies even integrate safety into a worker's job performance review.

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

8. Monitor the program. Find out how employees feel about your organization's safety culture by asking key questions, such as:

- How are the 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?

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

10. Discourage shortcuts. Occasionally, you'll see an employee take a short cut. Most of the time, there's no problem. But unfortunately, as time goes on, shortcuts inevitably lead to accidents.

Case in point.

What happens when you take the time to consider all of the factors mentioned above? You get an exceptional safety program, like the one implemented at Putzel Electrical Contractors Inc. This 106-yr-old Georgia contracting firm developed an innovative safety program that incorporates training videos, prize incentives, and the goal of zero-accidents.

With offices in Macon, Ga., and Atlanta, the company first set up a safety incentive program in early 1997. The basic plan was to reward qualified (accident-free) workers with an extra hour's pay per month. However, the company took this a step further - beefing up the plan by adding a monthly cash bonus for all qualified employees. As a result, any person who works a complete calendar month without an accident, absence from work (other than vacation), or 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, all supervisors whose jobs are accident free during that month receive a $100 U.S. savings bond.

According to General Superintendent and Safety Director Harvey Hammock, 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," he says. "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 the program's inception, Putzel has seen a drop in the number of accidents. While the contractor reported 28 accidents from Jan. 1 to July 1 during 1998, it only reported 13 accidents during that same time period in 1999. Consequently, Putzel's workforce more than doubled from 1998 - so the number of accidents per worker, over the period of one year, is down by 75%.

An expanding work force also presents a challenge, since many accidents result from inexperience. "We found that most accidents involve new employees who are naturally inexperienced," says Hammock. To counter this situation, the contractor developed an orientation and safety instruction video for all new employees. In the 18-min video, special projects managers review material in the firm's safety manual and employee handbook. In addition to the video, the firm holds other regular safety training sessions - some sponsored by the Associated General Contractor (AGC) Safety Van. It also conducts specific subject training sessions in conjunction with vendors, who explain subjects including 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 range from 10 hr to 30 hr of instruction. Topics discussed 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 of the firm's training procedures stress two basic types of hazards. The first involves electrical equipment, including working on high- or medium-voltage circuits or around radiation hazards. The second hazard relates to construction work, such as climbing a lighting tower or handling and operating certain tools.

All Putzel employees must wear safety glasses and protective (Kelvar) gloves when handling items with sharp edges, such as metal studs and lighting fixtures. The firm banned razor-blade-type knives, used to strip back conductor insulation, due to hand cuts (it now uses pen knives instead). To prevent back injuries or muscle stress, anyone working with 250kcmil or larger cable or installing 2 1/2 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 39% of all its accidents involve materials handling.

The rules discussed above are just a sample of the strategies developed by the firm's safety committee, which meets quarterly to review accident reports, develop ways of preventing similar accidents, and determine trends that might require corrective actions. Putzel continues to use follow-up monitoring procedures to maintain the company-wide safety attitude. They take this task seriously. In fact, a worker who is caught breaking a major safety rule first receives a written reprimand. Any worker receiving more than three reprimands in a calendar year is fired.