SKOKIE, Ill.-Continental Electrical Construction Co. prides itself on safety. The firm insists upon a safe working environment through every phase of every electrical project. The contractor implements a formal accident prevention program at each project to create and maintain a safe workplace.

"We see ourselves as a business that operates with finesse and understands the importance of safety and reliability," says vice president of marketing Steven Witz. Thus, throughout the organization, safety and customer-satisfaction go hand in hand.

In fact, many of Continental's customers say that safety is an important part of their criteria when selecting bids. People in the Chicago-metro-area construction industry also are aware of Continental's enviable record. In 1996, the Lake County Contractors Association awarded Continental a plaque for the best safety record of any area contractor; Continental's electricians worked 764,021 field and office hours from September 1, 1994 to August 31, 1995 with a lost time incident rate of 0.31. The closest competitor in the 200,000-plus-hour division IV came in with a 5.07 ratio, based on working only 30% of Continental's hours. This was the second year in a row-and the fourth time-that the Association has cited Continental for a superior safety record. The firm also received the Corn Product's 1995 safety award. Additionally, Continental recently received Turner Construction Co.'s Safety Commendation for an excellent safety performance on a medical facility. Turner is one of the major general contracting firms in the Chicago area, and nationwide.

How to develop a good safety program

What drives Continental's continuing record of excellent safety performance? Partially, it can be attributed to the efforts of Ron Webb, director of field operations and safety director, who is responsible for setting up the safety education program for employees.

Webb notes electronic-technology advances have brought many more potential hazards to job sites compared to years ago. New tools entering the electrical construction field include laser-beam levels, powder-actuated fastening tools, powerful cable cutters, and consumable oxyacetylene concrete-cutting lances. The upshot is the safety practices followed in the past are completely outdated.

Two basic types of hazards

To keep up-to-date, Continental stresses two basic types of hazards in its meetings. The first type of hazard involves electrical equipment-such as high- or medium-voltage circuits, radiation, or laser beams used to provide a reference for construction equipment. The second type of hazard is encountered in performing the work-such as climbing a lighting tower or handling and operating certain tools.

Specifically, each month Webb communicates with all field supervisors by sending each of them a "safety packet" attached to a memo. Job-site supervisors are empowered to identify and correct all electrical violations pertinent to the job site. A supervisor will post specific material contained in the packet on the wall of a field office. As a case in point, the February 1997 memo contains timely information, such as the assured grounding color coding for the quarter, instruction for posting of OSHA information, or details on specific safety training. This serves as a reminder for supervisors to make arrangements for training persons who do not hold a "Qualified Operators Card" for powder activated tools.

Accident reports

Each supervisor is required to complete an Accident Investigation Reporting form when a mishap occurs. The report, which includes a "Guides for Corrective Action" section that must be filled out, is then filed with the director of field operations. This information is later shared with all employees as part the accident prevention program. For example, the January 1997 memo had a summary of accidents (all minor) for the previous year, with an instruction that even these could have been avoided if the awareness level had been higher, such as having a plan for two people to move a 250-lb crate. The company safety slogan is usually printed at the bottom of every memo: "Create a plan with safety in mind-and follow that plan."

Webb also developed a special job start-up safety kit that is mounted on the wall of a field trailer or on a gang box located on every job site regardless of the size.

Safety training starts when each new employee receives a copy of the company's safety manual. This convenient reference contains descriptions and explanations of the hazards that electrical personnel are likely to encounter in their work, coupled with the precautions necessary to prevent bodily harm and equipment damage. Basically, the manual sets standards for employee accountability and disciplinary actions. A written "Not Working Safely" notice is issued to anyone who doesn't follow the safety requirements defined in the manual or mandated at a specific job site.

The overleaf states that the company is interested in each employee's safety and that the policy of the firm is to provide safe equipment, adequate tools, and the necessary personal protective equipment.

On the succeeding pages follows a list of 28 employee safety regulations. Subjects in the manual include responsibility for tools, attendance at toolbox meetings, use of company vehicles, drug policies, and lifting procedures.

Other specific subjects covered are first aid and medical treatment, personnel protective equipment, construction tools and equipment, scaffolding, ladders, hand and power tools, lockout/tagout procedures, hazardous communication program, confined space entry procedures, and the assured grounding program.

Continental Electrical rigorously follows the OSHA assured grounding procedure because defects in the grounding system of 120-V flexible cord sets are usually the most common cause of injury in low-voltage shock accidents. Employees are instructed that each cord set is to be visually inspected by the user before each day's use for external defects. The quarterly testing of equipment is documented by means of an appropriately colored cable tie at each end of the cord and at the plug and handle ends of tools.

Electrical hot work safety

The hazards involved in working on or near electrically energized equipment is clearly recognized in the contractor's safety manual. A working on "Live Equipment" kit must be used when working on energized switchboards or similar equipment.

The kit materials, which are carried in a specially designed gang box, include a pair of 36- by 36-inch rubber mats with case, two pairs of rubber gloves, two safety cones, two signs, two flame-retarding jump suits, one wand, four clothes pins, two hard hats with full face shield, one roll "Danger High Voltage" yellow caution tape, four labeled safety lockout tags, four individually keyed locks with keys, and one 16-ft fiberglass folding ruler.

A major element to the success of the company safety program is the administration of regular weekly safety meetings, which provide the opportunity to review and discuss possible procedures that could prevent an accident.

One subject that might be covered at a meeting would be: "When you attach the safety strap to the 'D' ring of a full-body harness, do not rely on the sound of the 'click' of the snap hook. Look to make sure it is properly attached, and don't attach anything to the D-ring except the safety strap." Webb considers the project supervisors as the key people for making the safety program effective because they have a full overview of the project.

For example, in walking the job, a supervisor can identify an unsafe situation or a possible hazard, such as an open flame or a spill, and report it as soon as possible. A supervisor should take particular care to note if working space in front of electrical equipment is kept clear of cords and other items that would constitute a tripping hazard.

Finally, a supervisor is also able to reinforce the safety consciousness of the crew and fortify the team concept.

Safety in action

This safety consciousness was seen in action when a Continental Electrical crew installed 220 sports lighting fixtures on six field lighting towers, plus both east and west colonnade roofs at Soldier Field in Chicago. After each 1800-W, metal-halide fixture was installed, it was hand-focused to meet exacting aiming specifications. A laser was attached to each fixture and then sighted to a computerized grid on the field.

Because this project involved climbing metal towers and working around the perimeter roof of the stadium, the entire field force of electricians took on the challenge of wearing special safety harnesses to protect themselves against an accidental fall. They wanted to concentrate on getting the work done without having to worry about being knocked over by a Chicago wind gust.

The three most important words in the vocabulary of safety are attitude, responsibility, and involvement. "The lighting project was completed without even the need for a Band-Aid-it was injury free. The most important of these is attitude. A positive attitude will prevent most accidents," Webb concludes.