Tara Jean Hart is a woman with a mission. She's one of those against-all-odds success stories you see on TV and in movies like “Erin Brockovich” but seldom get to meet in real life.

Twenty years ago Hart, then a single high-school dropout mom on food stamps, saw a close friend die in a construction accident. The event changed her life. She began to question job-site accidents and became obsessed with construction safety. Fourteen years ago, Hart founded the Compliance Alliance (TCA), a firm that has a singular purpose of standardizing safety procedures to help contractors meet OSHA safety rules.

Since then Hart, who serves as TCA's founder, CEO and sole owner, has grown the Houston-based company from its local roots to a nationwide business. Originally, she targeted medium- and small-sized electrical contracting firms. In fact, she first set up shop in Performance Electric's Houston office. “Performance let me start TCA in their offices,” she said. “Their staff answered my phones.”

Now TCA serves more than 1,000 contractors of all sizes in 50 states and Canada. Though still focused on smaller construction firms, TCA's client list now also includes some of the nation's largest companies such as Bechtel Corp., Exxon USA and SpawMaxwell. Not surprisingly, though, electrical contractors remain among her best clients.

“Being a woman in a male-dominated field gives me a unique perspective,” Hart said. “It's fascinating, watching these guys build everything. I feel like a fly on the wall.”

Hart said TCA specializes in “universal, affordable and effective occupational health and safety systems for America's workplace.” Basically, she applies an internationally recognized quality-assurance system (the ISO 9000 series) to transform a company's safety culture.

In addition to her training role, Hart has served as an OSHA Professional Facilitator in incident investigations in 10 states for more than 300 cases. She's achieved the employer's objective every time but twice.

Three facts about safety help keep Hart's mission clear:

  • The construction industry reports the largest number of fatal worker injuries for any industry and accounts for one-fifth of the fatality total.

  • Since Congress created OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Act) in 1971, workplace fatalities have been cut in half, and workplace injury and illness have declined 40%.

  • Injuries alone cost the U.S. economy more than $110 billion a year.

SAFETY'S PRICETAG

As her next step, Hart plans to launch a universal safety and health program online next September. Because Houston-area contractors make up more than half of TCA's clients, Houston became the test market for the online training beginning in March 2001. A beta group of new TCA members made up of 150 licensed construction contractors in the Houston vicinity received free occupational safety and health programs typically ranging from $2,500 to $85,000 a year.

“Our system works; it saves lives,” Hart said. Now she seeks “universal, affordable and effective safety in every job site in America. We want to reduce the learning curve.”

In one sense Hart aims to do what Wal-Mart and McDonalds did for consumers — standardize and simplify to lower the service costs.

So how much does TCA charge to teach the standards of safety? A basic membership is $1,800 a year, which provides accident and fatality investigations and safety workshops and training. It also offers research, problem resolution, mediation with regulatory agencies, insurance loss-control representation and interface assistance with the International Standards Organization (ISO) as well as many other products and services. Actually there are four levels: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. The Gold standard costs $30,000 annually. But as Hart points out, that's less than most companies pay most employees. The average TCA client pays $2,500 a year.

THE COLORS OF COMPETENCY

Three colors, all displayed on a worker's hard hat, play into TCA's safety culture training. The color-coding method identifies new, inexperienced, and untrained workers, who are most likely to have or cause an accident. These workers wear yellow-coded hardhats. The method allows no “yellow” new hires to be on a task without a “blue” intermediary or “green” safety veteran. The result is improved efficiency and safety.

The colors break down as follows:

  • Green — Safety One. Competent safe workers or supervisors.

  • Blue — Safety Two. Seasoned workers employed more than six months who are supervisors.

  • Yellow — Safety Three (caution). It's for new hires employed six months or less.

  • Red means danger — a brand new worker.

“The TCA safety system is not about worker job skills.” Hart said. “Rather, it's about the awareness of company and job-site safety culture.”

A yellow sticker can be escalated to green through a more intensive orientation process if the person was hired in as a supervisor. A worker with a green or blue sticker can also lose that ranking if they are negligent in their observance of safety.

Job-site is a growing priority at 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., electrical contractor found that on 60% of its projects, a copy of a written safety program was required for attachment to the bid documents.

Beyond helping contractors in person, Tara Hunt has high hopes for the September launch of her Internet safety program. So what's next after that? Maybe Hollywood. Hart's written a screenplay about her journey from a single high-school dropout mom on foodstamps to CEO of a firm serving hundreds of construction contractors nationwide. She wrote “Blue Collar Cool” to explode the construction-worker stereotype and to change the way safety is managed in the construction industry. Who knows? If not the next “Erin Brockovich,” it could be the next “Mr. Holland's Opus.”