Electrical contractors should not need to be told about the importance of a well-defined and laid out safety program. It's no secret that construction is a risky business — so risky, in fact, that only the food processing industry has more accidents per 100 full-time employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Similarly, it ranks third, behind food processing and mining, in number of work days lost per 100 full-time employees.

With today's rising medical costs, the price of workers compensation insurance has become a major cost of overhead for most companies. Even a small recordable accident could total as much as $2,000 to $3,000 for a one-time trip to the emergency room — and those are just the up-front fees. After the accident, hidden costs begin to emerge, leaving the contractor to deal with additional fees up to seven times the original amount.

When an accident occurs on a job site, work stops, causing a loss in productivity not only for workers but also for managers. Instead of performing his or her duties of leading the crew, the supervisor is now busy investigating the accident, filling out accident reports, and answering the questions of the customer and other contractors on the job site.

Other unforeseen costs may include damage to tools or equipment that the injured employee was using. These must be repaired or replaced in order to continue production. Any damages to the customer's facility and/or to other contractors' equipment would also be included in this category. These are just a few of the reasons responsible contractors find it necessary to implement a safety program. But just because you have a safety program in place doesn't mean it's effective. There are certain steps you must take to improve the effectiveness of your safety program.

Taking action

The first thing to do is to appoint or hire a safety director to implement your safety program. This person must be familiar with all safety procedures, industry best safety practices, and laws from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and maybe even the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

The safety director will need a well-defined safety program to implement. Most companies already have these programs in place when the safety director is brought onboard. However, if your company has no written safety policy, procedures, or manual, it's not hard to develop one on your own or hire an outside consultant to help you.

Once you have a plan in hand, the key to enforcing your company's safety procedures is empowerment. A safety director without the authority to enforce the rules is useless and is often left struggling to ask other managers and supervisors for buy-in when it comes to implementing safety procedures. Only by empowering employees in all levels of the organization can a safety director truly get everyone on the same page with safety.

Giving managers and supervisors a voice in developing and implementing the safety program is a good way to start. If people in an organization have input, they will be more apt to take ownership of a safety program. The safety director should work closely with the front-line supervisor to administer and enforce safety rules, policies, and procedures. Ultimately, the supervisor will be responsible for whether or not his crew is following the rules. That means when a new employee joins the organization, safety training must be clear and comprehensive.

Learning the ropes

Because the most likely cause of an accident is people, helping employees get orientated to a new job site may prevent an accident waiting to happen. Training is especially critical for new employees.

Some companies actually hold formal training sessions each time they start on a new job site. However, training should not stop when you leave the trailer. New employees should be made aware of any hazards on the site, such as overhead lifting, open trenches, confined spaces, arc flash hazards, chemical hazards, and burn or welding hazards. Physically showing new employees these hazards, rather than just talking about them, will increase their awareness and make for a safer job site. New employees should also be aware of the location of emergency response equipment such as fire extinguishers, first aid kits, and phones in case of an accident or an emergency. Knowing where a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit is will often prevent a small incident from becoming a big one.

If the job site has new technology, then the supervisor needs to train and educate each employee accordingly. If you can identify one of your employees that has an aptitude for conducting such training, put this talent to good use. Giving employees additional responsibility is the best way to empower them, as long as you back them up. For example, if they are not comfortable in their new duties or don't receive the support they need, it will serve as a big de-motivator. That's why front-line supervisors should consult with the safety director before giving this responsibility to any employee. If done correctly, however, using this opportunity to empower your employees will give them a sense of ownership in safety and make for a much safer workplace.

Come together

Despite some contractors' ongoing efforts, safety meetings have become routine to the point that most employees could not tell you the topic of the meeting an hour after they attended it. Although tool box talks have been used in the electrical construction industry for years, not all of them are effective. Here's a quick case in point. Many electrical contractors send tool box talk topics out in payroll checks or with other deliveries a day or two in advance of the safety meeting. This usually gives the supervisor little or no time to review the material. On the day of the safety meeting, the supervisor will either read the tool box talk topic or have one of his employees read the topic. After reading the material, the supervisor will ask if there are any questions. Any questions will be answered to the best of the supervisor's ability, or he may get input from others on the job. At the end of the safety meeting, everyone is asked to sign the back of the tool box talk or a sign-in sheet, and the meeting is over. Although the topic is probably informative, this is a very ineffective way to run a safety meeting.

There are a few things a supervisor can do make job-site safety meetings more effective. First, supervisors must make sure the topics are site specific. It makes no sense to have a safety meeting about the practices of signaling a crane on a small commercial or residential job that has no crane on it. If the topic has nothing to do with the job you are on, request another. If another topic is not available, then read the one you have, discuss it briefly, and move on to a topic that is site specific. If the material does not pertain to the type of work your employees are doing, they will not be interested.

Going a step further, in addition to site-specific material, make good use of task-specific safety topics as well. While rigging for a big wire pull, for example, supervisors can get topics that pertain to rigging. When ordered in advance, task-specific safety topics can be on the job when you need them. Here's another chance to take advantage of that all-important employee empowerment opportunity. Let one or more of the workers know what the safety topic is going to be a week in advance. Then, ask them to participate in the meeting by bringing additional information to the table. It takes very little time for an employee to research the topic via the Internet as well as through discussions with others on the job. Plus, it gives the employee a feeling of ownership in the safety program by furthering its objectives.

Reaping the rewards

When safety is maximized on a job site, everyone wins. An electrical contractor with fewer accidents will have a direct savings when it comes to workers compensation insurance. Fewer accidents will also lower insurance modification factors, which will allow your company to bid on work other companies with higher modification factors would not be allowed to pursue. Better safety records will also enhance your company's reputation. By lowering your workers compensation insurance and staying legally compliant with local, state, and federal regulations, your company will be much more competitive and enjoy a better profit margin at the end of the day. And don't forget about less employee turnover. Employees who accept safety as the company culture are more apt to stay put.

Despite all the benefits of implementing an effective safety program, the bottom-line is safety is still a difficult thing to maintain on any construction site when you consider the number of trades involved. Although you have no control over any of these trades but your own, the law still says you are responsible for the safety of your employees. That's why having an effective safety program in place is all the more important. Investing in a safety program will allow your employees to return home to their families at the end of the day — an achievement that is far more important than any workers' compensation cost. By implementing the safety strategies discussed above, you and your employees can make a difference when it comes to safety.

Mitchell is president of Integrated Management Group in St. Louis. He can be reached at bob.mitchell@img-training.com.