A culture of safety

Safety professionals discuss effective ways to keep roofing workers safe

Roofing work is not for the faint of heart: From falls and burns to heat exposure and handling hazardous materials, roofing work can be perilous. Because of the numerous hazards faced by those employed in the roofing industry, roofing workers must receive intensive safety training conducted by professionals dedicated to worker safety.

When talking with roofing safety professionals from various U.S. regions, it becomes clear that regardless of a roofing contracting company's size, location or specialization, similar challenges are faced when establishing and maintaining roofing worker safety programs. By facing these challenges to create effective safety training programs, roofing contracting companies can help ensure the safety of every worker.

Program development

Creating a safe environment for roofing workers is not a new concept. For D.C. Taylor Co., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which employs about 300 employees, safety program development began decades ago.

"My predecessors had the task of creating the initial safety program at D.C. Taylor," says Brad Richardson, D.C. Taylor's corporate director of environmental health and safety. "This began in the mid-1980s. Initializing a safety program and endeavoring to create a safety culture is the most difficult phase in the evolution of a company's safety program."

Safety program development also began decades ago for Clark Roofing Co., Broadview, Ill., a company that employs about 60 field workers.

"During the 1980s, the insurance industry was looking at how to reduce accident rates in the construction industry," says Andy Irvine, Clark Roofing's safety director. "One of the ways of doing that was to develop safety programs within companies. That's when Clark Roofing began to develop its safety program and safety culture. It really began when insurance companies began to get interested in reducing accident rates."

With increased pressure from insurance companies to properly train roofing workers and safety requirements legally enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), roofing contracting companies throughout the U.S. have created or expanded safety training programs. But every roofing contracting company has a unique approach to developing such programs. For Heidler Roofing Services, a York, Pa.-based roofing contracting company that employs about 110 roofing workers, developing its current safety program required extensive research.

"When I began my career with Heidler Roofing Services in 2000, my background was in general industry, so I needed to cross-reference construction regulations with general industry regulations," says Terri Mitzel, Heidler Roofing Services' safety manager. "That gave me the basis for our written programs. I could then get into the field and assess what hazards currently were being addressed and what hazards were not."

For KPost Co., a Dallas-based roofing contracting company that employs 255 employees, creating an effective safety training program included soliciting input from management and field employees.

"Upper management, superintendents and the director of operations designed our safety program," explains Jayne Williams, KPost's safety director. "We thought outside the box a bit and worked hard to make our safety program user-friendly. We asked field employees for their input on safety and whether they understood our safety program."

But the nature of the construction industry can make designing and implementing an effective safety training program challenging.

"One of the challenges is the continual changing of job sites and work areas," Mitzel explains. "In general industry, the workplace is fixed and the safety for the work station or area remains static. In construction, each job site or work area changes almost daily. The safety equipment is either being moved or changed depending on the requirements of the work being completed that day."

To overcome these challenges, Heidler Roofing Services focuses on planning.

"Developing a site-specific safety plan before a job starts is essential," Mitzel says. "That way, as the safety requirements change, the equipment is readily available for the crew to make necessary day-to-day changes."

Other challenges also can arise. For instance, gaining and keeping employee attention during training can be difficult without proper preparation.

"The biggest challenge is making a safety program more interactive instead of just preaching to employees," Williams says. "If your employees are talking, texting or sleeping during safety meetings, you really don't have a chance of them retaining the information being provided.

"We overcome the challenge of safety talks being boring by doing calisthenics before our meetings start, forbidding cell phones during the meetings and giving quizzes at the end of meetings," Williams continues. "Being razzed by your co-workers because you don't know the answer to a question has become commonplace. Our employees now 'police' each other and will tell co-workers to pay attention or put their phones away."

Irvine agrees that keeping workers interested can be a challenging aspect of maintaining a safety training program.

"One of the biggest challenges is keeping the guys interested in doing new things," Irvine says. "There tends to be a little bit of complacency out in the field. Continuing to change the program to make sure the guys understand it and don't become complacent with our safety program and culture can be a challenge."

To overcome this challenge, Clark Roofing focuses on communication and solicits input from field workers.

"I'm available to workers to answer questions," Irvine says. "We are really going after the input of the guys because they're the front-line people. I'm not on the roof every day; I can't be on every job site all the time. They understand that communication is open for questions or concerns. I usually am available to go to job sites at a moment's notice to answer any questions."

As the roofing work force becomes increasingly diverse, language barriers also can present challenges to developing effective safety training programs.

"We have dealt with the challenge of having a field of workers that is about 80 percent Hispanic and making sure they understand what is being taught," Williams says. "To help our Hispanic workers understand our safety program, we have a bilingual safety manager who conducts all safety training in Spanish and English. He also is the go-to person for our employees' safety questions or concerns."

Irvine agrees language barriers can be detrimental to safety training if not properly addressed.

"Most of our workers are bilingual if not purely Spanish speakers," Irvine says. "We conduct our safety training in Spanish as well as English."

Necessary training

The types of training provided to workers can vary among companies and depend on the type of work being performed. But for many roofing contracting companies, safety training is continual and begins as soon as an employee is hired.

"Upon being hired by KPost, every new employee goes through four hours of safety training," explains Williams. "We have weekly mandatory safety training for every employee, as well as job site-specific training. Employees must complete forklift, Certified Roofing Torch Applicator, sky track and other training as required by their positions.

"Once per quarter, we do some sort of specialized training with outside resources," Williams continues. "Within the first year of employment, field employees are expected to get their OSHA 10-hour certification, and foremen and superintendents must get their OSHA 30-hour certification. We have two in-house OSHA 500 trainers; one is certified as a bilingual trainer."

Richardson agrees that safety training should begin immediately after an employee is hired.

"Oftentimes, employers make the mistake of assuming all individuals have knowledge of the hazards that exist on a construction project," Richardson says. "The elementary hazards—electrical, fall, fire, etc.—don't go away; they're always present in some form.

"There is a tendency to think employees know about these basic exposures and how to protect themselves," he continues. "However, the reality is that many times, newly hired employees are young adults who have never worked a day in the construction industry and haven't been introduced to any form of safety training."

Regardless of when safety training begins, it is clear maintaining an effective safety training program requires dedication and vigilance.

"Every Monday morning, we have our in-shop safety training," Irvine says. "This is bright and early—the guys get here by 6 a.m. During that time, we talk about topics specific to roofing safety, as well as general construction industry safety. That's step one. Step two is I conduct on-site safety inspections as often as possible. These are unscheduled, so the guys don't know I'm coming. If I feel we need to do further training on a job site, I'll do it at that time."

D.C. Taylor's worker safety program also is rigorous and continuous.

"At D.C. Taylor, all employees receive OSHA 10-hour certification within the first six months of hire, with the hazard communication training given at time of initial assignment," Richardson says. "We also conduct semiannual trainings. During these two-day training sessions, we provide about four hours of safety training to introduce specialized safety topics such as additions to our safety program; competent person training; CPR, first aid and bloodborne pathogen training; and a stretching program.

"Safety training proceeds continuously in the form of weekly tailgate meetings and conference room training sessions on a variety of needed topics," he continues. "During the past year, we have issued laptop computers to all our crew leaders who are then able to go online and log in to a safety training company that we use to assign safety topics to our crew leaders and crews."

Roofing worker safety programs also can incorporate safety training that is not necessarily related to work performed on roofs.

Mitzel explains: "Training at Heidler Roofing Services varies from week to week. We provide all the required training but also like to provide training on personal wellness. Examples would be automobile and motorcycle safety, sleep deprivation and any other training I believe our employees may benefit from."

Employee buy-in

Employee buy-in is an important aspect of any company's safety training program. Even the most well-developed safety program can do little to benefit employees who do not take it seriously. Different companies have different strategies for engaging roofing workers with their safety training programs.

"I believe education is a large part of bringing people onboard," Mitzel says. "Having them truly understand the risks of what they do and tying that together with them personally is important. For those few who continue to resist, top management support is key."

For KPost, employee buy-in is all about setting a good example and building a company culture that focuses on safety.

"From the first moment someone walks in our doors, we begin the safety training process," Williams says. "KPost's culture is such that every employee understands the importance of being safe, as well as watching out for co-workers.

"We do not accept poor safety practices—the best craftsman will be terminated if he or she does not follow the safety rules," Williams continues. "We tell all our employees every day that they are important to us and that we want them to be safe—not for KPost but for their families. We want them to go home every night."

Clark Roofing holds a similar philosophy regarding worker safety.

"Every time we talk about safety, we talk about making sure that, at the end of the day, workers go home safely to their families," Irvine says. "We also have pretty strict disciplinary procedures. If there are repeat offenses against our safety program, eventually people might even get dismissed from the company if we feel they just aren't getting it.

"We tell workers safety is as important a part of the job as doing the actual construction work," Irvine continues. "Safety comes first."

At D.C. Taylor, getting workers to commit to safety requires communicating the company's values to its employees.

Richardson says: "If the company's values are such that the safety of employees truly comes first, that lays the foundation for the buy-in."

Keeping employees engaged and updated on current safety practices can take considerable time and financial investment.

"I think during our first year we invested about $20,000 just in manpower and the material costs of designing and publishing our safety program," Williams says. "We also used NRCA's safety resources to get us started. Our first week in business in 2004, we had our first safety meeting using an NRCA video. We perpetually work on our safety program, so we probably spend about $100,000 per year in manpower, education and administration for our program."

Mitzel agrees an effective safety program's necessary time and financial investments are ongoing: "There is never a time when neither is needed," she says.

"We keep employees updated about safety procedures in as many different ways as I can come up with," Mitzel explains. "The most obvious is weekly training. We also have used e-mails, health newsletters and memos in paychecks, but my favorite one is to find articles from safety magazines and leave them in the shop area. I figure before a crew leaves in the morning, one person may pick up the article and read it. If that person finds it interesting, he or she just might discuss that on the way to the job site. So now, one employee has educated four or five other employees."

For Clark Roofing, time investments are maintained through scheduling.

"I spend time setting up our safety training for the week and conducting the training," Irvine says. "Typically, I might spend an hour or two on each job—not every day but at least every other day or every third day—so there is definitely time involved in that."

Williams agrees ensuring employees are trained before beginning a job can require significant amounts of time; however, she believes the investment is worthwhile.

"When I'm on a job site, I'm often teased by foremen that if I weren't so demanding about safety, they could work much faster," Williams says. "Although we spend a little bit more time upfront making sure our employees know the safety procedures before ever stepping on a job site, I think it saves time throughout the job because of not having downtime because of employee injuries."

Meeting requirements

Although keeping roofing workers safe is the first goal of any roofing safety training program, avoiding OSHA fines also is important. OSHA fines can be costly, and an effective safety training program can go a long way toward avoiding such financial losses.

KPost and Clark Roofing primarily do business in the states in which they are headquartered. Because of this, workers at KPost and Clark Roofing have only one set of safety standards to which they must adhere.

But Heidler Roofing Services and D.C. Taylor operate in many states, some of which have approved state-run OSHA plans.

According to Mitzel, this only affects Heidler Roofing Service's safety training program in small ways.

"We may have to tweak a program here and there to comply, but it's nothing that affects the main intent of the programs," Mitzel says.

Regardless of whether a company operates under a state- or federal-run OSHA program, complying with OSHA regulations is crucial. According to Irvine, compliance with these standards requires communicating their importance to workers.

"It's up to us to understand the regulations and why they're there in the first place and to reiterate this to the workers," Irvine says. "But even if OSHA didn't require safety compliance, we'd still be doing this because we think safety is that important."

Irvine also believes outside resources and communicating with OSHA can help ensure a company's safety practices comply with OSHA regulations.

"NRCA has been a great resource for us in understanding what OSHA expects from us as roofing contractors compared with other contractors," Irvine says. "It can sometimes be difficult to understand exactly what OSHA expects us to do.

"But OSHA also is open to questions," he continues. "I've made many calls to OSHA with specific questions about something we might be up against. They make sure they're available to answer contractors' questions, which is great. There are some government agencies that aren't like that."

Reflecting on safety

When it comes to protecting roofing workers, company-wide commitment to an effective safety training program is crucial. And by ensuring roofing workers are committed to their own safety, roofing contracting companies can reduce the risk of tragic accidents and costly fines.

"I can't stress enough if an employee makes the personal connection to safety how much it effects a successful program," Mitzel says.

An adaptable safety program that focuses on hazards presented by a specific job can help prepare workers for the special challenges posed by working on roofs.

"One of the most important things about a safety program is that you understand it needs to be dynamic and change according to what you experience in the field," Irvine says. "Every job is different, and you have to be willing to change and adapt your safety program to meet the needs of every job."

Although each roofing contracting company's safety training program is unique, they all face similar challenges and have the same goals: to reduce risk and make sure every employee returns home safely at the end of the work day.

"I believe that if safety is the most important aspect of your business, the quality of your work and the value you bring to your customers is a no-brainer," Williams says. "We do not measure our success by the volume of sales but by the number of days without injuries. Our employees going home safely is our main goal."

Kaylee Alberico is Professional Roofing's editorial assistant.


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