Safety in construction is top of mind in the industry today, but that focus is relatively recent. Some of today’s current construction professionals, in fact, have experience from earlier days in their careers where the focus was on production, and not on safe work practices.
George Trice, a current Perlo superintendent, began his career as a carpenter. As such, he was actively doing the work to build forms, tilt concrete panels, install roof structures and other carpentry tasks. Safety then was tremendously different than now. Today, we’re going to discuss the evolution of safety in construction through the lens of his lived experience.
Join us as we explore George’s journey with safety.
What was safety on construction sites like when you started in the trades?
If I’m being honest, it was pretty lacking. Old school. We just didn’t think about safety. It wasn’t something I even considered or thought about. Back then, there was a lot of gray as it related to safety. Our focus was just on showing up, doing the work as quickly as possible, and that was it.
Here are some examples. Sometimes when we built cast-in-place walls, we would just walk on top of the framing with the concrete hose and we weren’t tied off. We were 15’ high sometimes! You certainly wouldn’t do that today. Fall protection in general wasn’t something we focused on. We didn’t use tie offs on roofs – not even when cutting openings for skylights. If we were lucky we had a guardrail of some kind, but we didn’t think about these things.
What happened when people were injured onsite in the past?
I was lucky, I guess. I never witnessed any really bad injuries or had one myself. We had aches and pains, people hit their thumbs with hammers or cut themselves, and we just didn’t really worry about it. We went to work, worked hard, and went home tired. And then got up the next day and did the same thing.
I sprained my ankle onsite once and went back to work the next day, even though it hurt. I almost cut off my pinky finger one time. I told my superintendent and he sent me to the doctor and then I came right back to work with my stitches! These days I would have been sent home until the doctor released me. I can’t say I would have liked that. I liked coming to work and doing my job, and I think most people do.
How did safety start to evolve?
I don’t know if there was a safety program when I started, but I think it was about 6 – 8 years after I started that the company really worked to implement a more formal safety plan. It started with things like adding handrails, more fall protection, or putting lifts underneath the opening of a skylight. Training became more frequent and superintendents had to pay attention to it.
I was put on the safety committee for a little while and I’m not sure I was the best choice at that point, because I still wanted to operate things in the ‘old school’ way. Over time our safety programs have evolved considerably. Now it’s much more formal, takes more planning, and we have audits of our sites where we are scored on how safe our sites are. It’s gotten stricter every year and people aren’t getting hurt like they used to.
What are the items you pay attention to now that you wouldn’t have in the past?
Now I’m a superintendent, so that makes a big difference. It’s my job to enforce the rules and I remind workers every day to do things like wear their safety glasses, use their fall protection properly, hydrate. Basically, all the things I didn’t pay attention to as a carpenter, I have to make sure everyone else pays attention to, now.
I walk my jobsite 2 – 3 times per day with a specific eye for items related to safety. You have to or you won’t see everything. Every day there are small reminders I give to people, and I try to keep it light and fun, but they know they need to follow the rules. I understand that they don’t want to follow the rules, since I’ve been in their shoes. But it is important. We don’t want to see anyone go home at the end of the day hurt.
We also have to think about safety as we plan for work items. We can’t just let people be ‘cowboys’ like we used to be. Doing the work the safe way isn’t always the fastest way, and most people don’t like to take extra time to perform tasks. But we reduce the risk of injury if we plan properly, so I help make sure that’s happening for all of our work tasks.
What motivates you to make sure your job sites are safe?
Well. As I’ve said, I understand why our workers don’t always want to follow the safety protocols. It’s not always very fun to follow them. But they’re my responsibility and having incidents or injuries on my site would mean I’ve failed my crew.
Also, we have these audits that our safety crews complete on a regular basis. They come out and there’s a set list of items that they review and we get scored on those. And I believe that anything less than 100% on my jobsite means I’ve failed. And I don’t like to fail! So I tell my crews and my foreman: follow the rules. Do it right. Anything less than 100% means we’ve failed. It really does motivate me to be better, so I pay attention to the safety stuff.
Do you think the safety efforts mean workers are safer now?
Absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, being a carpenter or in the trades is still a physically demanding job. People are going to have aches and pains, or hit their thumb with a hammer or slice a finger. Maybe get a bee sting or a sunburn. There are risks to the job, but much less now than there used to be. With proper protocols in place it’s much harder for someone to have a serious accident.
There are hazards that workers tend not to think about, for whatever the reason. It’s easy to just get into the groove and forget to think about proper safety protocols. For instance, if you’re forming up something and realize you just need one more cut…so you try to just quickly make the cut and don’t think about putting your safety glasses on. It’s easy to have those lapses.
The thing is, you have to constantly remind workers to follow the rules, because it’s so easy to forget when you’re wrapped up in your work. Some of the PPE items aren’t super comfortable, but they’re important. And the more I remind the crews, the better they are about keeping up with the safety protocols.
Increasing safety on jobsites isn’t a task that is completed quickly. It takes hard work and strategic implementation of policies and programs, as well as nurturing the culture of safety so that every worker, from top down and bottom up, is willing to participate in the effort. As we have seen through George’s story, it also requires a transformation of thinking by those individuals who didn’t prioritize safety over production, but now understand its purpose and help to enforce safe practices on our construction sites.
We commend George and all of our workers on their efforts to improve on safety in our work.