Steve Michaud, president and owner of New Ipswich, New Hampshire-based Monadnock Cooling Systems Inc., recalled an accident that occurred in his shop several years ago, which affected one of his employees’ hearing.
“We had a piece of equipment, a refrigerant recovery in the shop, actually explode. And the only injury from it was the noise,” he said. “It was self-contained inside of the casing, so no parts blew (up), but the noise of it was such a loud bang, that one of the employees who was standing close by had to go to the hospital to get his hearing tested.”
Michaud said the employee had to wear earplugs for a few days after the accident to help the healing process, but was back to normal after a follow-up doctor visit.
Being aware of your surroundings is one way to prevent future accidents from occurring, Michaud added.
“If you see something that doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t,” he said. “Go with your instinct and make it known if you see something… If you see a fire, you have to pull a fire alarm and get out of the building — make sure that people know what’s going on.”
Michaud’s advice was echoed by several contractors and experts that Snips talked to for this month’s story on HVAC construction safety and training. To some people, safety involves taking simple, day-to-day precautions — like buckling a seatbelt or looking both ways before crossing the street — to avoid danger.
But for many sheet metal works and HVAC market contractors, safety is much more than a few commonplace practices — it’s a way of doing business that requires constant dialogue between employers and employees.
Communicate and educate
Mike McCullion, safety director for the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, says educating workers on safety is essential to running a successful, hazard-free work environment.
“I’ve been in safety for over 30 years and I think one of the big changes I see is the need for communication and training,” McCullion said. “The regulations and requirements that the small businesses face these days really does require an extreme amount of communication between the management and the workers, because there’s so much that needs to be done to prevent injuries and illnesses in the workplace.”
Workplace safety organizations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Center for Construction, Research and Training are a few groups that are continuously enforcing new safety laws in the HVAC construction industry. McCullion says organizations like these possess a lot of valuable information to help businesses implement good safety initiatives.
“(Companies and organizations) like OSHA and CDC (the Center for Disease Control and Prevention)… have great websites that have tons of information you can go to, to improve a safety program,” he said.
Charlie McCrudden, senior vice president of government relations for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, agreed that a company must be aware of changes in safety laws and regulations in order to ensure a safe work environment.
OSHA’s confined space and construction rule is one law that McCrudden predicted will have some impact on the HVAC construction industry. This new law, which was scheduled to take effect Aug. 3, requires companies to educate their employees on the potential hazards that may occur from working in confined or crawl spaces.
“The definition of a confined space is a space that you can get in and out of that’s not designed for habitation,” McCrudden said. “And (certain) hazards may be present by either from what’s already in that confined space or some of the activities that the worker may engage in while in that confined space — like welding or burning, or things like that.”
Since this rule already existed in other industries, it won’t have a tremendous impact on the sheet metal and HVAC industry, he added.
Accidents still happen
Developing and maintaining good safety practices and procedures sometimes come from experience.
Take one incident that occurred at Kennewick, Washington-based Apollo Mechanical Contractors a couple of years ago, for example.
An apprentice was using a box knife to open a crate. The blade slipped from the apprentice’s hand, causing him to cut himself and resulting in three stitches.
The incident changed the way the contractor operated.
“Since then, all fixed-blade knives have been replaced with self-retracting blades” to ensure safety, said Apollo President Bob Hightower.
Understanding how or why accidents occur is necessary for implementing good safety procedures and prevention methods, he added.
“We spend a lot of energy on incident investigation and fact finding associated with all incidents,” Hightower said. “The results are then published among our projects through safety meetings or larger all-hands meetings… One of the best preventing methods is proper planning followed up with reporting of all incidents.”
Playing it safe
There are plenty of ways managers can implement good safety habits into their work environments to prevent accidents from repeating or occurring, experts say.
Michaud, for instance, said he has taken full advantage of OSHA’s safety education resources. He made his entire staff take OSHA’s 10- and 30-hour safety training courses to ensure everyone in the company was on the same page in regards to safety.
“We made them (employees) all go through OSHA-10 training. And myself, as well as my operations manager, are both OSHA-30 trained,” Michaud said. “I made (my office manager) take an OSHA-10 safety course and she’s not even on the jobsite. I had her take it, I paid her for it, (and I said) go take the class so that you understand what we’re up against.”
Each of Michaud’s employees also owns a safety-training manual to reference and keep handy while on jobsites. To ensure accuracy and consistency, training manuals are frequently checked and updated with new and improved safety procedures, Michaud said.
“Our office manager, Sheila, takes care of all the reporting and making sure that the guys have their safety manuals up to date,” Michaud said. “If any changes are made to that, it’s all put in writing so that they have that with them in their trucks at all times.”
Hightower said some of his company’s best safety practices include “sharing lessons learned from across the country and investing in our people through pre-task plans, pre-job plans, supervisor monthly meetings, safety talks and audits, newsletters, ‘buddy systems’ and recognitions, all supported by knowledgeable safety practices.”
Managers’ involvement is the key to ensuring that employees are properly carrying out the company’s safety procedures, Hightower added.
“Our management participates in daily stretch-and-flex, safety meetings, pre-job meetings and site walks,” he said. “Never being timid about reminding someone to wear their glasses, put in the hearing protection or tie-off” is also a must for achieving safety, he added.
Claiming the prize
Along with the ability to prevent hazardous incidents from occurring, a good safety culture has also earned some sheet metal and HVAC construction companies recognition. SMACNA, ACCA and the Mechanical Contractors Association of America are among the organizations that reward their members for establishing and maintaining an exceptional safety record.
SMACNA operates a safety excellence program that recognizes contractor members for their outstanding occupational and health performance. The awards are divided into eight categories based on labor hours.
Apollo Mechanical Contractors was among the top three 2015 SMACNA safety award recipients, winning first place in the category of over 500,000 labor hours worked. Although the company has been recognized in past years, this is the first time Apollo has been the overall winner.
Hightower attributed Apollo’s success in this year’s competition to his staff’s accountability for one another and confidence in the company’s safety culture.
“Employee empowerment, along with accountability, plays a major role in our success, he said. “Every employee — from the first-day apprentice to me, the company president — believes in our culture. No one is better than the person working next to you and we look out for one another.”
And having zero recordable incidents for all of 2014 may have also had something to do with the company being recognized, he added.
“All the winners of our safety awards really take safety to a higher level and they make it personal. And they really put in some good policies and procedures,” said SMACNA’s McCullion. “It’s just a part of their culture — part of what they do.”
Apollo also won the 2014 MCAA National Large Contractor Safety Award in the category of 1 million or more labor hours, which is another significant accomplishment for the company.
Michaud said Monadnock’s proactivity and consistency with maintaining safety procedures earned it a 2015 ACCA Safety Excellence Award in the category of 10 or fewer employees — a first-time win for the company.
“Every businessman out there is trying to keep his worker’s comp down — everybody knows it’s expensive and we’re trying to keep that down,” said Michaud. “So I get very proactive with my insurance agents at the company and say, ‘OK, what do we have to do? How do we go about keeping this down?’ ”
Michaud said he also believed keeping the staff’s safety manuals up to date was also a factor in the company’s recognition.
“(We) really updated the safety manual, put it in writing for certain procedures… and everybody has one,” he said. “We showed (ACCA) a copy of that. So I believe that had a big contribution to us getting the award.”
Practice makes prevention
One of the keys to implementing successful hazard-prevention methods in the workplace is to continuously work toward achieving safety excellence rather than perfection, said McCullion.
“Bottom line is, you want to just keep striving to be as good as you can be, and excellence is a great place to be,” he said. “It’s tough to be perfect, especially in the safety and health world… A lot of people say they have a zero-injury culture, and they want to strive for zero injuries… But don’t use it as a goal, because if you have one minor injury at the beginning of the year, then you’ve missed your goal.”
McCrudden of the ACCA said making safety a part of the company’s culture is a sure way to achieve success.
“That’s what sets these companies apart from others,” he said. “They treat their workers right, there’s a high level of respect for their safety and welfare, and it’s no ‘accident’ that all of these companies are very successful — not just with safety, but very successful, growing businesses.”
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