Construction site safety is no accident

Last updated on May 17th, 2022 at 07:35 pm

SBT Reporter

As Wisconsin contractors strain under the pressures of a difficult market, any competitive edge can make a difference. And in an environment where both public and private project owners are pushing the price envelope ever lower, a clean safety record can make a difference in more ways than one.

Worker’s compensation insurance experts stress that a series of small accidents can raise a contractor’s insurance rates more than a single major accident involving a worker being severely injured or killed.

And any pattern of injuries will impact insurance rates, which increase the costs of doing business.

For local contractors, the thought of having an employee injured or maimed on the job is one thing they hope they never have to face. However, workers who did get injured may seek the services of personal injury lawyers to help them protect their rights and interests. Hiring an expert personal injury lawyer can help you get the proper compensation you rightfully deserve.

“If you lose a guy, it is going to be a bad day,” Great Lakes Roofing Corp. president Donald Puccetti said, explaining why his workers have standing orders to vacate a roof at the first sign of lightning – despite property losses that could result from allowing rain to penetrate the unfinished roof. “My biggest fear factor is that I have to make that call to a wife or a sister or whoever is listed on the job application as the one to call in the event of an emergency. I will do anything to avoid making that call.”

Pucetti and his 40-plus-employee Germantown firm do quite a bit to avoid that scenario. With safety director Mark Bartolutti, Puccetti drills workers regularly on the safety basics that prevent employees from falls, electrocutions and other hazards of the trade.
The company holds safety meetings every Monday morning – a significant investment in man hours for a small firm. All employees are tested for drugs prior to employment and after accidents – as well as randomly.

Pucetti and Bartolutti also hold surprise inspections at job sites. If the safety essentials are all in place – hard hats, ladders secured at both top and bottom, fire extinguishers at the ready, fall-prevention barricades and waste chutes property set up – incentives are doled out to the workers.

But most of the responsibility for safety falls on the workers themselves, and Puccetti insists it has to be that way.

Great Lakes employees are encouraged to learn to spot safe and unsafe job sites. Each employee has access to a digital camera to photograph dangerous sites they see in the field, so the images can be reviewed at the Monday meetings.

“I figure if a guy can spot five things wrong with a job site while he is driving by at 55 mph, he should be able to manage a safe site at the job,” Pucetti said.

The philosophy seems to be working. Bartolutti tells the story of a new employee calling a worker who was in the process of climbing onto a roof with soda for the crew on a 90-degree day – for not wearing a hardhat.

That employee was Puccetti, who immediately complied.
“An employee has to be confident enough to do that: tell the president to put on a hard hat,” Puccetti said. “They have to be able to look at their environment and feel like it is safe. Because if they don’t, working on that roof will be the last thing on their mind.”
Great Lakes and many other contractors publicize safety awards they have won to position themselves as responsible companies and perhaps to stress their attention to detail and potential for lower cost.
Most recently, Great Lakes landed the Wisconsin Corporate Safety Award from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
However, awards on the wall do not replace vigilance in the field. And no amount of care is likely to prevent all accidents. After eight accident-free years, Great Lakes broke its winning streak when a staff member cut his hand while working in the shop.
The hazards faced by contractors – even those with substantive safety programs – can be more severe than a lacerated hand.
Just ask Steve Klomsten, president of Advanced Sewer & Water in New Berlin. Less than two months after his company won a safety award from the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association, one of Klomsten’s employees was severely injured on the job. The veteran employee was laying sewer pipe in a 6-foot trench on Milwaukee’s south side when a backhoe bucket full of gravel broke free and pinned him.
Like Puccetti, Klomsten said the emotional impact of an employee accident is traumatic for a contractor.
“It is very hard for any of your employees to ever get hurt,” Klomsten said. “Our goal in this business is that safety is their top priority. That is why we do stress safety and why we use an outside safety consultant.”
While the employee is recovering, Klomsten’s angst over the ordeal is only beginning to heal.
“He is an employee that has been with the company since we started,” Klomsten said. “Anytime you know somebody personally, it is difficult. But any employee that is in an accident, you do take it very hard.”
Safety is becoming even more important as insurers are becoming more willing to walk away from clients who have had a consistent pattern of accidents.
As recently as last August, Advanced Sewer & Water received an Occupational Safety and Health Administration fine for violating safety training and education requirements.
“The market is hard for insurance right now,” Klomsten said. “Advanced Sewer and Water uses an independent safety contractor to do our safety. We won awards in 1999 and 2001, so they are doing their job. We do train all our employees and continually train them.”
However, a small, 20-employee contractor such as Klomsten has a more difficult time devoting substantial resources to safety than a larger subcontractor or a general contractor. Smaller contractors are having more difficulty finding insurance.
According to Tom Gold, risk management consultant with the T.E. Brennan Company, Milwaukee, contractors with a checkered history when it comes to safety might not even be able to get worker’s compensation insurance.
“It might not be available,” Gold said. “The insurance companies allege they are getting killed. Construction companies that are cavalier with regard to safety are going to be in hot water. The adverse losses contribute to higher rates in the code classifications. Combine that with higher experience modification rates, and that means that coverage, when you can get it, will be expensive.”
Frequency is the main stumbling block, as experience modification rates are set by analyzing accidents over a three-year period, with the exception of the most recent year, according to Terry Gill, an underwriter with Sheboygan-based insurer Acuity.
“Frequency of claims weighs heavier than the severity of claims,” Gill said.
The pattern of insurance companies walking away from problem clients is leading to some changes in the market, as smaller insurance carriers are picking up accounts jettisoned by competitors, according to Gold.
“There are always the wanna-be insurers,” Gold said. “Now that some companies are getting tighter, they may be a little more lax.”
Acuity may be on the receiving end of this trend, according to Gill.
“Worker’s compensation is a growth market for us right now,” Gill said.

Aug. 16, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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