Turn Safety Failure into Success: Schlouch Inc's Tips for Building a Sustainable Safety Culture

Construction Safety TrainingConstruction is a risky work environment. An accident on a construction site has the potential to seriously injure or kill one or more individuals. And, it can delay schedules, result in fines or legal action, decrease employee morale and retention, tarnish your company’s reputation, and make it more challenging to secure future work.

“Nobody wants accidents to happen but not everyone is ready to do the work to avoid them,” says Don Swasing, CEM - STSC, Chief Operating Officer of Schlouch Inc.

Schlouch Inc. is a heavy civil contractor based in Blandon, Pennsylvania. In business over 38 years, Schlouch employs 285 people and has 225 pieces of heavy equipment. Schlouch’s reputation is one of excellence in worksite safety, employee recruitment, growth and retention, as well as project management and fleet management. The majority of Schlouch’s business comes from repeat clients who trust Schlouch to provide solutions, perform at the highest standards, work safely and act with integrity. Schlouch is an active member of the AEMP and employs four certified equipment managers. 

The best way to avoid accidents and unsafe practices is to create a sustainable safety culture.

Swasing outlines five key elements to creating a sustainable safety culture.

  • Admit your failures
  • Call in the experts
  • Take ownership
  • Walk the talk
  • Reward good behavior

Admit your failures

Every accident is a failure. It is either a failure of the individual, the safety policies (or lack thereof), the training (or lack thereof), the directions or expectations of leadership, or a combination of these.

“We view workplace accidents as a failure,” says Swasing. “In 2014, one of our employees rolled a machine. It was our nineteenth documented rollover in company history. In order to stop rollovers from happening, we had to admit that we are allowing this to happen. We had just accepted rollovers as part of the job and were complacent about it, so we had to admit the problem before we could change.”

“So, we collectively decided enough was enough,” says Steve Funk, general superintendent, Schlouch Inc. “We decided to stop machine roll overs. We started by putting that out there. We brought everyone together—60-70 people; we challenged them with our idea. Do we really want the status quo? At the end of the day, the answer was no. That incident became a journey that took three years before we created a stable safety culture.”

Call in the experts

Once you have a desire to change, you have to equip yourself with the knowledge needed to create a sustainable safety culture.

Schlouch Inc. enrolled all their leadership in the OSHA 10, which is a 10-hour training program administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that teaches basic safety and health information to entry-level workers in construction.

Then, the company enrolled all leadership in the OSHA 30, which is a 30-hour training program. Additionally, thirteen people earned an STSC credential from the Board of Certified Safety Professionals.

“We are a high-performance team, so we look for the best of the best,” says Swasing. “We got coaches involved. Locally, we work with Jeff Spatz, a brilliant safety expert. He went through our metamorphosis with us. We also engaged resources from Caterpillar Safety Services, who are some of the best with construction safety coaching and safety culture improvement.

“Caterpillar’s Zach Knoop provided many good resources and introduced us to the idea of: Speak up, Listen Up. And the premise of it is really simple. If you see a safety issue on site, speak up. If you are that person’s supervisor or team member, you need to listen up,” says Funk.

Take ownership

“When I approach someone about a safety incident, I’m looking for ownership—not finger pointing,” says Swasing.

After the company went through their sustainable safety culture transformation, an operator tipped a machine. “We had considered the operator to be a bit of a cowboy,” says Swasing. “So, the first step was us owning that we could have done a little bit more with that operator before putting him in the field.”

Then the supervisors spoke with the operator about what he had learned, what he took away from the situation, and how he can avoid that result in the future. “In this case, we got ownership, so we committed to investing in him,” says Swasing.

Taking ownership also means taking leadership when it comes to your own personal safety.

At Schlouch Inc., everybody on a construction site participates in a daily huddle at the start of the day at which everyone is asked if they have any safety concerns.

“What is your safety concern for today? What is your safety concern regarding a particular item? At first, people were too shy to say anything,” says Funk. “Now, they’re no longer shy; they bring a lot of good points to the table. And we capture all that information. This helps employees own their safety.”

Walk the talk

Another important facet of safety is leading by example. “Walk the talk,” says Funk. “As a leader in the company, if I don’t walk the talk, those under me won’t buy into it. I make sure I’m in a huddle every day. I manage several construction sites, so I pick one and participate in it. The company owner also participates in a construction huddle once per week and listens to the concerns of the employees, so we have involvement from the top-down.”

“The frontline workers are the ones who are closest to the hazards,” says Swasing. “And they’re the key to improving safety. I acknowledge I’m not smarter than the people who are actually performing the work. At the end of the day, engaged employees will consistently bring safety solutions we would never have considered on our own.

“There’s always a big fat book with rules in it and it really doesn’t mean anything when you are on the front line picking up people with stretchers [after an accident],” says Funk.

Reward good behavior

One other key element to creating a sustainable safety culture is to reward good behavior. Change can’t be all stick and no carrot.

“I like to catch people doing it right, and I recognize them for it,” says Swasing. “If someone comes up with a safety protocol that we can leverage throughout the entire organization, we pick that person up and put them on our shoulders. People respond better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement.”

On-Demand Training for Your Team  

The session “Is Safety Really First?” presented by Don Swasing and Steve Funk of Schlouch Inc. is available as part of The Utility Expo’s new on-demand education. 50 on-demand education sessions are available and are included in an All Access or Deluxe Badge purchase. Tracks include Workforce Solutions, Business Best Practices, Jobsite Solutions and Safety. Participants will have access to materials for up to one year after the show.

For more information, visit https://www.theutilityexpo.com/visit/education.