A constructive collaboration
Five companies that typically compete for construction contracts decided to collaborate this week on Virginia Tech’s campus.
Gilbane, Barton Malow, Skanska, Holder and Whiting-Turner, which are all working on various projects around campus, pooled knowledge and resources in collaboration with Tech’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction and Tech’s Occupational Safety and Health Research Center during last week’s Contractor Safety Week.
Each company hosted a different activity on its job site each day, as well as a panel discussion Thursday afternoon. The week focused on various safety practices on commercial construction job sites.
Thursday’s panel featured a speaker from each company: Don Spurrier, a senior superintendent in the mid-Atlantic from Whiting-Turner; Melanie Parks, Skanska’s environmental health and safety director for Virginia and the Carolinas; Bob Hinderliter, a regional safety manager at Gilbane; Mark Klimbal, Barton Malow’s corporate safety director; and Jorge Cisneros, Holder’s corporate safety director.
Ted Daniels, the project executive for Gilbane and the moderator of Thursday’s panel, said his company had been doing similar safety weeks with its employees for several years and thought it might be beneficial to extend the focus on safety to include other companies around campus, as well.
“We are competitors,” Daniels said during Thursday’s panel. “I’ve lost jobs to everyone on this table; they’ve lost jobs to Gilbane. We have one thing in common: We all care about providing a safe job site to people who work at our jobs.”
Daniels said one reason the inter-company exchange of knowledge was important is because most companies have different standards and regulations, so workers who move from one company to another might have a learning curve to get over.
Daniels said Gilbane has about 200 workers at its site, the Signature Engineering Building that is being built at the intersection of Prices Fork Road and Stanger Street. He estimated that between the five companies, there could be anywhere between 500 and 1,000 workers per day working on various projects.
Barton Malow’s project is the renovation of Davidson Hall, at the intersection of West Campus and Drillfield drives. Skanska’s project is on Duck Pond Drive. Holder’s job site is the new Center for the Arts building on Alumni Mall, while Whiting-Turner is working on the Southwest Chiller Plant.
Each company held a demonstration of different safety programs practiced on their job sites at Tech.
For example, on Wednesday morning at the Skanska job site, workers demonstrated their daily program called “Stretch and Flex,” which is designed to give workers a chance to limber up their bodies before going to work.
Parks said that since Stretch and Flex was implemented in 2005, the company has seen a significant decrease in the number of soft-tissue injuries, like strained back or shoulder muscles, in workers.
Parks said implementing new programs like Stretch and Flex at a major commercial construction company was all about changing cultures.
“Ten years ago, safety glasses, vests and gloves were a battle. We were then trying to get people to wear long pants and long sleeves. Stretching programs were unheard of,” she said.
Parks said her company, Skanska, as well as many other commercial construction companies, has progressed partially because new research has become available about safety.
Another issue addressed was language barriers. Many workers are Spanish-speaking, especially at construction jobs farther south of Virginia.
Cisneros said many Spanish-speaking immigrant workers are not used to having rights to injury treatment.
Additionally, he noted immigrant workers may be used to taking risks.
“You have to change that mentality and say you have rights to report accidents and unsafe conditions,” he said.“Once you explain their rights they’ll feel more confident and you’ll get more results.”
Parks said the industry as a whole is becoming more professional. Many commercial construction workers now hold undergraduate degrees.
Many students were present and listening during Thursday’s panel discussion. Parks said safety instruction can often be a small part of a construction school’s curriculum, but it’s important on the job.
Daniel Hindman, a professor at Tech’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction, attended the panel with several of his graduate students.
“I’m always looking for real-world opportunities for them to compare to what they’re learning in the classroom and see how those are the same and different,” Hindman said.
Hindman’s own field of research focuses on construction safety.
“We take safety seriously, and we want to make safety a bigger part of instruction,” he said.
Hinderliter and other presenters gave recommendations to the undergraduate students studying construction in Thursday’s audience.
“Take as many communication, conflict resolution and interpersonal communication classes as you can take,” Hinderliter said. “The biggest problem we have is speaking up. If you think it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t right.”
While safety on commercial job sites cannot be guaranteed because of the changing nature of the work, Thursday’s presenters agreed their companies are working toward increasingly safe workplaces.
“Ultimately, it’s a journey to zero,” Parks said. “We believe all accidents are preventable. Our goal for our workers is that they leave work feeling better than they did when they came to work.”
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