Building PA Podcast: Season 1 – Episode 4: Building a Safety Culture the Alexander Way

ABOUT THIS EPISODE: Since the KCA and its contractor members are renowned for safety excellence, we wanted to showcase safety with our podcast. Alexander Building Construction Company has a proud history especially when it comes to safety. Its founder, H.B. Alexander, was a pioneer in the area of construction safety and he was an active and early member of the Associated General Contractors of America’s Safety Committee in the 1950’s (two decades before OSHA was established and decades before construction companies placed safety as a priority.) Something tells me that Mr. Alexander would be proud of the work that its current safety director, Darren Rech, does to build a safety culture with the company. To hear the interview visit: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/safety-alexander-building-and-construction/id1506259467?i=1000470794135

Jon O’Brien (00:01):

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Building PA Podcast, a podcast for construction professionals living right here in the great state of Pennsylvania. I am one of your co-hosts, I’m Jon O’Brien from the Keystone Contractors Association and I’m joined by my other cohost.

Chris Martin:

Alright, this is Chris Martin with Atlas Marketing. We tell stories for people who build things.

Jon O’Brien:

We have an excellent episode today, you know we’ve touched on so many topics whether it’s on workforce development, legislation, construction contracts, but I think, well, when we talk about safety, nothing beats construction safety…and we have a Bonafede superstar in the area of safety, Darren Rech from Alexander Building Construction. Welcome Darren.

Darren Rech:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Chris Martin:

Yeah, so one thing when we started with this podcast is, you know, we wanted to make sure to touch on a lot of construction industry topics.

Chris Martiin (01:04):

And when it comes to safety, we have this series and reminding other contractors just to get their feedback and their comments related to building a safety culture. So, you know, welcome to the podcast. And let’s talk about building a safety culture. What do you say, Darren? You ready?

Darren Rech:

Sure. Yeah.

Jon O’Brien:

Do you have any comments for our crowd or audience?

Darren Rech:

Not necessarily. I guess. My experience in construction is over 12 years in various managerial roles and I actually have a safety science degree from IUP, so I actually went to school for safety. And you know, I’ve been doing it now for geez, almost 30 years. So in various industries.

Jon O’Brien:

And how long have you been at Alexander?

Darren Rech:

So it’ll be in June, it’ll be seven years with Alexander as a safety director. Okay, thank you. Yes, we cover State College and Harrisburg and the surrounding regions, you know, York, Lancaster Williamsport, if necessary, wherever the job is, that’s where I go.

Jon O’Brien (02:22):

Okay. So your corporate wide with Alexander, you’re the safety guru, correct?

Darren Rech:

That’s correct. My title is Safety Director. We have at Alexander, a project in Mechanicsburg, the Hampton medical center project. It’s a Penn State Health project and we have a site safety coordinator on that particular project in State College. We had a site safety coordinator on our Paterno library project. And since that project completed, we have her moving around to different jobs in that State College region. So sort of helps. And she does a lot of the site assessments and whatever’s needed on those particular projects in that region.

Jon O’Brien:

Well, that’s a good place to start. So let’s talk about the two people you were mentioning there. How do you build a safety culture within them? You know, how do you coach them?

Darren Rech (03:24):

Yeah so my approach personally is one of coaching and mentoring. I’m not necessarily a, there were days of safety cops if you will, back years ago. And in this day and age with the workforce and different types of people working, really the method to get through to people is through coaching and mentoring and really just having an opportunity to build alliances with these people and build a rapport and build relationships you know, rather than the old yelling method or throwing somebody off the job. So that’s sort of my approach with our two site safety coordinators and they’ve done a good job adapting to our industry, especially the building construction and have come a long way and just, you know, sending that message out to their folks on their particular projects and in our region as well.

Jon O’Brien:

So you get a sense and you see that the buy in is there, you know, the people, your two safety professionals buying into the safety culture.

Darren Rech (04:27):

Yes, absolutely. You know, we have owners and we have some important owners who, who really value safety. And so when we can provide a site safety coordinator, you know, on one project, that’s pretty rare. Usually it’s one person per company hitting, you know, multiple jobs and doing site assessments and, you know, compliance regulatory assessments, things like that. So when you have multiple people, you know, you can create more of a focus on safety and you can drill down a lot more and into the training incident investigation, site assessments, and, you know, just have a well rounded safety program.

Chris Martin (05:05):

Do you find that the employees outside of the safety department are embracing safety? I mean, I I’ve been working in construction for about 30 years, just like you. And it seems to be this. Everybody might not love everybody, but everybody knows it’s of importance. Everybody recognizes how vital it is to the job site, but do people really buy into that safety culture?

Darren Rech (05:36):

Yeah, that’s a great question. And in reality, you have buy-in at various levels. Certain individuals will buy into it more so than others. And I find also that certain project teams will buy into safety more so than others. They’ll support the safety approach. They’ll do the initiatives that we typically set out for on those particular project. So, you know, it’s constantly up and down and we push this buying on a constant basis. And again, it’s really a lot of chemistry between the project teams and you hope that you have a team that a few people are buying into it and at least take the lead on safety for that particular project, because the way we’re set up is just really the site safety supers. I’m sorry, the site superintendent is in charge of safety, ultimately, but we have project managers, we have project engineers and also carpenters working on these projects.

Darren Rech (06:41):

So our approach is really to encourage everybody to buy into safety and have a stake in the safety approach. If you see something step up and do something to fix it. So that’s really our method of safety and communication is if you see something, make sure you step up, it’s not just the superintendent’s job. So that’s really what we try to push here.

Chris Martin:

And to that point, what are some best practices that you’ve seen instituted or are looking to institute at Alexander as it relates to that buy in?

Darren Rech:

So typically some of the methods we’ve incorporated where just tool box talks, for instance to discuss a task with your teams performance, or a morning huddle to discuss what task you’re going to do that week and have a review of that task and sign off by each team member.

Darren Rech (07:44):

So everybody has buy in. We also do what’s called a job safety analysis and really what that entails is reviewing what the hazards are for the task you are about to complete. So “do you have the right equipment for the job?” “Has everyone understood what is needed?” “Does everyone understand the hazards?” And so as a team, you have different levels of experience. Some guy might be working for 30 plus years. You may have a guy who’s, you know, maybe less than a year in the industry. So there’s such a variety of experience. And really what we’re trying to do is between each team member just communicate what the hazards are that they see and make sure they understand how they’re going to approach that. And what did we do to eliminate or minimize the hazard? So the job safety analysis, and we call it the thing card is something that we really push.

Darren Rech (08:39):

And we want to make sure that we understand what tasks the hazards are before we jump into the tasks. So oftentimes when I do incident investigations, a lot of times the correct or the root cause was some something to the effect of, well, we just, you know, we did something stupid or we knew better. And so, you know, many times, if they would just think through the task and pause before doing something, then often you get a good positive result. So that’s what we constantly encourage is the JSA – job safety analysis. Another thing we do on a monthly basis, we typically have what’s called a site safety stand down, and we will have a huddle. And it entails a group of foreman carpenters. It could be a project managers and we all walk the site together and we look for observations with deficiencies and things that need corrected and also you know, just pointing out things of areas of improvement.

Darren Rech (09:47):

And it’s a real collaborative approach. No, one’s yelling at each other or finger pointing. So it’s real positive buy in from everybody. And we typically do that once a month and, you know, we would buy lunch, maybe it’s you know, grilling hot dogs or hamburgers on the grill and you stand around and talk safety for maybe an hour, hour and a half with everybody on the job site. And so the personnel working, they typically have a good feedback response to us and you know, it’s well received. So it’s been an effective way of promoting safety and thinking about what they’re doing before they jump into their tasks.

Jon O’Brien:

Would you say everyone on the job site? So you’re including subs, consultants, anyone that might be on the site?

Darren Rech:

Yeah, that’s correct. So at Alexander we’re a construction manager and we have mostly subcontractors on our project. So these walk throughs will be mostly subcontractors. Oftentimes the owner will jump in and join us, but primarily it’s Alexander and our subcontractors and the owner at certain times.

Jon O’Brien:

For the client, what’s the owner’s take on not only the walkthrough, but the culture of safety at Alexander?

Darren Rech (11:10):

Yeah. So, you know, more and more these days, we’re finding owners who really look at safety and the culture of safety within your company. What we have is in every company what’s called an experience modification rating, and it’s a number used by insurance companies to gauge both past costs, injuries, and risk, or chances of risk. So the lower, the EMR of your business, the lower your workers’ compensation insurance premiums will be. And so what we’re finding is a lot of owners are really looking at that number. So if you have an EMR, for instance, of 1.0, that’s considered the average. And so to mitigate the insurance risk, they raised the workers’ comp premiums when your EMR starts creeping up over 1.0, right? And so, you know, the bad news is the, as an EMR increases, it sticks with you for about three years.

Darren Rech (12:14):

So it doesn’t go away after say a year. And as I said, more and more clients are starting to look at that that particular number. And you know, I sort of use the analogy, if you have your auto insurance premium, you know, on your personal vehicle, then you get into maybe two or three accidents a year. You know, what happens with your premiums, they shoot up, right? So the same thing is the case for workers’ comp insurance. And again, a lot of companies, a lot of owners, clients are starting to look at that EMR a little closely when they do their due process for a particular project. So it’s a very important number.

Jon O’Brien (13:13):

I heard on a conference call recently a comment, from I think a General Contractor from New York City I believe, and he made the comment that these young professionals that are coming out of a school they have been born and raised to talk safety. Their entire lives safety’s all around them. They’re always thinking about everything around them, and the educational process is doing a great job of preaching safety. It’s the old timers on the job site, it’s the guys that have been there forever and they’re like, Oh, I’m just doing it this way and I’ve always done it that way, you know? So yeah I’d like to get your feedback on that comment.

Darren Rech:

Yeah. That’s you know, it’s interesting. And I mentioned earlier, my approach to safety is more coaching and mentoring. And, you know, as we grow older into this business of safety and in some of our industry experience and your dad’s move on, you know, I’m seeing a shifting culture from that mentality. These, you know, a lot of these guys are getting older and they’re starting to feel their aches and pains and things like that that are creeping up after years of working in the construction industry.

Darren Rech (14:13):

So, you know, they’re starting to appreciate safety a little bit more, which is interesting. So it makes our job a little easier because they’re open to safety, suggestions and ideas to make their job easier. So, you know, ironically, I’m hearing a little bit less of the, you know, this is the way I’ve done it for 30 years now approach. So it’s been good and it’s been refreshing. And I think the culture of the industry starting to shift a little bit more towards that, you know, let’s do something safely and, and easier so we can, you know, go home safer.

Jon O’Brien:

Absolutely. And are you saying that too, amongst the younger professionals, their safety conscience too?

Darren Rech (15:16):

Yeah, it’s interesting. A lot of the folks coming out of the union halls and just entering industry in general you know, carpenters, electricians, plumbers laborers, most of these folks have the OSHA 30 hour training or the OSHA 10 hour training at least. So it’s been a good training for these folks. And, you know, I noticed on some of our projects that the owner will actually require that anyone working must be trained by a licensed OSHA 30 hour trainer, as well as maybe the labor has the OSHA 10 hour training. So there’s certainly a requirement from owners that a certain level of safety, the training is completed. And so that’s been a great plus as well, as far as culture and maintaining the safe culture.

Jon O’Brien:

I think it was maybe a year or two ago, you approached me, Dan, you approached me and mentioned a topic I’d never heard of before – Prevention Through Design. Is that still active on your radar? And if so is it a needed process during construction. And do you wanna explain what that is first of all?

Darren Rech (16:17):

Sure. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Prevention Through Design is you know, it’s a concept that’s been around for years and it has a little bit of a change in name, but ultimately what the concept fundamentally is one that you think of safety. You know, I’ll take building construction, for instance. You think of safety during the design of the building throughout the construction of the building, as well as the life cycle, after we’ve finished the building and the end user comes into occupy this building. We think of safety all through it from cradle to grave, basically. So, you know, we obviously want to work safely while we’re building it, but when we give up the project and the building is complete, and we turn it over to the owner who has folks who need to work daily in this building, or you know, different types of maintenance folks, they have to maintain this building and how do they do it in a safe manner?

Darren Rech (17:21):

So Prevention Through Design is really a concept of, you know, making sure that gauges, switches, light pictures and anything that must be maintained can be maintained in a safe manner. So the elimination of ladders, you know, maybe it’s a light the community lowered, so the bulb can be changed or maintained. And so, you know, the concept of just minimizing the risk is really what PTD is. And we continue to push that on all of our projects and we do it in different levels. It depends what the owners buy in from a safety standpoint and what they’re willing to spend with the design phase. So it varies in different degrees. You know, PTD is typically on one of our projects, but you know, we certainly continue to push it as a company and the certain requirements. So kind of in a nutshell, that’s what PTD is.

Jon O’Brien:

So it varies depending on who the owner is?

Darren Rech (18:34):

Yeah, varies, I guess of what it could involve. The occupants would be involved in the Prevention Through Design process and kind of let their opinions weigh in. Got some, right. Yeah, yeah. Really it’s driven by the owner. So the owner may say if, for instance, if the owner hires the architect, they, as well as the engineers, they really push the architects and engineers to design a building that’s safe, you know, for instance, a parapet wall should be at 39 inches. And of course there’s a cost to that. But if the owner is pushing the architect to design that building, regardless of cost, you know, you may have typically a 12 inch parapet wall on a rooftop. So if you can raise it to 39 inches, the folks who need to get out on that roof and maintain equipment and things like that can do so without fall protection, because you already have that parapet wall at the required height. So that’s an example of PTD and how the owner can certainly push it down the community to the architect and engineer, so to design it to be a safe building.

Chris Martin (19:44):

That’s a really interesting concept. I know when I worked for a contractor out in the central part of the state where your headquarters are, nothing against that company, but that just wasn’t happening at the time and that wasn’t a thought of how to you know, it was just, here are your keys, we’re onto the next project. And literally pulling together the ability to think beyond that is a heck of a great service for your customers. And as well as the people that are going to ultimately work in there beyond just the building and the trades and the other folks. So kudos to you guys for that.

Darren Rech (20:27):

Yeah. And that’s a great point too, cause I think really that that’s a key part of safety culture. And within Alexander, we have executive leadership who pushes safety. We have a parent company based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and, you know that’s our parent company. And from our parent company down to Alexander’s executive leadership throughout, we have multiple safety directors. And so, you know, they’re really encouraging to know that they’re pushing safety and they make our life easier when, you know, they expect safe work projects and people were considerably. So, and they typically give us the resources as safety directors to do our job and, and do what’s needed to keep working safely. So, you know, really it did call it true from an Alexander standpoint.

Jon O’Brien:

That’s good. I’m guessing along that process too, there’s some good best practice sharing between your businesses and the safety professionals.

Darren Rech (21:35):

Yeah, yeah, that’s correct. And you know, in fact, we’re having a safety director meeting next Tuesday and the safety directors from each region basically get together. We typically do try to do one on a quarterly basis or at least, you know, twice a year. And we talk about best practices, what each region is doing for safety, sharing ideas and just really a good general discussion on safety on you know, where resources are needed and how we can do a better job and improve our project safety. It’s a great opportunity. And I, and again, it goes back to our executive leadership, you know, enabling us to do that and providing resources of your time away from projects and working on these ideas and concepts and making sure we can share these ideas.

Chris Martin:

It definitely starts at the top. Doesn’t it?

Darren Rech (22:33):

Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. There’s no question that’s you know, if you don’t have good leadership in place who focuses on safety it makes it really difficult for everyone you know, working down to work safely and to really buy into it. So certainly starts at the top.

Chris Martin:

Well, that’s something we want to do also with this Building PA Podcast, do a lot of best practice sharing. We want to give good stories, good answers, hopefully something in there, some company or some construction professional heard something that the light bulb went on. And, Oh, that’s a great idea. You know, we should try that. So we’re constantly want to drive home safety on this podcast. And safety these days is not something that is sort of copied, right. You know, in the past, people wanted to keep their ideas, you know, because they were their ideas.

Darren Rech (23:31):

And nowadays I see a lot more sharing of ideas with safety to promote safety just between different directors and you know, safety professionals everybody’s willing to share their ideas or, you know, help each other out. And that certainly goes a long way with a more safety. And, you know, especially in the construction industry, it’s a pretty tight knit industry. So when you have different professionals helping each other, you know, helps us individually. And that certainly happens. And you know, at least with Alexander and a lot of the subcontractors that we work with, that’s it professional. So, so yeah, it’s really helpful. And you know, again, it’s about building, building a relationships and, and trust between each other.

Chris Martin (24:24):

Well, Darren, thank you for taking time to talk safety with us. I know we’d love to have you come back on and we can continue to have this conversation on safety. We can reach out to you in the future and have you back on the Building PA Podcast. That would be fantastic. Thank you. Brought a lot of great insight and best practices clearly from the Alexander Company. So thank you for that and thanks for your time.

Jon O’Brien (24:53):

Yeah. Thanks, Darren.

Darren Rech:

Absolutely. Thanks for having me guys have a good day. Thank you, you too.

Author: buildingpa

I am the proud father of three amazing daughters and I'm married to an awesome lady. When I'm not hanging with the family, I'm the executive director for the Keystone Contractors Association.

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