Safe as houses
For the owners of small construction companies, navigating Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations, establishing employee health and safety policies, and training employees to adhere to them can be overwhelming.
A Gresham-based nonprofit called SafeBuild Alliance can help. Founded in 2006, its mission is "the transformation of workplace cultures to achieve an incident-free construction industry." It serves as a resource for growing companies, works to increase communication among construction industry members and promotes diversity within its membership of more than 120 companies. It also strives to influence public policy and reduce program inefficiencies by creating common standards used for all members of the construction industry.
Among its programs, SafeBuild Alliance provides a mentorship program in which MWESB contractors are partnered with larger construction companies that have well-established health and safety programs. The mentorships are designed to be a year long, but many of the small business owners opt to extend the partnership for two or three years, said Karen Blythe, SafeBuild Alliance's executive director.
Mike Mann, vice president of operations for Portland Commercial Construction, said the mentorship program played a crucial role in helping the company develop and implement its health and safety program.
"Five members of our team successfully completed OSHA 30 training and, following an incident on one of our projects, OSHA determined that an onsite investigation was not necessary because all of our programs and policies were in place," Mann said.
Regular meetings give members a chance to network and share tips on how to improve employee health and safety. The organization hosts events during Safety Week each February. And SafeBuild Alliance receives grant funding from OSHA to support education campaigns. Last year's grant was focused on identifying best practices and compiling them into a publication that the SafeBuild Alliance posted on its website so contractors can use it to enhance their performance and efficiency.
This year's OSHA grant is helping SafeBuild Alliance increase awareness about mental health and suicide prevention within the industry. SafeBuild Alliance held two training sessions in late September in which Dan "DJ" Johnson, senior vice president of operations for Skanska, and Kelly and Julie True of General Sheet Metal led a panel discussion about the impact of mental health in the workplace and at home, and the importance of raising awareness and starting a conversation about mental wellbeing.
The panel discussion was followed by a QPR: Suicide Prevention training. QPR refers to Question-Persuade-Refer, a method that can be used to recognize the warning signs that someone may be thinking about suicide, offer hope and identify how to get help for the person. Attendees also received mental health and suicide prevention toolkits that included refrigerator magnets, wallet cards and hardhat stickers for employees.
"We believe in total wellness, and these aren't just people you work with eight hours a day. They have lives and they have things going on," Blythe said.
SafeBuild Alliance is considering offering more mental health and suicide prevention trainings in the future if members request it.
An annual golf tournament supports the SafeBuild Alliance Foundation, which has initiated a grant program to support organizations involved in safety innovation and education. One of its first grants went to the Constructing Hope Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program, which provides 256 hours of classroom and hands-on training during a 10-week program. When participants graduate, they receive help finding a job and are certified in OSHA 10 health and safety standards, flagging, operating a forklift, first aid and CPR, among other skills.
A second recent grant went to the St. Helens High School renovation and remodeling program, which used the money for fall protection equipment and safety training for students who are renovating a house and need to work on the roof. The program teaches students about home repair and remodeling as well as the home-buying process, the housing market and return on investment. In 2017, students completed their first remodeled home, which was then put on the market and sold soon afterward. Proceeds from the sale allowed district administrators to invest in the next property.
Blythe said professional development for young people is a high priority for SafeBuild Alliance and its foundation because there are not enough construction workers in Oregon to meet the demand. It's essential to increase the number of skilled tradespeople by promoting the myriad of job opportunities and good wages available while continuing to foster health and safety within the industry.
"One of the key concerns right now is how do we continue to grow and continue our safety culture when there is a massive amount of work right now?" she said. "We have workers coming here from outside of the state and they may not be trained in safety the same way, so how do we improve our safety culture when we have all of these outside forces?"
Blythe, who said SafeBuild Alliance recently initiated a Seattle chapter, noted that "safety culture" is about more than just compliance.
"Safety culture is how you consistently message and communicate to your employees that no work is so important that it can't be done safely," she said.