Saturday, 01 April 2006 19:34

Safety Comes First at SM Electric

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"At SM Electric Co., Inc.," says Bill Hering, Corporate Safety Director, "our whole philosophy is that safety is the right thing to do for everyone. Safety issues are a top priority on every job. By the direction of our president, if there is an issue between safety and productivity, safety will win, period. No contest."
A certified IBEW electrician who began his career in the construction trade in 1966, Hering served as a journeyman, shop steward and foreman on numerous transmission and distribution projects for more than 20 years. That on-the-job experience, he notes, has served him well at SM Electric. Hering joined the Rahway, New Jersey-based company 17 years ago as a project manager and has been the company's Corporate Safety Director since 1989.
SM Electric Co. is a heavy electrical construction and utility contractor with more than 50 years of experience in the construction and maintenance of power generation projects that range from fairly small five-megawatt generating stations to industrial cogeneration plants large enough to power a city. The company also provides energy producing facility maintenance services and handles projects to renovate commercial and industrial buildings.
On projects large and small, the safety and health of SM Electric's 600 employees is the responsibility of Bill Hering. He also brings to bear on behalf of the company his experience as an EMT instructor and a member of the statewide faculty of the New Jersey Office of Emergency Medical Services and as a 35-year veteran of the Rahway, New Jersey Emergency Squad, which he still serves as president. Hering is also a certified utility safety administrator with the National Safety Council and a staff member at the U.S. Department of Labor's OSHA National Training Institute.
Recently, Bill Hering discussed the safety and health policies and practices in place under his direction at SM Electric with Incident Prevention.

What safety programs do you develop and implement for SM Electric work crews?
We have a very comprehensive corporate safety and health policy and a safety manual that covers a long list of topics. The first edition of the manual was developed in the late 1980s and it has been upgraded regularly. We also develop site-specific policies because our crews work in a wide array of facilities where we have to address regulations from different agencies, such as OSHA, and in some cases MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration). Increased project site safety awareness leads to fewer accidents, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics can cost an average of $35,000. Through our efforts we've saved $1.9 million in insurance premiums. Those are all reduced costs that we can eventually pass on to our customers.

What training programs do you have in place for SM Electric crews?
A recent development in that area is that contractors are sending employees to tagging and dispatch training school along with the utilities they serve. Working as a partner with utilities in this area is something that was traditionally above and beyond what a contractor would normally do, but with deregulation it's a whole new ball game.
In general, our safety staff masterminds and oversees training programs that exceed OSHA, ANSI, HAZMAT and federal regulations. We have certified instructors who conduct formal training programs covering personal and job site safety in low- and high-voltage regulations, confined space and above-ground work and hazardous materials handling, as well as specialized and personal protective equipment. We also have a mine safety and health training program for facilities that fall under MSHA compliance. In all cases, our goal is to motivate everyone to understand the importance of effective training. Getting SM Electric employees to embrace this process is a critical component in our success.

What processes do you follow to determine hazards and develop safety practices and program needs for each job site?
When SM Electric receives a contract for a new project we have a kickoff meeting involving the managers of as many as seven different departments within the company. We're each responsible directly to the president and CEO and it's my role to explain how we will approach each project from a safety and health perspective. In most cases, we assign one of our ten safety professionals to determine each job's safety needs and prepare an overall hazard analysis. We then issue a site-specific plan based on the needs of each project. Recently, those plans have also included security issues such as background checks because at sites covered by homeland security regulations the role of safety has expanded.

Are you involved in the purchasing decisions for vehicles, tools and personal protective equipment for work crews? What input can and do you have in this area and why is it important to get involved?
We have input into those purchasing decisions if they are related to safety, such as helping review PPE standard operating procedures prior to a purchase. We also get involved when the company is estimating a job to determine how much to include per day for equipment. We may be involved as well if there is a need for specialized equipment on a particular project. While our project managers have a very good idea of what's needed, at any time any SM Electric employee can call me directly if they don't think they're getting the equipment they need.

How closely do you work with insurance carriers and medical professionals when dealing with safety-related claims? Why is this important?
We work very closely with our insurance carriers to manage risk more effectively, especially the New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company with which SM Electric has done business since 1947. We also have working relationships with medical professionals who specialize in treating occupational injuries. Our first priority is always to take care of the injured employee. What we've found, however, is that occupational medical specialists not only provide excellent and appropriate care, but also understand the employers need to maintain control of workers' compensation cases and protect the integrity of our reporting process. Extremely close working relationships with insurers and occupational medicine professionals help us manage risk more effectively and get injured employees the best possible care.

How do you measure safety performance? How can safety professionals benchmark progress in improving safety records?
An annual benchmark can include accident reports, near misses and corrective actions. We can also look at statistics like the Experience Modification Rating (EMR) of the Compensation Rating and Insurance Bureau (CRIB). Our EMR at SM Electric, based on one million working hours per year, was down to 0.479 for fiscal year 2006. That puts us in the top five among construction contractors in New Jersey, and we expect our rating to improve next year to 0.400 or even as low as 0.390. The average contractor's rating, by contrast, is about 0.840, so SM Electric's performance is half that figure.
We also look at accident reports quarterly for trends in injuries and red flags in any area of safety, along with working closely with all of our workers' compensation carriers and owner-controlled insurance programs. With that information we can look at our training, tools and processes and get problems under control immediately. Bench-marking leads to improvements in safety performance by helping us analyze hazards and exposure in daily operations. We can then work to plan project safety more effectively, determine and meet training and equipment needs, monitor progress and manage claims proactively. In the end, for any utility safety professional, safety is about the cooperation and commitment of everyone. ip

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