Safety NewsWorkforce Weekly

Back to the Future

Written by: J. D. Slaughter, P.E., Vice President at S&B Engineers and Constructors

Is safety number one? Our industry’s safety record has been improving since OSHA was formed and really got into gear in the 80’s when the industrial owners collectively demanded both process and construction safety become our top priority. The owner’s drive to demand safety was foundational to the success we have achieved, but recordable incident rates have started to plateau. Worse, severity of injury and even fatality rates have been getting worse. Why is this happening? I suggest it is directly related to industry executives’ loss of focus on project execution.

To quote Milton Friedman, “To really understand something, you’ve got to reduce it to its principles.” I had the opportunity a few years ago to see Paul Logan, Director of Projects at Eli Lilly, give a presentation on safety. His ire was pointed toward owners’ hyper-focus on incident rates and proposed that incident rate is simply the product of at-risk behaviors and bad luck. A poorly executed project can still achieve zero injuries if you have good luck. Likewise, a well-executed project can have a poor safety record if bad luck strikes during the few at-risk behaviors that do occur. Simply stated, he was more interested in a company’s culture, especially with respect to how they mitigate at-risk behaviors, than their corporate safety statistics.

So, what are the causes of at-risk behaviors? Given most injuries occur within our construction crews, are our craft professionals just risk takers by nature? Do they consistently “lose focus”, putting themselves in harm’s way? Are they simply not as good as they used to be, as some old timers may say.
We have found that over 70% of our safety incidents occur during re-work, unplanned work or out-of-sequence work. This shouldn’t be surprising. Think of all the inputs to a construction crew: engineered drawings, engineered equipment, materials, integrated engineering, and construction schedule milestones, construction tools and equipment, construction consumables, workface plans and sequencing, site amenities/temporary facilities, safety training, craft skills training, leadership and so on. As a pipe crew gathers in the morning to go over a safety moment, review the day’s work and sign their JSA, think of all the work that has been done over many months in support of that day’s effort. From the first concept of the project, to supply contracting within the owner’s business development organization, to the early scope development and front-end phase of engineering, to eventual major procurement and detailed engineering, thousands of hours, many months or even years of effort and millions or even billions of dollars have been spent leading up to this crew’s morning toolbox meeting.

And yet, this is often where the risk begins for the members of the crew. Maybe the pipe they will install will not fit due to late engineering changes or fabrication errors. Maybe the miscellaneous pipe supports are late, but they are told to hang the pipe anyway with chain falls. Maybe every two hours they are asked to move, yet again, to an alternate work package and start the STA process over again, because the “just in time” deliveries aren’t close to being just in time. Then, during this frustrating day on this mess of a project, a young helper gets his finger pinched between a column and a swing-check he was removing from a completed package (due to a late-arriving specification revision), ending up with a fractured finger. Invariably, the latest forensic backward-pass cause-map tool will show a large and full executive conference room that this young helper simply stuck his or her hand in the wrong place. A flurry of a hand injury and line-of-fire awareness communication will commence and the young pipe helper, once healed, will be thrown back into the fray. All the while the executives shake their heads and lament the degradation of US craft skills over the decades.

Does this seem far-fetched? According to a presentation at CURT’s 2015 Conference by IPA’s Ed Merrow, projects are failing at a rate of almost 40%, increasing to 65% or for mega-projects. I’m pretty sure this is a global number and believe the statistics for the US are much worse. This means the above scenario is common and an embarrassment for our industry. It is also, in my opinion, the reason for the stagnation of our momentum in safety. The penalties of poor planning and unrealistic decision-making in the front half of these projects are filtering down to our crews in the field, where the fines are often paid with blood and broken bones. In short, we’ve gone as far as we can with slips, trips, and falls and must refocus on simply doing projects well.

So, why are these projects failing so frequently? In the late 1970’s the Gulf Coast saw an industrial boom with huge project cost overruns, productivity problems, etc. In response, the Construction Industry Institute was formed; and over the years, owner and contractor members have developed a treasure-trove of project best practices. Total Quality Management became a buzzword in the 80’s. Continuous improvement was key, and corporate quality improvement teams were formed. Computers also arrived at the scene allowing all of us to replace manual data manipulation and analysis with better speed, efficiency, and reduced errors. We all invested in project execution systems, 3D CAD, procurement, and material management tools, etc.
But a trend in the late 80’s and 90’s took the air out of our improvement sails and began the commoditization of our service industry. The competitive global market required our owners to grow leaner. Many outsourced their internal engineering and development to contractors, decoupling their business managers from the early development and definition of projects. Also, our owners turned to a strong-armed and autonomous procurement strategy to squeeze out cost from projects. This one-two punch effectively placed the critical process of early project development and definition behind the impenetrable veil of a global procurement strategy. Engineering deliverables and their sequencing were limited to what would win the bid, not what construction needed to execute efficiently and with certainty. Engineering, therefore, would be executed to benefit the engineering firm and its commercial needs and not the overall value t

Engineering deliverables and their sequencing were limited to what would win the bid, not what construction needed to execute efficiently and with certainty. Engineering, therefore, would be executed to benefit the engineering firm and its commercial needs and not the overall value to the project. Same thing with project procurement. Remember reverse-auction anyone? That fabricated pipe may be way late, delivered in the wrong sequence and be of poor quality, but at least it was cheap initially on paper. It is not surprising, therefore, that CII reports Best Practice utilization is ridiculously low. PDRI? Alignment? They are deemed too time-consuming, expensive and/or unnecessary, or, worst of all, the project knows it is going forward regardless so why waste time. Therefore, a project’s destiny is already written in stone before the construction contractor is allowed to bid on the project. Constructability? Often “done” by the winning Engineering bid, which means it either isn’t done at all or done to minimize engineering disruption. Craft Training? That’d been squeezed out long, long ago.

Engineering deliverables and their sequencing were limited to what would win the bid, not what construction needed to execute efficiently and with certainty. Engineering, therefore, would be executed to benefit the engineering firm and its commercial needs and not the overall value to the project. Same thing with project procurement. Remember reverse-auction anyone? That fabricated pipe may be way late, delivered in the wrong sequence and be of poor quality, but at least it was cheap initially on paper. It is not surprising, therefore, that CII reports Best Practice utilization is ridiculously low. PDRI? Alignment? They are deemed too time-consuming, expensive and/or unnecessary, or, worst of all, the project knows it is going forward regardless so why waste time. Therefore, a project’s destiny is already written in stone before the construction contractor is allowed to bid on the project. Constructability? Often “done” by the winning Engineering bid, which means it either isn’t done at all or done to minimize engineering disruption. Craft Training? That’d been squeezed out long, long ago.

So, how do we turn this around? The industry needs to focus on improving overall project execution, and by “project” I mean from business case to start-up. Go back to the practices that have been developed over the past 35 years and stubbornly implement them on your projects. To quote my father, Jimmy Slaughter, “We don’t need new project execution processes, we need to first learn how to use the ones we have.” Do not compromise on excellence in early project development and planning, quality construction-focused engineering or whole-project procurement practices. Allow construction to get involved in planning early in FEED. Restart continuous improvement efforts; I’m sure you can find an old Total Quality Management folder somewhere.

Be honest enough to tell yourself or your customer when a bad bid package is exactly that. Owners, build relationships with contractors who perform and can be trusted. Contractors, do the same with owners. I know this is a difficult thing to consider, especially in a competitive market. Publicly traded EPC firms live and die by backlog and associated investor confidence, so the Owner must take a closer look at the carrot they’re hanging from the stick. Maybe industry executives see this course correction as a huge financial risk, but we’re already seeing these risks realized based on the aforementioned statistics from Mr. Merrow. What’s more, put on your hard hat and steel toes and go out to some of these terrible projects to see where the real risk is found. This industry has hurt enough people. It’s time to reverse the trend

What’s more, put on your hard hat and steel toes and go out to some of these terrible projects to see where the real risk is found. This industry has hurt enough people. It’s time to reverse the trend on severe injuries and fatalities and finally get that last little bit left on the TRIR curve. Excellence in project execution is the way to achieve it. There needs to be an awakening.

 

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James D. (J. D.) Slaughter, PE is the grandson of S & B Engineers and Constructors, Ltd. co-founder James G. Slaughter, Sr. He is currently serving as Vice President – Construction for S&B, with responsibilities that include strategic planning, operations, and systems improvement, and marketing. A degreed Chemical Engineer from Texas A&M University, he has held positions in Process Engineering, Project Engineering, Project Management, Construction Engineering and Project Execution Tools Automation during his 20-year career. He serves as co-chair of the Construction Sector Council for the Greater Houston Partnership’s Upskill Houston initiative. He also serves on the Advisory Council of the Chemical Engineering Department at Texas A&M University and is Vice-Chair of Associate Members for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM). Outside of the industry he and his wife Angie serve on the National Leadership Council of World Vision USA and are active with many other charitable organizations. J. D. and his wife live in Houston with five children.

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