By Dan Fulton. Weyerhaeuser's primary forest products business includes logging and production facilities for wood products: pulp, paper, and packaging. These dangerous work environments require strict adherence to safety. This emphasis on jobsite behavior has naturally been extended to our home building business.

Initially, orienting the home building business to new levels of safety was a great undertaking. Managers simply viewed themselves as "general contractors" and didn't envision how they could control a work environment dominated by subcontractors. There was a need for cultural change, and it had to start at the top. After much dialogue regarding higher performance standards and better contracting processes, among other things, changes began to occur at our work sites. We've had to become more methodical and rethink how we manage safety from a contracting perspective.

Over the past 10 years, we have been able to measure our efforts, and as our focus on safety has intensified, we have realized a significant reduction in workplace incidents. We delivered nearly 3,700 homes in 2001 and had 21 recordable incidents. In OSHA's terms, these are injuries that require medical treatment beyond first aid. Measured by incidents per 200,000 employee hours, our rate was under two. Our Trendmaker operation had zero recordable incidents, and has had a 10-year average of 0.5. This year our overall company goal is 1.4, a significant improvement from our 1994 recordable incidents ratio of 7.42, and within striking distance of our long-term goal of less than one.

Although our safety statistics focus on measuring our own employees--from more dangerous jobsites to sales offices where relatively few incidents occur--we have over the past three years studied subcontractors as well. This requires a different discipline because we do not have access to their hours worked. But it is essential because our greatest risks are in the field, where we see serious falls, cuts, broken bones, and nail gun injuries. Subcontractors are beginning to understand the cost to their business since we began collecting this data.

Reducing spills

Lowering jobsite injuries requires education, good supervision, and strong leadership. We strive for a higher level of awareness and higher standards in our operations. Each of our home building units has a safety coordinator responsible for getting out to the sites and helping contractors understand and comply with the safety standards they agreed to in their contracts.

In addition, our larger units have safety directors who provide training. We highlight safety in all company reports and ensure that jobsite signage is written in several languages.

Ensuring compliance on personal protective equipment is a matter of applying the same rules for everyone and sending a consistent message. We expect every trade to wear a hard hat. When questions came up asking about the carpet layers and the cabinet installers, we adopted a 'curb to curb' hard hat policy. This took policy interpretation out of the field. Fall protection, a big issue for all builders, was addressed in some locations by focusing on better compliance with scaffolding standards and in others by installing roof hooks for tying off. These roof hooks, incidentally, become a long-term benefit to homeowners.

Trades buy-in

Subcontractors' receptivity to our safety standards varies by market and with their perceived need of our business. Those trades that value safety for their own employees appreciate a tightly run safety program on the jobsite because it reinforces their own practices. Of course, they want to reduce their workers' comp claims as well, so they are beginning to see the value of our emphasis on safety.

Over time, we have seen an increased level of professionalism among larger trade contractors. This is due in large part to partnering with them and has led to training and workflow improvements. Simple processes such as maintaining clean work sites are now seen an investment in both safety and a higher quality product.

In addition to regular safety inspections, we do an annual safety audit of all our operations. Each operating unit's audit scores, safety record, and overall safety leadership are included in our managers' performance evaluations. All senior managers conduct a personal jobsite safety inspection every quarter, using a checklist we've developed.

Premium savings

A direct result of improved safety is lower insurance premiums. All of us have seen a dramatic rise in insurance rates following last year's Sept. 11 incidents, and in some cases, insurance may not even be available to our subcontractors. Insurance companies now do jobsite safety inspections. Soon they'll be better prepared to compare practices across the industry.

As the number of large production builders increases through consolidation, they have more to gain if they can save on insurance costs. We hope to see some of these gains through our wrap-up insurance programs where we provide coverage for everyone on the jobsite.

We've been doing this for several years at Pardee Homes, and we'll be extending the program this year to Winchester Homes, in Virginia. Although it means a big start-up curve, the program does give builders better control of the jobsite and reduces costs over time. When an incident occurs, you don't have five different carriers pointing fingers at one another.

Photo: Courtesy Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co.

Dan Fulton is president and CEO of Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. in Federal Way, Wash. Weyerhaeuser Real Estate is comprised of four home building units (Pardee Homes, Winchester Homes, Trendmaker Homes, and Quadrant Corp.), and Weyerhaeuser Realty Investors. We see the wrap-up program as a major competitive advantage. The public financial markets have been pushing toward more professionalism among the public builders. Safety performance is one more area that will be examined by builders seeking to differentiate themselves as they compete for capital. Finally, an increased emphasis on safety by builders will lead to closer scrutiny of process and workflow. This will more than likely lead to greater use of engineered framing systems, including more off-site fabrication of components. Less work on the jobsites will save time and materials, and, in many cases, create a safer work environment.

If our experience is a measure, it takes years to get really good at this. Initially, there are some aspects that slow down production. Insisting that a subcontractor not lock off the safety on a piece of equipment in order to work faster will compete with the pressure to get the job done. Additionally, the building trades are an independent, macho group that have a tendency to make fun of safety protocols.

Nevertheless, our workers and their families appreciate our commitment to send them home at night after a safe day on the job, and longer term, builders that value safety will recognize both a cost savings and a competitive edge.

BIG BUILDER Magazine, April 2002