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For Dan Fulton, still waters run deep. The CEO of Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. (WRECO) considers it part of his professional compact to keep his passions and fears to himself. With one exception: Safety.

In a business where high-rises, high finance, high velocity, high-risk acquisitions, and high-tech enterprise resource planning solutions grab the headlines, safety pales in sex appeal. For many counterparts, it would take a very long meeting for safety to qualify for a spot on the agenda. But ask Fulton where safety lies in WRECO's list of priorities. Ask him what's more important: metrics such as closing volume, profitability, and market share, or trying to prevent every employee and trade partner from becoming one of the nearly 1,200 construction workers who die every year or 400,000 others who fall prey to injury. He won't blink or hesitate. Safety comes first.

The reason: The safer the workplace, the more competitive the company can be. Safety keeps production schedules rolling, improves construction quality, enhances customer satisfaction, and reduces costs.

Oh, and it's the right thing to do.

Fulton cites about a decade's worth of data to prove it, not to mention third-party acknowledgements. Yet, he's still far from content. He's pushing WRECO, a mini-federation of five home building subsidiaries, to take a larger safety leadership role. "You exert pressure, and it takes a long time to get a flywheel moving. But once it's moving, you want to keep it moving," Fulton says.

A self-ordained safety evangelist of sorts, Fulton has committed himself to spreading the word. He toils with other high-production builder jefes to develop a common approach to jobsite safety and training programs. Closer to home, he insists his division leaders do the same locally.

Like Fulton, Big Builder believes safety is a critical business strategy, especially as high-volume builders grow. We offer a candid look inside WRECO's safety programs. Fulton's five division presidents–David Bessey, Peter Orser, Mike McGee, Will Holder, and Larry Burrows–share personal tales of safety, from shortcomings to success, from dealing with a fatality to becoming a region's safest home builder. They talk about market challenges and turning points. Most important, their stories validate builders' motivations to improve safety, even if someone else is building their houses.

The Wake-Up Call

Maracay Homes president David Bessey talks about his first experience with a fatality after 34 years as a home builder.

A SAFETY NET: From simple scaffolding around the roofline to wooden barriers in open windows and doorways (as shown in this Winchester Homes' site) WRECO is serious about fall protection.Photos: Randy Santos

For David Bessey, president of Maracay Homes, job fatality would only happen to a builder whose practices at jobsites are careless or unsafe. He believed his company was anything but that. But on a hot Arizona morning last June, his conviction faltered. Reality struck. The temporary truss bracing on a Maracay home failed, causing the trusses to collapse and sending a framing carpenter down 22 feet to his death.

"What that [accident] was for me was an awakening. I have a 34-year background in the industry and 15 years in Arizona with Maracay, and this is the first fatality," he says. "We realized we needed to do more. ...It was a wake-up call, and it created a sense of urgency."

Timing made the loss especially painful. It occurred just after the company had brought on a full-time safety manager to beef up safety efforts. The hire was the latest step in transitioning Scottsdale, Ariz.?based Maracay over to WRECO's standardized safety program following its acquisition in February 2006.

Bessey flew into action. Within a day of the accident, he met with the framing crew involved in the incident as well as all its other framing contractors. His aim was to understand their hiring and training processes and identify disconnects and weaknesses in those programs. "We hire subcontractors that, in turn, hire trades, and they have a responsibility to train their people before they come on our jobsites," Bessey says.

Soon thereafter Maracay began running safety audits on its subcontractors, asking them for safety histories and a copies of a written safety plans. As an added security measure, Bessey hired a bilingual safety officer, who is "out five days a week, going to our sites, doing safety inspections, and talking with the workers."

Bessey says that although these requirements represent a departure from previous safety protocol, the change meets with little contractor resistance. "What we have found, which is encouraging, is all of our trades have been supportive in taking this forward," he says. However, because Bessey believes there are further changes to come, he expects various subcontractors to bristle.

"We are going to ask them to go further. And we may experience resistance," he says. "[But] we're prepared to lose a trade contractor that won't work safely."