5 Safety Best Practices from the Healthiest Roofer in America

Workers install a roofing system while safely secured with harnesses and cables. OSHA recorded 6,929 fall-protection violations in 2016 and intends to crack down on companies with poor practices through its Severe Violators Enforcement Program. (Photo: Flickr/NNSA)

Falling is a danger as old as construction itself, yet somehow it remains the number one safety concern in an industry full of danger, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Overall, the federal agency says, statistics indicate that four out of every ten deaths in construction are fall-related. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most-recent data shows that there was an increase in fatal falls every year between 2010 and 2014, the annual number of deaths climbing from 255 to 345, and more are likely to come, considering that OSHA recorded 6,929 more fall-protection violations in 2016, the highest figure for any violation category.

For construction firms, keeping employees safe from such harm has become not only a moral imperative but a fiscal one as OSHA continues to to levy heavy fines against companies that land on its Severe Violators Enforcement Program. Most recently, on January 4, the agency proposed penalties of $214,782 against an Illinois roofer that already had a history of violations, and not long before that it fined a New Jersey roofer $112,487.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Raleigh, NC-based Baker Roofing Company, which, despite operating as the second-largest business in one of the construction fields most prone to falls, earned the 22nd spot on Springbuk, Inc.’s list of the 100 Healthiest Workplaces in America. Curious as to how the 101-year-old firm accomplished this, BuiltWorlds spoke to vice president of risk management Ron Adams, who explained how Baker Roofing keeps safety on the minds of its workforce at all times.

1. Make care and compliance a part of the culture

Baker Roofing has 18 branch offices and nearly 1,200 employees, so the company does a lot of work to make sure “the person who works at the lowest level of the company understands what are our goals, what are our motives, why are we doing things—and how important their job is in helping us get there,” Adams says.

Safety is a big part of this effort, and one of the company’s bylaws is even “cover your brother’s back.” To this end, the company’s hiring and development division employs a “rank and rating” system that every employee enters into. The apprenticeship-like program puts workers through increasingly complex levels of training over the course of their careers, and they earn chevrons, greater pay, opportunities to specialize, and even dedicated mentors as they advance. “That bleeds over into our health as individuals, our health as a company, our worker’s compensation results, our OSHA inspections—through training [and] repetitive instruction,” Adams says.

2. Understand OSHA backward and forward

Approximately 60 percent of the companies that are part of OSHA’s Severe Violators Enforcement Program are in construction, and the unfortunate distinction comes with increased inspections and a greater likelihood of facing fines and getting called out for violations. Baker Roofing has no plans to join the program, so as part of its intense training regimen, it makes sure all employees have a working understanding of OSHA’s guidelines.

“If you’re coming in without any background, … we want to make sure you get to an OSHA 10-hour class so that you understand, when a compliance officer walks up onto a job site, what he’s looking for,” Adams says. He’s actually certified as an OSHA Outreach Trainer himself, meaning he can teach both 10- and 30-hour OSHA classes.

“Much like a statistician or an actuary would do, you would say, ‘If 80 percent of the areas where we are noncompliant is in personal protective equipment, then that’s where I want to focus my training.’”

— Ron Adams, Vice President of Risk Management, Baker Roofing Company

3. Set your own guidelines

Not satisfied with doing the bare minimum, Baker maintains its own set of safety standards that are even more stringent than OSHA’s, according to Adams, while offering more than 200 hours of classes per year in specialized training. The company actually has its own instructor and a training room with a variety of mock roof systems, from single-ply to built-up. “We have annual fall-protection training and certification for every employee,” Adams says. “We have annual hazard communication [training]. … And then we have many other various training sessions.”

The company has also developed a site-inspection form, customized using iForm software, that can be filled out via a smartphone app and delivered directly to Baker’s central database. The form employs a scoring system from zero to 100, and there are approximately three dozen areas in which deficiencies can be noted. “It gives us real-time information,” Adams says, “so that we can be proactive with training and proactive with safety, rather than reactive, which would be after an OSHA inspection or after an incident or after a GC inspection.”

4. Self-audit rigorously

In addition to responding to site-inspection hazards in real time, Baker Roofing aggregates the data from its site-inspection forms to look for patterns. Last year, the company did roughly 15,300 inspections, and from those it was able to get a detailed picture of its strengths and weaknesses. “Much like a statistician or an actuary would do, you would say, ‘If 80 percent of the areas where we are noncompliant is in personal protective equipment, then that’s where I want to focus my training,’” Adams says.

The company takes what it learns from the data and uses it to inform its monthly corporate safety meetings, where members of local safety committees from various divisions, branches, and departments go over incidents and trends to watch. The data also influences awareness-building “Toolbox Talks” and daily huddles with workers in the field. “A lot of companies will have training, … they’ll have awareness programs, and it’s kind of like the topic of the day,” Adams says. “How do they know if they’re really hitting the mark from the standpoint of what they’re actually deficient in? We take what we’re deficient in, and then we apply our tools accordingly.”

5. Encourage competition through transparency

Much of Baker Roofing’s site-inspection data also makes its way into the company’s weekly safety newsletter, detailing how many inspections each branch and division of the company had that week and what their average scores were. “Nobody wants to be last,” Adams says. “So, when they have their monthly departmental meetings, they’ll bring everybody in and say, ‘OK, this is where we are in comparison to the Charlotte branch or the Greensborough branch.’”

Like many of the safety measures at Baker Roofing, it ultimately circles back to the idea that awareness is key. As Adams puts it, “We have a pretty robust process of allowing people to understand where they are.”