C-Suite Corner: Meet the safety app that won an award before it existed

Earlier this year, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) took the unusual step of giving an award to an industry safety product that had not even officially hit the market yet.

On June 9 in Dallas, at ASSE’s annual conference, the national safety group presented Chicago-based Capital Construction Solutions (CCS) with an Honorable Mention Award for Safety Innovation

“…for its mobile safety application, which is used by contractors, owners, construction managers, program managers and facility managers to review a list of best practice safety questions depending on the work being performed and rectify issues that are identified.”

CCS CEO Cory M. Davis was on hand to pick up the award in Texas and last month he visited our space as guest presenter for a BuiltWorlds Workshop on jobsite safety. Most recently head of capital projects at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Davis is both a civil engineer and an attorney with more than 25 years of industry experience in both the public and private sectors. With an unusually broad background as an owner, owner’s representative, consultant, general contractor and subcontractor, he is able to approach “complex contracting issues from the views of all stakeholders”, says the CCS website.

Now CEO of a tech startup, he adds yet another perspective to a very broad view of our industry.  So, with all those demands on his time, BW felt fortunate to be able to grab Davis for this CEO Q&A

BW Safety Workshop: Davis (far right) presented here Aug. 11 on the rare, award-winning birth of CCS’s first app.

BW: Before CCS, you spent 3-plus years in charge of construction at Chicago Public Schools. How did that experience inspire the development of your firm? 

DAVIS: Having worked in construction over 25 years, I saw the same issues arise on each project. Lots of paper, lack of accountability and transparency, not only with safety issues, but with quality issues, in general. At CPS, I began to use process mapping to understand not only the ways things were done, but also to use objective analysis to understand how to make business practices more efficient. I held “lessons learned” meetings every fall where everyone involved in our summer projects would get together and perform a deep dive. We then created a ‘lessons learned’ module that tracked when CPS needed to make process changes, procedural changes, contract changes, or changes to quality oversight in order to prevent the same mistakes from re-occurring each summer. So, ‘lessons learned’ and the concept of knowledge transfer is really the foundation of our company. And we started with an app for Safety because in this industry, it’s always “Safety First”.

BW: CCS won an award while your safety product was still in Beta. How the heck does that happen? And how did it affect the final product?

DAVIS:  As a startup, you are constantly looking for ways to prove that what you are doing is right for the industry.  Even though we met with people and held focus groups, we were always questioning our value proposition, especially when you are putting up the capital to start the company.  You can’t use sales data or customer surveys to benchmark your results because the company is still in it’s infancy.

One day, we met with a large prospective client and they suggested that we should apply for the ASSE Innovation Award. So we appliedand in April ASSE notified us that we had won award honorable mention It was then we knew we were heading in the right direction. So, we reconfigured the product, raised capital from external investors and used what we learned from focus groups to greatly increase the functionality to create CCS Safety 2.0.

BW: You’re a civil engineer, and the first person you hired is a longtime ironworker. How does that inform your approach to this industry?

DAVIS:  Collectively, (former ironworker) Chris Mulcrone and I have 45 years of experience in construction, and heck, our board of advisors add another 300 years! So we believe that we understand the needs of this industry. Since we are primarily functionally focused, we partnered with Product Development Technologies, a leader in software design to help develop our apps. And this past week, we also just hired Mark Barry, an industrial engineer and longtime tech veteran, to be our Chief Technical Officer. It’s important that we balance the practicality of our product and the needs of this industry with the leading-edge technologies needed to succeed in this space.

BW: You recently added a law degree to your personal CV. What role did legal and insurance issues play in the development of your safety app?

DAVIS:  In my prior jobs, much of my time required me to negotiate contracts, administer claims, understand zoning issues and handle a wide range of legal issues. So it was a natural progression to formally study law. While we were developing the safety application, it was critical not only to understand the legal foundation of construction safety but also to incorporate the ideas and lessons learned from insurance carriers who are trying to help alleviate that risk. A day never goes by that something I learned in law school is not relevant, either professionally or personally.

BW: Okay, so how does your app actually improve job site safety? 

DAVIS:  Safety in the past has been primarily the responsibility of a safety director or engineer who will often perform safety audits on site using clipboards. ‘Toolbox talks’ became more universal over time, but that was generally a superintendent reading verbatim from a clipboard words that were written by a vendor that actually sold toolbox talks.

“We take a more comprehensive approach to safety… Our app allows site observations to be shared with the entire team in real time, with picture and video capability.”

— Cory Davis, Ceo, CCS

We take a more comprehensive approach to safety.  Supervisor Assessments allow owners and executives to have input. Project Managers and Construction Managers can add site observations by focusing on the specific categories of work already being done on site. Superintendents and Foreman can perform very prescriptive Pre-Task plans and Job Hazard Analysis well in advance of work being done to greatly reduce the risk of an accident. Our app allows each one of these observations to be done and shared, with picture and video capability, as well.

Also, the first thing a user sees every morning when they open our app is a Safety Topic of the Day.  We push information here that usually jolts them awake — often news of a death on another project somewhere, since there are still over 5,000 construction fatalities every year in the US.

In addition, our back-end website allows companies to tie together all Apple and Android devices (tablets and phones) into a single safety enterprise reporting tool. This allows for real-time reporting and transparency in site safety that was just not available before. That not only gives managers a way to improve training by showing poor practices in real-time, but it also provides tools to encourage safe behavior and to help build safety recognition programs.

BW: Your app is intended for the whole team, including owners?

DAVIS:  Yes. We believe that owners need to be involved in the safety process in order to create a comprehensive safety culture. They see the value in roll-up reporting of performance metrics and instant notification of incident reporting and accident investigations.  By aggregating data across many contractors (and internal operations), owners can foresee trends and help to establish best practices without disrupting the means and methods of the contractor. For example, if an owner begins to see that there is a pattern of issues arising from confined spaces, then they can have an expert come in and present at the next monthly safety meeting.

For liability reasons, Construction Managers will often say that they are not responsible for site safety. But, if they see an unsafe condition, most owners would expect them to notify the contractor before someone gets hurt. If CMs are not trained to see unsafe conditions –or will not alert people when they see them due to corporate policy restrictions– then it is important for owners to consider that during their CM selection process. That way, they better understand their overall risk exposure. It has always been perplexing to me that companies will spend time and money training construction managers for 30-hour OSHA training certificates, only to tie their hands on jobsite- when an unsafe condition is present. For CM-at-risk, however, CMs are integral to the development of a good safety culture.

If CCS Safety is recommended in contracts, then owners and general contractors can ensure that all the industry knowledge present is available to all people on the jobsite. Since contractors work around each other all of the time, it’s critical to ensure that everyone is working safely together. After all, if only some contractors are managing their safety well, then the ones who are not are putting everyone at risk. So, we believe that safety overall should be a priority, but that the responsibility to create and implement each program lies within each company.

BW: Your initial test market is Chicago, which is still a strong union town. How have unions reacted to your product?

DAVIS:  We have met with most of the trade unions in Chicago, typically with their apprenticeship coordinators, in order to align our interests. They have the same goal as we do — to ensure that their workers are properly trained and work in a safe environment. The most responsive unions have been the ones that are forward-leaning and have shared their best practices with us, which we were able to incorporate into the design of our app. It’s for this reason that we are truly a knowledge transfer platform. We even presented at a union event last month and we will continue to work with them. They are an integral part of this industry and we believe that they –like insurance companies– have a wealth of data that can be leveraged to improve construction safety.

BW: Your pricing model is just $99/year? How can you offer comparable service, when your next closest competitor is charging 10 times as much?

DAVIS:  In order to have as many people using our app as possible, from owners to subcontractors, we believe that the cost needs to be reasonable. Through market research, we found that $99/user is reasonable for all levels on the construction site. It’s also reasonable enough for public agencies to incorporate it without having to create an RFP, which typically takes 4-6 months to get a contract. So, our pricing model is helping to spread implementation more quickly.  Also, our company has not spent much money on marketing. We believe that the best way to win business is by meeting with companies in a 1:1 setting.  That way, we can understand their pain points and hopefully gather information to further improve our product.  Construction is, and will continue to be, built on relationships.

BW: Safety is just one of your “solutions”. What’s next for CCS?

DAVIS:  We are targeting 30 friction points in construction over the next three years. In the near future, we are also planning to address quality issues associated with scheduling, estimating, community outreach and qualifying construction drawings. By integrating each of these mobile apps into our analytic website, companies can easily develop an innovative risk management platform that will expand as they grow.

NOTE: Davis will be among the presenters here next week at ALL HANDS ON TECH . For more information on that event, click here.