“We’ve come a long way in the last ten years,” says LIUNA Local Union 132 Business Agent Bobby Kasper, reflecting on the Laborers’ role in two construction industry safety awards presented this spring by the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MNOSHA). “It just shows how great the Laborers’ programs are. We’re all really proud.”

One award went to the Xcel Energy High Bridge generating plant in St. Paul. The plant is in the midst of a four-year, $400 million conversion from a coal-burning facility to a natural gas-powered, combined-cycle unit. The general contractor, LG Constructors, a subsidiary of CH2M HILL, won its MNSTAR award for new construction at a power generating plant.

“We got that award,” says Kasper, speaking on behalf of the 40 Laborers at the plant, “because, plain and simple, the worksite is spotless from top to bottom. Our housekeeping is non-stop. That makes a huge difference for safety at the site.”

Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Scott Brener presented the award, commending LG Constructors’ employees and management “for their joint effort to ensure the safety and health of hundreds of employees at this site.” He then offered similar praise to another labor-management safety partnership in which the Laborers play a key role as he presented CBI Services with an MNSTAR award for its resident construction work at Flint Hill Resources in Pine Bend. According to Department of Labor and Industry spokesman James Honerman, “The state views these companies as two of the best in the industry. They’re doing pretty amazing work.”

CBI Services has had a continuous presence at Flint Hill Resources (formerly Koch Refining) since 1987, performing capital, maintenance and turnaround work which continues today. For the past six years, it has also provided construction management services at the refinery. With a management staff of about 20, it has put in place more than 2.7 million direct-hire labor-hours and managed more than seven million labor-hours. About 80 to 100 Laborers work at the facility.

In addition to their MNSTAR flags and the associated favorable publicity, the excellent safety programs at CBI Services and LG Constructors earned each company a three-year exemption from MNOSHA Compliance scheduled inspections.

Scott Eddy is the Senior Construction Superintendent for Xcel Bridge, responsible for setting the safety program at the worksite. “We’ve worked hard to bring ourselves up to the top level of safety performance in this region,” he says. “Management has to believe in its program, and it has to set up systems for continuous feedback to its employees.”

At the center of its program is the weekly walk-thru.  Company safety professionals and managers meet weekly with employees – union stewards, safety committee members and, sometimes, individual workers – to review a featured topic of discussion and then conduct a walk-thru to record safety infractions. Afterwards, the problems are corrected.

A similar process is employed each morning at “Plan of the Day” meetings between management and contractors. “We’re a safety first organization,” says Eddy. “Our number one goal is safety. Then comes quality and, finally, cost. Safety is the first topic in all our planning meetings.” The process is repeated in monthly “First Friday” meetings and walk-thrus that involve business agents as well as onsite personnel.

Tom VerCautren is the Project Director at CBI Services which is the domestic USA union contracting subsidiary of Chicago Bridge & Iron Company. “Without a doubt,” he says, “the unions enable us to hire flexible, safety-conscious employees. The Laborers, in particular, provide well-trained workers through their off-site training center.”

Because the refinery has an owner- controlled insurance program (OCIP), a strong safety program is “absolutely critical,” according to VerCautren. “It’s difficult to measure the direct savings from outstanding safety performance, but without our safety program, I’m certain the additional costs would make us uncompetitive in the marketplace.”

The program is highly proactive and involves the entire workforce. “We are working toward the elimination of all at-risk activities and behaviors in the workplace,” says VerCautren. “In one feature of the program – known as TIE, True Involvement of Employees – workers observe co-workers on a daily basis to document behaviors and trends in workforce safety behavior. When problems are observed, they are addressed professionally with explanations showing a better way. Also, the entire workforce assembles weekly for a full-blown safety meeting at which a key topic is discussed and the minutes from the TIE safety committee are reviewed. New hires get an extensive safety orientation with a two-week evaluation and refresher training after 45 days. Toolbox talks are daily events.”

“Safety is a union issue, and we applaud the contractors for their programs,” says Gary Reed, Business Manager at Local Union 132. “Like the contractors, we’ve worked hard to build up our side of the bargain.”

Ten years ago, when Reed assumed the Business Manager position, he instructed all the business agents to get involved in safety meetings to let the employers know that the Laborers care about safety. “We set the example to get the message across to our members as well,” says Reed. “Safety is a team effort, and we wanted the owners, employers and our members to know that the union is part of the team.”

While participating to the fullest extent possible in safety committees and site safety walk-thru, Laborers are also active in the safety award dinners and barbeques that the company sponsors. Several Laborers now serve as foremen at the Flint Hills Project. Gradually, the example set by the Laborers has also transformed the outlooks of the other unions on these jobsites.

The most basic measure of safety success is the exponential growth in the number of workdays without incidents at both locations. “We’re changing mindsets and we’re getting results,” says Kasper. “Workers are thinking about safety when they walk through that gate.”

[Steve Clark]