Setting the stage for safety

April 2014 » Feature Articles » Firms in Focus
Global infrastructure firm Gannett Fleming engages employees in a world class safety program
Paula Loht, CIH, CSP and Amy Collins, CPSM

For global infrastructure firm Gannett Fleming, a 2,000-employee company with more than 60 offices, a significant change to the firm’s safety program in the last five years has led to dramatic improvements to the firm’s safety culture. With a new strategic focus on a robust employee safety program, which educates employees about how to identify hazards and take the appropriate steps to avoid them, the firm is protecting its most valuable assets — its employees — in a way that is more proactive than ever before.

Examining the need

For nearly 100-year-old Gannett Fleming, the firm’s safety program operated largely in a reactive mode until about five years ago. While the firm emphasized safety as a core value and offered a wide range of safety training programs, the process of identifying specific individuals who would benefit from those training opportunities was often not triggered until after an incident or near miss occurred. For example, if an employee strained his back, then he might be assigned training on heavy lifting.

In other cases, employees were provided with important safety tools, but they may not have been provided all information needed to use those tools in the most effective manner. For instance, a project manager might supply personal protective equipment such as fall protection harnesses to employees without recognizing that the employees had not yet received safety training on working at heights. The lack of a centralized safety program was resulting in safety efforts that were disjointed and unconnected.

Despite an overall safety record that was better than industry average, it was clear that the firm’s corporate safety program would benefit from some significant changes. It was then that Gannett Fleming began shifting in a proactive direction to engage employees in the hazard recognition process and centralize the program, thereby benefiting employees, the firm, and clients.

Developing and managing a successful safety program has been all about engagement, flexibility, and commitment. With more than 30 practices serving a diverse range of industries, a one-size-fits-all approach to safety training and hazard assessment was far too prohibitive. For staff, daily tasks vary from the mundane — completing reports and project support at a desk — to the hazardous — conducting structural assessments on dams, bridges, and storage tanks. 

Successful partnership

The crux of a successful safety program for any corporation, whether in the engineering field or otherwise, is a partnership between employees and safety staff. Processes and protocols should incorporate hazard assessments based on the typical tasks conducted and the recommended mitigation and control measures.

For Gannett Fleming, this meant tapping into our large network of engineers and other technical experts as we developed standards for our safety program. The firm’s technical safety experts worked side-by-side with these professionals to identify the hazards and appropriate safety requirements for staff throughout the company, leveraging their expertise and resulting in buy-in.

For example, civil engineers commonly involved in tank inspections helped with the development of fall protection standards and structural engineers provided input on Job Safety Analysis forms for activities such as man lift operation.

Practice-specific hazard assessments

Conducting a series of practice-specific hazard assessments with our technical practice leaders was key in the development of our new safety program. The assessment identified typical work tasks for each practice, along with the hazards associated with those tasks. During the assessment, mitigation methods such as personal protective equipment, project-specific safety plans, safe working distances, and required training also were established.

More than 50 hazards were identified, calling for a wide range of protocols. For instance, individuals in our Environmental Management and Remediation Practice may work on contaminated sites and require respiratory protection, specific personal protective equipment, and specialized training, whereas those working in our Electrical Practice require training on personal protective equipment related to arc flash hazards. Employees working in the Mechanical and Structural Practices are trained on working at heights, as are staff in the Bridge Practice.

Results of the practice-specific hazard assessments were compiled into comprehensive flow-diagrams and learning matrices to provide a resource for proactive employee training.

Under the new safety program, projects involving any practice can be approached as a series of tasks that have been pre-evaluated in regard to safety.

Client-specific requirements, as well as site-specific issues, are also added to the pre-evaluation process. This approach helps streamline the process for our professionals, as project managers can easily verify that the employees on the job have the basic level of required training for the practice and make sure that staff with the appropriate training are assigned to the project. This helps project managers with planning the job, and also helps staff working in the field. Those individuals can focus on any unique hazards that have not been addressed, rather than facing every new project from a blank slate, safety wise.  

We use the information gained through the practice-specific hazard assessment to move the firm’s projects forward without delays caused by ordering protective gear or waiting for someone with the appropriate training to arrive on the scene. This wins the firm’s safety group fans from a “billability” perspective, as the mentality that safety awareness delays project work is a thing of the past. Project teams are actively engaging the corporate safety team in the early stages of the project. This is the goal for any safety manager. 

Typical hazards

The process of identifying practice-specific hazards started with a list of tasks that are commonly conducted by the employees working within that practice. Some common hazards were also evident after these assessments were completed. For example, employees of all practices across the firm experience potential hazards associated with driving for company business. To address this, all new employees, regardless of practice, are automatically assigned a required defensive driver training course. 

Other common hazards involve computer work and office-related issues such as musculoskeletal risk factors. To address this, all Gannett Fleming employees may participate in the workstation assessment program, which is designed to detect any workstation hazards that may expose the employee to risks. Nearly every employee may also be exposed to heavy lifting risks from time-to-time and they are encouraged to complete the safe lifting training on the firm’s Learning Management System (LMS), whether lifting has been identified as a potential hazard of their work or not.

Flexible training

While some safety training courses are developed and delivered electronically on Gannett Fleming’s LMS, some subjects require leader-led coursework. For example, face-to-face training is necessary for confined space entry courses and OSHA 10-hour construction safety training.

Because of the nature of our work, we make the training delivery method as flexible as possible to remove any hurdles for employees. For some training, we have incorporated short, segmented videos produced in-house and posted in a private location on YouTube. Staff can watch these at their desk, but it’s also not uncommon for our engineers to partake in these training opportunities while they are waiting for a train or plane, or in a hotel room after a day on the job site. These videos have been met with great acceptance and have been applauded by those engineers who are not often found within the confines of one of our permanent offices.

Safety training for professionals is carefully administered and tracked to adhere to internal and client requirements. To maintain these records, Gannett Fleming now uses our LMS to record participation in safety training regardless of delivery method. The LMS serves as a central resource for the corporate safety group, as well as project members and project managers.

Staff engagement

Although the federal government requires employers to provide a place of employment that is free from hazards that can result in death or serious physical harm, accidents frequently occur in our high-risk industry.

To educate employees on that risk, we emphasize that everyone has an active role in safety, no matter their location or job function. It’s exciting to 

see how the level of employee engagement in regard to safety has improved dramatically since we started this process. We’re training more employees on more safety training topics than ever before. As a result of that training, employees are reaching out for guidance from our corporate safety group. Safety resources are made available to all staff, whether that person serves as the project manager or the technician on the project. Employees also are empowered to stop their work when they are faced with an unexpected hazard, and know they can do so without repercussions.

The topic of safety has become a two-way conversation at Gannett Fleming, and everyone from our professional staff, to our safety team, to our clients are the beneficiaries. A great example of this is when one of our engineers used the knowledge learned through our safety program to write a paper and present during a national dam safety conference, positioning Gannett Fleming as a leader in both dam engineering and safety.

To protect the firm’s most valuable assets — our employees — we’re constantly demonstrating the importance of safety, while keeping the number of accidents to a statistic that is well below the industry average. Ongoing communication plays a critical role in the success of this program as well, which will be the subject of a future Civil + Structural Engineer article.

Paula Loht, CIH, CSP, is corporate safety manager and Amy Collins, CPSM, is deputy manager – Corporate Communications & Marketing with Gannett Fleming.


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