Concerned about growing inconsistencies among New Jersey's construction sites, where laborers found differences mostly in health and safety practices -- an idea that can be damaging in such a dangerous industry -- contractors and laborers knew a middle ground was needed.
From that dilemma came BuildSafeNJ, a group dedicated to eliminating ambiguity. The idea is simple, really: Members share information about health and safety and practices and strive to have its workers similarly equipped across job sites.
"Everybody in our health and safety field, especially in construction, agrees there are too many inconsistencies from job-to-job, company to company and sometimes even site-to-site within the same company," said John Braun, Safety Director for River Terminal Development and Vice President of BuildSafeNJ. "Our approach is to reach a general understanding of what [safety equipment] is required, and which things are just good practices."
Sometimes, these agreements go beyond what is required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- such as wearing hard hats 100 percent of the time -- though most firms agree it's good practice, according to Braun.
BuildSafeNJ's varied membership includes construction safety directors, mangers and superintendents. Participants include unions, state and federal safety officials and associations. All vow to eliminate construction from the list of high-hazard industries and elevate the safety culture in construction.
The organization's memorandum of understanding outlines a commitment to improve safety and health in construction, and lists seven basic "Good Construction Practices" that all promise to implement. These include having a written safety program, using proper personal protective equipment, assigning competent persons where necessary, providing site-specific safety orientations, meeting minimum site safety requirements (OSHA regulations), practicing good housekeeping, and conducting Job Hazard Analyses for hazardous activities.
The agreement serves as foundation for consistency between companies and strives to take safety and health considerations out of the competing bids. Basic understandings such as establishing protective equipment requirements across job sites ensure that safety comes ahead of everything.
"It's all a voluntary group of people who get together, mostly safety and health folks, to network and agree on minimum levels of safety and health practices from job site to job site, no matter what company you're with," said Ken Hoffner, Assistant Director of the NJ Laborers Health and Safety Fund. "One of the corollaries is to take safety and health out of the bid process. We don't want people to win jobs because they're cutting corners on safety and health."
That common desire made the concept an easy sell, and more than 90 members have signed up, including construction managers, government bodies and the New Jersey Laborers. The group is constantly pushing for new members. Taking a cue from other BuildSafes around the country, BuildSafeNJ began in January 2007. Its members take ownership for the culture of safety throughout the organization and provide a consistently safe work environment and encourage employees, through training and education, to be self-directed and accountable for the safety of themselves and others.
Most of the group's early legwork was devoted to establishing BuildSafeNJ as a non-profit organization, then developing by-laws and a memorandum of understanding. Later sessions have offered technical presentations on numerous discussion forums and visits to members' jobsites. This year, safety professionals spent a morning surveying the new Giants/Jets stadium, where a BuildSafeNJ member serves as the project's safety director.
The power of networking has also paid dividends, as members form a personal support group. In one example, concerns regarding undetected buried utility lines halted excavation on a building project. The company's safety director emailed fellow BuildSafeNJ members, and within minutes received suggestions on locating a subcontractor that specialized in ground-penetrating radar to locate suspected buried utilities. The ground was surveyed, and the work progressed with minimal interruption.
"It's a great networking tool for our industry," Braun said. "The ability to contact other members of the organization is so helpful and important. I had a safety director who had a question about lead in the soil. He shot an email to the group and had 10 different responses within minutes."
With contractors and laborers working together, the construction industry moves closer to leaving safety open to interpretation.
"People often act in isolation," Hoffner said. "I remember going to job sites and seeing good ideas that weren't being shared. We're sharing them now, and that's pretty good. We want to create a quality brand, so when someone hires one of our contractors, they know what to expect in terms of safety and health practice."