Developing a solid safety foundation for new hires through onboarding and ongoing training pays massive dividends.
By Mason Nichols
Strategy, planning and forethought goes into the design, construction and operation of a precast concrete plant. Many factors must be considered, including the layout of the production floor, access to tools and forms, the equipment that will support the manufacturing process and more. But for James Crockett, plant manager at Trenwa Inc. in Florence, Ind., which received an NPCA Safety Hall of Fame Award for operating five consecutive years without a recordable incident, one factor stands out above the rest.
“The greatest resource that we have is our human resource,” he said. “And their well-being is our personal responsibility.”
Without workers to use the tools and operate the equipment, precast operations would cease to exist. That’s exactly why providing employees with the resources they need to remain safe in the plant – from day one – plays a critical role.
On board with safety
Most precast manufacturers would likely point to their onboarding program as the first step in training new workers regarding the importance of safety. According to Crockett, precasters should seek new team members who either have experience in a similar industry or have demonstrated a commitment to safety in their previous job.
“I look for people who wouldn’t consider my shop environment as foreign or alien,” Crockett said. “If it were someone that had only worked an office job in the past, they’d have to start off with sweeping the floor and getting used to the plant and the potential hazards around them.”
The intent is to limit distractions for inexperienced new hires as they adapt to a new workplace and responsibilities. As Crockett explained, distractions can lead to stress, which can lead to accidents.
Still, onboarding remains crucial, and there are steps you can take to support new workers from the beginning, regardless of their previous experience. Joel Sheets, vice president and general manager for Tindall Corporation’s Utility Division in Spartanburg, S.C., explained new employees across all the company’s locations participate in a safety orientation program during their first day of work. This program, led by a supervisor or the site safety manager, takes most of a new team member’s first day.
“Day one safety orientation kicks them off in the right direction,” he said. “Each new hire watches videos and learns the rules of how we expect them to operate as an employee at Tindall.”
Crockett employs a similar approach at Trenwa. During orientation, the Indiana location shows new hires both internally and externally produced videos on a wide variety of topics. Each video must not only be informational, but also entertaining, as Crockett has found that resonates best with newcomers.
For both Trenwa and Tindall, covering safety right from the get-go begins the process of instilling a culture of safety. In addition, the existing employees handling the training are reminded of safety basics they don’t think about on a day-to-day basis, which renews their training and awareness and helps them lead the safety culture.
John Coniglio is the co-owner and managing director at Occupational Safety and Environmental Associates, a safety consulting firm headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y. His clients experience the most success training new hires when they employ a multi-pronged approach, which can begin with a series of PowerPoint presentations or videos but should eventually include something more human-centered and interactive. He advised incorporating personal contact from the onset. Connect the new employee with a go-to person who can answer questions and demonstrate proper procedures in case the plant safety manager is unavailable. New employees will develop additional questions as they become acclimated to their role and responsibilities, and they must feel confident and empowered to stop what they’re doing and ask for help or guidance when needed.
Beyond day one
During the first day or even first few weeks on the job, a new hire will become hyperaware of all things safety due to the topic being an area of focus during onboarding and training. As the worker becomes more accustomed to the plant environment, several factors can detract from this focus, including an increasing workload, more responsibilities and even complacency.1 As Coniglio suggested, one of the best ways to combat this is through human connection.
According to Sheets, Tindall also takes this approach with its new team members.
“For us, onboarding actually takes place over the course of an entire year,” he said. “There may be a lot more touchpoints in the first week than there are in the first month and beyond, so to help keep safety top of mind after that, we have our buddy program.”
Each new team member at Tindall is assigned a buddy who has considerable experience in the plant. New hires are instructed to follow their buddy around to learn their work habits and ask questions, especially those related to safety. The relationship is a two-way street, as experienced workers are expected to continuously relay information to their assigned new hires. This approach ensures new hires will learn over an extended period, retain more information and continue to build on their experiences.
To further position new hires for success, Tindall assigns each new employee to a routine production area, which typically consists of 4-foot manholes and knockout boxes.
“It’s doing the same thing over and over,” Sheets said. “That way, each new worker is worried less about their next action and more about getting acclimated to the work. They’re with someone who is their buddy and can nudge them along, and they’re also in the area of production that’s not constantly changing.”
Trenwa employs a similar method for supporting the safety – and safety training – of their new employees.
“Our established guys who have been working with us for a while keep an eye out on all the new personnel,” Crockett said. “Our philosophy is to have an entire shop full of people making sure that no one does anything that can be avoided.”
During this process, it is critical that new employees understand they can ask a question at any time. In addition, they must understand that the expectation to question what they perceive to be an unsafe practice does not end when the initial training is over. A good safety culture encourages questions at any time from any employee. Questions must be taken seriously and addressed by management, otherwise those asking the questions will simply stop asking. When employees feel empowered to ask questions or to stop what they are doing or ask another employee to stop an unsafe practice, accountability is established at every level of the company and safety ensues.
While operations vary considerably from plant to plant, every precaster benefits from having a safety plan in place. It can be especially helpful for new hires, who must clearly understand the baseline expectation for their work from day one.
The management team at Trenwa developed a standard operating procedure manual based on Occupational Safety and Health Association standards the company must adhere to in day-to-day production. The entire team meets at least once per month to discuss safety, referring to this document to communicate to workers what must be accomplished to maintain compliance.
“We like to remind our team that what’s listed in the manual is not negotiable,” Crockett said. “We tell them, ‘We have to do this, and here’s how we’re going to make it happen.’ It’s as simple as that.”
Coniglio said having a basic safety program in place is a necessity for all precast manufacturers but noted the programs must be tailored to each plant’s unique situation, including the number of new employees present each day.
“I always like to tell owners and managers to establish your program around the training you need,” he said. “Compliance is the minimum expectation – you have to look at your operations to determine who is getting hurt and how. Your training initiatives should spring from that.”
Additionally, Coniglio pointed to toolbox sessions and other periodic safety updates as a particularly helpful resource for new employees. Consistent messaging over the course of an extended timeframe helps focus new team members on safety as they continue to grow accustomed to working in the plant. At Tindall, the team holds periodic safety meetings in which multiple divisions of the company link with safety managers to discuss initiatives. All team members also receive a weekly safety bulletin update that includes a topic for the week, including key metrics for the plant.
Tindall uses two different safety cards for focusing on day-to-day safety. One card is a report for any time there is a near miss, which also necessitates a creating a report of the incident. The other serves as a small reminder to practice safe behavior and functions as a daily sign-in/sign-out system at the start and end of each shift. If an employee is injured during the day, he or she must refrain from signing the card and report the injury to a supervisor.
Regardless of the approach you take with your new employees, it’s imperative each hire understands the importance of being cognizant of their surroundings.
“Awareness is critical,” Sheets said. “You’re in a moving environment with a lot of heavy items, and the plant floor can change daily. Having that awareness of what’s going on around them and where they’re placing all the parts of their body at any given time is paramount.”
“These workers must be situationally aware,” he said. “Remind them every day to look around their workplace. There’s always something new – don’t assume it’s the same today as it was yesterday.”
From the production floor to management and ownership, safety is the responsibility of every team member at a precast plant. A culture of safety and accountability must be instilled early and continually supported. Building a safe, successful business starts with properly training new hires on appropriate practices and systems. It continues with ongoing training and empowerment of employees to not only implement safe practices themselves but ensure those around them are doing the same. For Crockett, it all comes down to one very important obligation.
“It is your responsibility to see that all employees leave each day unharmed,” he said. “That responsibility should be taken very seriously.” PI
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.