One company forms a PACT with employees to change the way it views jobsite safety.

Let's face it. Sometimes there are only two things you think of while on a job: 1) Am I on time? and 2) Am I on budget? The fact that you'd think first about performing your task safely seems almost rude.

But one company has worked to repair that attitude of safety unawareness, and has gleaned not only industry recognition, but more importantly, esteem from its own employees for making the change - all while increasing its bottom line.

The award-winning PACT safety program of Nooter Construction Co. stands for Positive, Awareness, Coaching and Teamwork - and it didn't happen overnight. Its slow diffusion of safety into the very mindset of the Nooter employees was key, and is something every company - large or small - can take a lesson from and apply.

Nooter, as a piping and mechanical firm in the suburbs of Philadelphia, consists mainly of refinery project management, power and utility tasks, but it also operates a steady commercial piping division. Like most industrial and commercial contracting firms, its employees work up high, down low, inside and outside some of the most dangerous jobsites imaginable.

In 1996, management noticed a trend in the bidding process that "safe" companies were winning the contracts. It recognized the need for improvement and decided to stay ahead of the game.

"There was a push from customers to have a shining safety record," says Ronald Zinzer, senior vice president and general manager of Nooter. Refining companies like Sonoco wouldn't even entertain a bid from a mechanical firm with a Recordable Incident Rate above 1.0 (Nooter currently stands at 0.54, lowered from 6.7 before PACT).

So while the company's 4-inch health and safety manual sat unread and unapproachable on a shelf in the Bensalem, Pa., office, the Nooter safety department, lead by Monica Mizgerd and supported by Peter Cimino, vice president operations, proposed a plan of action.

"Nooter had a lot of great policies, programs and procedures," says Mizgerd, Nooter safety and risk manager since 1994. "But there was a lot of disconnect; there really wasn't any kind of vehicle to pull it together and have it make sense for the guys."

This new direction led Nooter toward increased employee involvement - nothing less than a complete safety culture change. Safety would no longer just be the function of the "safety police"; Nooter wanted every employee to have safety in his or her job description.

Where To Begin?

Mizgerd, Cimino and team determined two key strategies: Roll out one new program at a time; and keep the program fluid with constant feedback. That first year the company focused on incident investigation procedures and worked to make that process easy to use.

"The intent of the safety program is to blame the system as opposed to blaming individuals," says Mizgerd. "To get to the culture where you're healthy and you recognize that having near misses are good for you, so you can share that information with the rest of the crew."

Training seminars throughout the year reinforced each new program and its training specifics - a refresher course, if you will - that allowed Nooter to maintain and monitor each new development.

"The tools we were trying to give them at this training, by going one step at a time, was basically the ability to implement the health and safety program that we have in that 4-inch binder," Mizgerd says.

From there the company rolled out its Job Hazard Analysis (JHA), which is a checklist each project foreman is trained to complete to make sure jobsites are as safe as possible - before any work even begins. Hazards found on a jobsite - logistical heads-ups, asbestos removal, tool and equipment concerns, etc. - must be corrected or eliminated before a job begins.

"What we wanted to do was create a safety system, recognizing that regular planning and upfront work is so critical," Mizgerd says. "The execution really takes care of itself if you plan the job well."

Other programs introduced included daily Tool Box Talks between supervisors and craftsmen, where employees can raise any safety issues while on the jobsite. Nooter also introduced an essential safety survey for employees that requires they give ongoing feedback at intervals during a project and after its completion. Questions asked on the feedback cards serve to rate supervisors' and managers' commitment to safety at a site, such as, "Does safety get thrown out the window when it's 'crunch-time'?"

All the information received from the field gets processed and turned around quickly by the safety department, and reported back to the field. That, too, is a fundamental of PACT: Increased visibility between management and employees.

"We show them we're really listening," says Cimino, who is happy to process, chart and graph safety results from the field, and who regularly visits sites with Mizgerd. "Our most valuable asset is our employees."

What Did They Really Think?

Nobody likes to be told what to do. A radical change in "the way we do things around here" can be met with stubbornness, to say the least.

Nooter believes its slow-but-steady strategy worked to curb most skeptics and allowed the program to diffuse smoothly.

When all the pieces of the puzzle were together, a new slim health and safety manual, labeled with the neat and properly marketed acronym, PACT, made it extremely easy to use for steady employees involved since 1996, as well as Nooter's extensive transient workforce from the union hall.

By introducing one new thing at a time - rather than dumping it all in their laps - employees hadn't realized how far they'd come, and that they were already doing a lot of the things Nooter proposed with the final PACT package in 2000.

"And they were really proud of themselves and excited, because they said, 'Oh, we know how to do a JHA,' and, 'We can put together a site-specific safety plan,' and, 'We are doing the Tool Box Talks, etc.'" says Mizgerd of the employees' enthusiasm for PACT.

Nooter safety was now in the hands of its employees, who considered it their program, one that is reliably monitored, reviewed and rewarded.

"PACT was taken to the workers," says vice president commercial Thomas Bach, whose division of roughly 50 steady piping and mechanical craftsmen boasts a record four years without a recordable incident. "This new open line of communication showed them management really cared and wanted them to be safe. And everything goes smoother through more communication."

Nooter regularly blends field workers and supervisors in meetings in Bensalem with office management to allow time to vent concerns, frustrations or suggestions in an open atmosphere away from the jobsite. These committees are also broken up into safety subcommittees, in which compliance coordinators are actually chosen among the craftsmen.

"We were appointing one of their own," Mizgerd says, "which shows trust, and gives a sense of ownership and accountability about safety."

Zinzer agrees that this new way to look at safety works as a two-way street. "The [interim] union workers really care about Nooter now, and look to work for us when we need them."

With PACT now in place, the safety department focuses on the "soft" side of safety, according to Mizgerd and Cimino, whose visits to jobsites are a positive experience rather than a "gotcha" game.

"We try to reward people for doing things right as opposed to catching them for doing things wrong," Mizgerd says.

As of this writing, Nooter posts 3.5 million man-hours without any lost time. For its safety efforts, it won the Mechanical Contractors Association of America's E. Robert Kent Award for Management Innovation in 2002. While it is a large company, what can smaller companies hope to accomplish based on Nooter's learning experience with actively and determinedly changing the way employees view safety?

"Know that it doesn't take a lot of money to implement a safety program," Mizgerd offers. "It takes time and planning; it should not be the 'flavor of the month.'" She concludes that a proper safety program makes great business sense, and allows you to evolve with an ever-changing industry.

"You can't afford not to have a safety manager or program," says Zinzer. "But I don't see dollar-signs: I see smoother execution, safe and effective jobs, and an interest in the man doing the work. Safety does the industry good as a whole."