Tweet/Garot Mechanical's name for its plumbers, pipefitters, sheet metal workers and techs goes a long way in explaining why the company's gone so far with its safety program.

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Recently, Tweet/Garot Mechanical Inc., Green Bay, Wis., had an increase in the number of “recordable incidents” with more than half of these injuries being lacerations requiring stitches or glue. The main reason for the injuries was all too common - workers taking off clumsy leather gloves to grab nuts and bolts.

So the company introduced a new, snugger-fitting glove made of a super-tough synthetic material, but which feels almost like cotton.

With the gloves safely on, workers could perform the nimblest of tasks. As a result, the company hasn’t had a single incident requiring stitches so far this year in which taking gloves off was the cause. That cut its number of recordable injuries down by more than half so far this year when we visited them in July.

A relatively modest success, perhaps, but it’s a small part of a comprehensive safety strategy that’s paid off in some mighty big numbers. In May, the company achieved 4 million hours without one “lost time” incident. Other distinctions worth considering are its OSHA incident rate of 3.83, half the mechanical industry’s average, and its experience modification rate of 0.68.

“We’ve always been concerned about safety for safety’s sake,” says Timothy J. Howald, president. “Part of our strategy is working on the small accidents - eliminate the reasons for those small accidents, stay on top of that and you’ll also eliminate larger accidents.”

The company’s formal safety push began in 1991 with the hiring of Chris E. Warren as a full-time safety director - something Howald said was unheard of at the time for a mechanical contractor that was then making around $16 million in revenue.

Since then, the company has won too many safety awards to list here from the state of Wisconsin, local labor unions, its insurers, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association, to name just a few groups.

Beyond awards, the company also earned a reputation among the local trades that it is the place to work. As a result, many of its workers are long-time employees and help foster safe practices to the new hires.

Safety is the top priority for the company - and if that sounds like a cliché, than we’ll plead guilty to the writing offense since there’s no other easy way to sum up how safety is measured, evaluated, investigated, reviewed and discussed countless times throughout the “normal” work of mechanical contracting.

“Safety for fellow workers is paramount,” Howald says. “Yet it is also considered a common expectation among our workers, and that makes the process safer for everyone.”

All part and parcel of a plan to protect what the company thinks of as “industrial athletes” - providing protective equipment and even body conditioning whenever its workers take the field.

“We try to instill the belief that there is no excuse - not time, not profits, not anything - for compromising safety,” Howald adds. “Employees should go home in the same healthy condition as they arrived to work.”

Safety First And Last

We sat down with Warren and Gabe Gutenberger to give us a rundown of the safety initiative at Tweet/Garot. Gutenberger, a former sheet metal worker, joined Warren in the safety department two years ago. Gutenberger is currently the safety director as Warren made the transition to risk manager and lean continuous improvement facilitator.

Warren’s history set the stage for his safety career. When he was still a teenager, Warren’s dad suffered an accident while operating a crane.

“You could tell that after the accident, my father just wasn’t the same,” Warren remembers. “Accidents like these aren’t just physical, but psychological, too.” His dad ended up dying of a heart attack just a year later and Warren can’t help but think that the stress of dealing with his accident contributed to his death.

Warren began his career working for another contracting firm in the area, but gravitated toward safety at a time when “getting guys to wear even a hardhat was a struggle.”

When Warren joined Tweet/Garot in 1991, his first objective was to set standards and expectations for safety. If any part of the safety program can be called “basic,” then here are some of the basics that make up the plan:

  • Management budgets for safety by creating a separate division for the continued growth of safety initiatives. Jobs are planned with safety in mind at the start, with safety included in initial estimates. The Safety Department works with estimating personnel to establish safety priorities within job proposals. Determining that adequate safety training has been given to all potential jobsite supervisors and employees is crucial.

  • Once a job is awarded, a pre-job meeting is held to plan the work, with safety being the first item on the agenda. Afterward, all the equipment, including personal protective equipment, required for the job is ordered and delivered prior to job start-up.

  • Supervisors are held accountable for personnel, property and material within their immediate jurisdiction. In fact, the only way you can earn the title at Tweet/Garot is be an enthusiastic advocate for safety. All would-be supervisors attend additional safety training classes first.

  • All new company hires and temporary/contract employees attend a New Hire Orientation. The orientation includes face-to-face instruction, a video outlining the company’s safety and health expectations, and training on the proper use of safety equipment.

    While the training sessions are to-the-point, many of the PowerPoint presentations contain interactive quizzes, pictures and video clips to help reiterate important information.

  • Later on the job, employees are required to make a safety check of their immediate work area. Specially designed pre-task plan cards help identify any safety hazards and preclude unsafe behavior.

  • All employees are encouraged to verbally report any hazards to their immediate supervisors, including those of the general contractor or other contractors. Actually, “encouraged” might not be a strong enough word to describe the empowerment, since any employee also has the right to immediately stop work if a dangerous, uncontrolled hazard is found.

    One Tweet/Garot supervisor kept a large jobsite shut down for four straight shifts due to another contractor’s problem exposing workers to silica.

  • A new emphasis on a “zero injury” philosophy quickly investigates any incidents that do happen. All recordable incidents are investigated throughout the chain of command within 24 hours. The investigation analyzes the root cause of the incident, which, in turn, determines how to prevent a recurrence.

  • Incidents are bound to happen, but the company’s Return to Work Program is one way that its safety program has reached past 4 million hours without a lost time event. Injured employees are always accompanied to a medical facility by either the supervisor or co-worker. This helps provide information to the medical personnel.

    Any Tweet/Garot employee who suffers an injury that does reduce his usual capabilities is always offered alternative work. The company also works closely with a number of occupational health facilities.

  • The company has held five company-wide Safety Days since 1996. Employees attend a full eight hours of safety training - and while attendance is voluntary, the events still enjoy high attendance rates.

  • Finally, the company helps keep employees safe and sound after-hours, too. All Tweet/Garot tools are available for home improvement projects. The company also sponsors after-work seminars on stress management, hunter safety and employee fitness. Tweet/Garot’s annual Christmas cards wish everyone a “Blessed, Safe and Merry Christmas.”

  • Safety And Lean Construction

    Recently, Gutenberger has expanded the safety program to more “intermediate” concerns. It was his work, for example, that introduced the new gloves. And he’s also proud of the work he’s done to extend the company’s safety program into vehicle operations.

    So far, through better background checks and other investigations, he’s identified some 27 workers who, while they may be able to drive their own cars to work, aren’t the best bets to get behind the wheel of a company vehicle.

    “We haven’t had any major accidents,” Gutenberger says, “but it makes everyone feel confident that we’ve taken these steps if anything were to happen.”

    Gutenberger also has been working on upgrading the company’s hexavalent chromium program to reach above industry standards. The substance can be formed when welding stainless steel.

    With Gutenberger’s added help, Warren has turned his attention to lean construction. Basically, lean construction identifies waste and many practitioners are familiar with the 5 S’s of lean:
    • Sorting.
    • Simplifying.
    • Sweeping.
    • Standardizing.
    • Self-Discipline.
    Warren has started to think about the 6 S’s of lean - and at this point of the story, we’re going to guess everyone knows what that sixth S stands for.

    “Anything that can make the lifting of heavy items more efficient, organized - and, more importantly, safer - shows how lean and safety programs can work together,” Warren says.

    We never thought about prefab operations as necessarily part of a safety program either. But then we toured the plumbing/piping prefab shop and saw how much of the traditional back-wrenching work of installation could be smoothed out by assembling commercial sinks in a controlled environment with all the parts and pieces laid out at the proper height. After assembly, the sinks were positioned on specially designed racks that will eventually be easily transported to a jobsite.

    “Most contractors look at lean in its most elemental form  - how to eliminate waste,” Howald says. “And it is that, but somebody not being able to work and provide for his family could be the biggest waste of all.”

    Company History

    We don’t often visit a company that can trace its history all the way back to 1897, but Tweet/Garot Mechanical, Green Bay, Wis., can.

    The current company is actually a merger of three separate companies: Edward Garot & Sons dates back to 1897; Tweet Brothers Plumbing & Heating started in 1924; and Withbroe Sheet Metal began in 1923.

    All three companies merged in 1979 with the goal being to provide its Green Bay market with a single source for plumbing, heating and sheet metal.

    Today, the $70 million company employs approximately 350 people and operates from its base in Green Bay with a corporate office, engineering and fabrication facilities, as well as an office and fabrication facility in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., an office in Menominee, Minn., and a new office in Milwaukee.

    The company has three main divisions for commercial, industrial and field service. Healthcare and the pulp and paper industries are Tweet/Garot’s main customers throughout northeastern and central Wisconsin, Upper Michigan and locations throughout the Midwest.

    However, you can see one job while watching TV on more than a few Sundays this football season: In 2001, the company was awarded its largest-ever plumbing and HVAC project to redevelop Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. The extensive work was completed in time for the 2003 season.

    A Different Sort Of Safety

    Tim Howald, president of Tweet/Garot Mechanical Inc., insists that in the neck-and-neck bidding of mechanical jobs, the company’s safety reputation has been the seemingly invisible difference that’s put the firm over the top in many cases. He says one such job was a $14 million healthcare job back in 2004 in which Gabe Gutenberger, safety director, helped save a life.

    At the time, Gutenberger was a fifth-year apprentice out in the field with, among others, sheet metal worker Mark Pankow.

    At the end of one working day, Pankow collapsed on his way to his car. One colleague immediately called 911 and another knew Gutenberger could offer help right then and there.

    At this point in the story, Gutenberger rolled up the sleeve on his left arm to reveal a tattoo of the Star of Life, a six-pointed star with a snake entwined on a staff in the middle that you’ve probably seen on ambulances. It’s the recognized “logo” for emergency medical services.

    Turns out, Gutenberger is also a volunteer firefighter/first responder and actually kept an automated external defibrillator in his truck.

    Gutenberger used the defibrillator on Pankow about three minutes after he collapsed and about seven long minutes before the ambulance arrived. Later, Pankow had heart surgery and made a full recovery.

    Gutenberger’s actions won the company an award from the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust and the company also invested in defibrillators for all its shops and jobsites, as well as the needed training.