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Consistency in Safety Practices: An Interview with ABC’s Greg Sizemore

Toby Graham /
This week on the Safety Meeting, we chat with Greg Sizemore, Vice President of health, safety, environment, and workforce development for ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors).

[00:00:56]
So, Greg, it’s so great to have you here with us today. Thanks so much for taking the time. For our listeners who may not know, what is ABC and what role do you take within it?

First and foremost, thank you so much for asking me to be a part of today’s podcast. For those who do not know who ABC is, it’s Associated Builders and Contractors, and we’re a trade association based in Washington, DC. We have 69 chapters across the US. Our members are made up of mostly construction companies or general contractors.

And those that make their living in that space, whether they’re CPAs or attorneys, or even suppliers and vendors in that space, the member companies that we represent total. 21,000. And if you think of, with regards to the contractor, a general contractor is between 16 to 17,000 of those, uh, are in that space.

And so when we say at ABC, we like to say, if you can stay in it, pray in it, play in it, or if it manufactures, distributes, processes, or refines, those are our members. 

[00:01:51]
All right. I love that. In your opinion, what is the overall importance of safety in the construction industry as a whole? I know that’s a broad question.

Well, it’s a great question though. The short answer to that is it’s paramount. It’s absolute. And must be leader-driven. And here’s what I mean by that. As a contractor today, you can have all the rules and policies imaginable. All the PPE and all the technology, but you must lead your organization’s culture to do whatever it is or use, whatever it is.

I liken it to a wise man once said your safety culture is defined by the worst behavior you’re willing to accept. So we’ve always got a perception that we do things that may be hazardous. In other words, they’re working at heights, but there’s fall protection. You’re working around things, objects that can strike you or ladders that you can fall off of.

So the blocking and tackling of safety is really important, but the next big leap in safety, particularly in our industry, is not going to necessarily be a new PPE. It’s going to be a leader stepping up and actually leading in a very specific way. 

[00:03:09]
Yeah, absolutely. It’s the old adage of, you know, leading by example. I think that it really is applicable in the world of safety. 

I love to say that, you know, safety leadership begins between the ears and is executed from the heart. Real change begins to happen there. 

[00:03:26]
That’s great. ABC recently conducted a 2021 safety performance study. Can you speak to the details of that?

Yes. And as a matter of fact, in March, we’ve got our 2022 studies. So I’ll go ahead and put a plug into that. Maybe we can get together. But the highlights and headlines are this. If I had the secret sauce to reducing the probability of an incident occurring on your project, would you be interested in.

Long pause for effect, honestly. The ABC performance report is a collection of over 1 billion hours of real work performed by real contractors and executed by real craft professionals on projects across America. And it’s a very systematic, deep dive into high-performing contractors, high-performing safety contractors, and what they are doing consistently to ensure a healthy and safe workforce.

Imagine this: when the BLS average for incidents in our industry is something that anybody can look up, but that average is right around 2.8. If you look at the high-performing contract or safety-minded, health, and safety-minded contractors in this safety performance report, the high performers are at a 0.4 compared to 2.8, I would suspect anyone in the industry wants to know how they do that. Right? 

[00:05:05]
So in that study, it shows the companies who work with the ABC step program have the ability to make themselves 655% safer than the industry average, which is incredible. Tell me more about how that plays out.

Well, it’s- and again, it boils down to again, let’s make it, keep it simple for those out there on the podcast, listening on that end of it. The reality is it boils down to two things. Number one, there are what we call certain foundations. Things in the industry that are absolute.

In other words, you must have a substance abuse policy, and I’m going to tell you flat out that is something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable to talk about because of the legalization and or the addiction rates of both legal and illegal substances. But we do know this, that substances have no place in our industry.

In other words, let me make it personal for you. If it was your son, your daughter, your spouse, your partner, your best friend, or whoever, if it’s that person underneath the hook of a person in the tower crane that is rigging in the blind on the other side of the building, you’d want to make sure that that individual is 100% in control of their faculties at all times.

So while it may be difficult to have a substance abuse policy. Every contractor must have one of those. And the thing that gets most of them in trouble is they’re inconsistent in their application. And then in addition to that, you know, as a safety professional in the industry, we live our life by what we call leading indicators and a leading indicator is anything that, you know, if I do this, I will get this result. Now let’s again, keep it simple. If I was going to, I don’t know, pat somebody on the back and somebody had a sunburn, the leading indicator would be as intuitive as I need to move and not let that happen. Okay. So the reality is, is it’s taking what, you know, intuitively boiling it down to an application and then making sure that you’re doing it consistently.

So when we say we have foundations, we also have leading indicators. These leading indicators are the use of, for example, personal protective equipment. You know, that you can reduce the probability of an eye injury if you wear a face shield or safety glasses. You know that if someone drops something above your head and you don’t have a hard hat on, it will injure you.

Whereas if you have a hard hat on, it won’t or at least mitigate to reduce that injury. So you think about this, what it boils down to and how it plays out. Its contractors can go and look at the foundation. These are absolute immoveable audits that they build their safety program on. And I’ll tell you this.

I think it’s important to understand that all of this is out on abc.org and it is out front. Let me say this to be real clear. There is nothing about safety that is proprietary. When it comes to keeping men and women safe on our construction projects around this country and around the world. That’s open forum that is open for the whole world to see.

So I want to encourage anybody that’s wanting to know more about this to go out to abc.org, go to our safety page, and download the copy of the very report that you’re talking about. 

[00:08:23]
I agree having read the report myself, I highly recommend it. And here at KPA, we are big fans of leading indicators. So, you know, we’re always having to talk about a leading indicator.

Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, think of the biggest leading indicator that was out there for many, many years, that it was voluntary and I’m kind of dating myself for just a moment. I can remember when seat belts were not in cars. And now all of a sudden it’s intuitive. Everybody puts a seatbelt on. And so the leading indicator was we can reduce incidents if we strap somebody into an automobile seat. And society rebelled! “I don’t need this, this is crazy! You’re impeding on my freedom!” Listen until somebody in your family survives an automobile accident as a result of a seatbelt or wearing a seatbelt, all of a sudden you become pretty fanatical about seatbelt wearing. 

[00:09:10]
I believe it. That’s a great example. And I think maybe the next iteration past that is, you know, cell phones while driving, you know. 

Absolutely. You know, and oh boy, don’t we see enough of that. Walking and texting and driving and texting. It’s just, it’s incredible.

[00:09:25]
It is. And yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it, you know, and especially once you have the personal tie to why, um, those measures should exist, then it really drives it home.

So what best practices do you recommend for construction safety leaders and what impacts did those practices have on the safety outcomes of their companies? 

Well, it’s not as much a practice as it is a mindset. You know, every person in the planet or on the world or in our industry. Or wherever you want to say. Everyone that works in our industry has to understand that it’s their responsibility.

It is not someone else’s responsibility to be safe. It is not somebody else’s responsibility to be healthy. It’s our responsibility to create the conditions for those individuals that work on our projects to have a safe and healthy environment to work in. I like to say it this way, Sage, you know, words. I like to say that, uh, I want to send you home in the same or better condition than when you showed up this morning.

In other words, if you’ve done a good job for me, I want you to go home mentally, feeling like I did a great job today. This is good. I was safe. I’m coming home with my 10 fingers, 10 toes. My organization gave me everything I needed to do my work as it needed to be done. They didn’t compromise safety for anything.

So the first thing that we have to think about is that it begins with you. And if I’m talking to somebody that is an owner over an organization or of some sort of executive level, bear in mind, here’s what I’m going to boil it down to. If you go into a project where you require the men and women on that job site to wear leather or steel-toed boots, and you walk out there in your cool little Tom Johnson penny loafers, what kind of example are you setting for, Hey, that rule applies to you, not for me? We used to boil it down and you’ll respect this right. Walk the talk. If you’re going to ask someone to do it. You better be able to do it yourself. And so all we can do is create the conditions for those men and women that work in our industry to have the opportunity to do their work in a safe and healthy environment and go home at the end of the day, feeling good about what they did better than when they got there.

[00:11:42]
Absolutely. I think that’s a great mentality. It’s really a philosophy at that point. 

It does become- because don’t wait until- this is a warning that I have for anyone. I personally have been impacted by that cathartic moment on a construction project that all of a sudden turns you from that mentality where excuse my French for a moment, crap happens.

[00:12:04]
You said it nicer than I would have.

You know, from “that stuff just happens” to “every incident and every accident is preventable.” How come, as an industry, when we go in and do an incident investigation report on the backside of a project, we can always boil it down to one “if we’d’ve just done this.” The reality is if you’re going to take the time to do it, take the time to do it right, Sage.

And that’s what these leaders have to do. And then what you’re able to do, as I said before, your safety culture in your organization… doesn’t matter whether you’re in banking business, if you’re in a lawyer or a CPA, if you’re a doctor, if you are a construction worker, your safety, your commitment to safety will be defined by your workforce by the worst behavior we’re willing to accept.

So if your brother-in-law works there, Sage, and he is allowed to skate right up to the edge and get away with a few things, and then everybody’s watching what you allow him to do. And that’s where your definition of that is. Does that make sense? 

[00:13:07]
It does. It sets a precedent. Absolutely. So what advice do you want listeners to walk away from this conversation remembering? You’ve given so much great advice, but what’s the one thing you really want to make sure sticks. 

People matter. We’ve said for decades and industries across America and around the world, cliche. Our people are our most important assets. And at the end of the day, there’s probably a lot of truth to that.

But it’s become very easy to say without any real substantive meeting. Uh, I happen to be personally committed to the mental health of our workforce today. And it’s important that we understand that in our industry, the average age of an employee, male or female in our industry is between the ages of 42 and 47 years old.

Why is that? Well, the question is this, what have we done to promote the careers in our industry? And frankly, we’ve not done much, right? We steered everybody towards college and college is your litmus test for success. And while I was at college and what they do, understanding that on a Friday night in August and downtown Washington, DC, when your air conditioner doesn’t work.

Who’s the smartest person on the planet? I don’t care how many BS or MAs or PhDs or MDs you got, that A/C technician? That’s the smartest person on the planet. We need to start recognizing what these men and women are doing in our industry. And it boils down to people. We need to recognize that these are the men and women that build America.

These are the men and women that during a pandemic that had literally paralyzed the entire planet were deemed essential in almost every state in America today. Why? Because they built the places that allowed heroes to be heroes. In other words, you couldn’t be a nurse if your hospital wasn’t functioning. You know, you couldn’t have a place for a patient if you couldn’t convert that Coliseum into a short-term [hospital]. So we need to recognize the men and women that have trade skills for what they do. And as I said, create that environment where they can be successful. We’ve got to meet them where they’re at, Sage. And I kind of preachy you when it comes to this because I’m absolutely passionate about who’s putting on the hard hat.

Who’s standing behind the safety guy. Who’s lacing up the boots? It’s one thing to give them all the PPE, but just because I crawled out of the front seat of my pickup truck or my Ferrari or whatever your car may be. Just because I climbed outta that, dawned all that PPE, and walked through that gate does not mean that I don’t have a son that’s an addict, or my daughters were runaways or I’m going through a divorce or whatever. That stuff comes into our job sites.

So the next big change in safety in our industry today will be total human health. ABC has committed to making that happen. We are going to turn this industry to really begin to look at who’s there. We say fit for duty in our industry, right? But do we mean it? Or did we just give Greg the PPE he needed? So I think it’s going to be personal, I think it’s going to be looking at our people, making sure we meet them where they are.

[00:16:14]
Absolutely. And that’s a focus at KPA right now, too. And I think it’s part of the reason that we’re so grateful to be a tech alliance partner of ABC, because our values are so aligned. We’re in total agreement. Well, Greg, thank you so much for taking the time today. I really appreciate it. It’s been lovely talking with you. You should be a motivational speaker. Have you been a motivator? That’s your next career, because oh my god, that was incredible!

Maybe when I retire from the, I don’t know, second or third job. 

[00:16:38]
No rest for the wicked.

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