It’s a northern Alberta oilsands site in 2012. The ironworkers have discovered a beam just lifted into place is not conforming to the specifications. They organize a blind lift. Ed, an apprentice with Waiward Steel, is kneeling, struggling to fit the choker on the beam. The radio operator stops communicating with the crane for a moment to help his colleague.
And then it happens.
“Ed took a 1,500-pound ball to the back of the head, and it drove his face into the gusset plate,” recalled Jim Kanerva, Waiward’s chief operating officer, at the Innovation in Construction Forum in Edmonton last November. “It filleted his face, like you would fillet a fish.”
Not only did Ed survive the horrible accident, he eventually returned to continue working at Waiward, where he remains today. But the chronic pain he still experiences from the accident is a sobering reminder for the company of the considerable human cost of an incident on the job site. Even an award-winning safety program is not enough to protect workers.
“That system failed Ed. He didn’t fail. He was part of a system that failed, so we failed,” Kanerva said. “We were scared, humbled and very, very sorry.”
Waiward’s entire safety philosophy was called into question. Everyone in the company—not just those working in the field where “metal meets meat,” as Kanerva says—had to take responsibility for safety. An engineering error or payroll problem can easily become a distraction on site and leave workers vulnerable to an incident. Examples of safe work had to be found, and more importantly, replicated elsewhere in the business. Having all of the third-party safety certifications, while still necessary, was no longer enough for a worker to prove he or she could do the job safely. Waiward needed to know people had actually witnessed that safe work.
Existing safety programs simply didn’t fit with where the company wanted to go. Over the course of several years, it developed its own in-house software system to tackle the challenge. Dubbed MODOS, this program would prove instrumental in helping the company achieve a major safety milestone in fall 2016: over four million hours worked without a lost-time incident.
The program breaks down each job classification—there are about 140 at the company, ranging from president to first-year apprentice—into a series of competencies, based on common tasks like reading blueprints, working at heights or using a mag drill. When workers are flagged as needing training, they are paired up with a more experienced employee who can serve as a mentor and given access to in-house training materials. The goal is to track each worker’s skill set and pinpoint deficiencies to ensure no one is ever put into a situation that is beyond their ability to work safely.
“This is the beating heart of the program—the ongoing conversation between the mentor and trainee,” Kanerva said. “The people in our company have learned when you get rated NT [needs training], you’re about to be invested in. It doesn’t mean you’re incompetent.”
He described the program as “a living resumé” that has to be updated regularly, with assessments for each worker required either once per year or once per job. Operating engineers, millwrights and ironworkers are all part of the program, and over 4,000 reviews have already been inputted into the system. Soon, the company will begin working on bringing pipefitters into MODOS as well.
As the number of workers involved grows, the system’s full potential should become clear. Jeff Norris, Canadian safety coordinator for the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers, notes that workers in the construction industry rarely stay in one place for their entire careers. While the program remains limited to Waiward Steel and a few contractors at the moment, everyone involved wants to see it spread across North America to ensure workers can prove their competence even if they move from Alberta to Ontario.
Supervisors have quickly embraced the system, and ironworkers on the tools have also accepted it, if a bit more cautiously, Norris says. For some workers, the process of being formally assessed can be intimidating at first, but the union’s presence should offer some assurance that their interests will be protected, he believes.
“It’s in the best interests of them as a person to be able to build on that working resumé and build their skills,” he says. “Traditionally, they were just sent out and if they didn’t have those skills, they were just put somewhere else. They weren’t given the opportunity to be coached and introduced to new equipment or new processes.”
To Norris, MODOS is not just a tool for safety but also productivity. The safety record of any contractor bidding on a job will come under scrutiny, and proving they can do the work safely is much the same as proving they can do the work well. Ultimately, the program can help identify and spread best practices for the multitude of tasks it tracks, Norris says.
“The resource that we’re providing is people that are productive, and working safely is part of that productivity,” he says. “Sometimes people try to separate safety and productivity, but I personally don’t view it that way. We do the work with the highest quality so we don’t ever have to go back and redo it. And when you think about it, that really all comes down to competency.”