Before moving up in the construction industry to become the Health, Safety & Environmental Director at Jordan Foster Construction, Damian Alvarez was once a 22-year-old worker on a jobsite, having zero fall prevention training.
“I was handed a harness and a lanyard and told, ‘Go start working on the third floor on the iron up there," he says. "I had never worn a harness before. I had never even been on a boom lift before.”
Not wanting to say no and determined to get the job done, Alvarez thought this was all normal stuff. “I didn't know there was such a thing as protecting myself from a fall,” he adds.
It took Alvarez a couple of minutes to figure out how to put everything on, especially since PPE back then was so much simpler without all the bells and whistles it has today. When he got to the top and attached himself to something, he worked like this every day for a week until he realized his harness wasn’t even attached properly.
“This is where a lot of issues arise,” Alvarez says. “Training and education are put together like they’re the same thing, but you have to educate people, then you have to actually train them on what they just got educated on.”
All these years later, Alvarez can only laugh in amazement at how he, along with so many other improperly trained workers, made it through that period without any major accidents. “I’ve been in construction since the age of 14,” he says. “That’s not even the worst story I could tell you about.”
What Would You Do In This Situation?
A natural storyteller, Damian Alvarez brings up another memorable experience that he doesn’t share too often. When he was living in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 2000s, he was fueling up his truck between jobsites and walked inside the gas station to grab an energy drink and pay for his gas.
“When I walked in, I saw a guy sitting right by the door. He had a bag with a Styrofoam paper plate in there. He was trying to open it and I saw he couldn't. I could tell he spoke Spanish, so I said, ‘Hey, do you need help with that?’ We started having a conversation in Spanish and I asked why he was eating right here. Then I noticed he had blood on him.”
The stranger proceeded to tell Alvarez he had fallen off of a roof that morning, and the owner of the company took him to the hospital, then he dropped him off at the gas station because it was the same place he picked him up. After Alvarez asked where he lived, the man stated that he couldn’t remember how to get there because his head hurt too bad.
“He showed me, and he had probably eight to ten staples on his head where he had cracked his head open,” Alvarez says. “But this employer just left them at this gas station and probably didn’t train him how to work on a roof. That is one of the stories I never want to happen to anyone, anywhere I’m around.”
Going Beyond OSHA Requirements
Plain and simple – it’s downright unethical to not provide construction employees with the proper PPE and training.
“That’s why we still have those problems,” Alvarez states about injured workers, “because even though OSHA’s big, they can’t keep up with all of the companies and work that is being done in the United States.”
A longstanding criticism of regulation is that it often results in businesses only adhering to the bare minimum – which is significantly safer than doing nothing, but with the evolution of technology aiding the industry, the possibilities of taking safety to the next level are far more beneficial.
As Alvarez points out, “I was asked not too long ago if OSHA shows up, do we all stop working? I said no, because we’re not doing anything wrong. We’re actually going above and beyond what they’re asking us for, so we have nothing to fear.”
Not catering to the minimum standard of what they should be doing, Jordan Foster is a shining example of doing more than expected in terms of safety. For example, take a look at fall protection from a scaffold. According to OSHA, if you read their standards, you don’t have to protect workers on a scaffold until 10 feet.
“OSHA is a good guideline, but I don’t want to wait ‘til 9 feet to protect my worker,” he continues. “We protect our team members way before that.”
HCSS Safety Supports the Mission to Prevent Employee Falls
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022 there were 1,056 recorded construction fatalities, 423 of which were caused by falls from elevation. That results in jut over 40% of deaths in the industry being fall-related.
While many construction firms boast about their safety culture, Jordan Foster is unique in how they make that claim.
“We have our safety culture, but it’s not separate from our company culture,” Alvarez says. “It is one and the same. We are intertwined in everything that we do, from trying to get a job all the way to finishing the job.”
Jordan Foster Construction has grown over time to become one of the largest contractors in Texas, handling a variety of jobs across the massive state. With anywhere between 600-800 workers out in the field at a given time, it’s impossible for Alvarez and his team of safety managers to be everywhere at once. A little help from software makes such a colossal task more manageable.
“We use HCSS Safety and HeavyJob for everything that we do here at Jordan Foster,” Alvarez states. “So the inspections, observations, and near misses in there are going to give us the trends. If we have a job with 12 bridges, and I look at my dashboard and see we’ve got 3 crews working on bridges, and I don't see any near misses or observations, either that’s really good or we ask, ‘What’s going on?’”
At the same time, Alvarez points out that there’s not always something wrong, but there should still be some type of inspection and observation inside the dashboard about each job that helps him keep track of happenings on projects.
“One of the things that I remind people is there are a lot of positive observations we can do too,” says Alvarez. “It’s not just about finding the negative, but also finding the positive.”
When Jordan Foster analyzes their trends for incidents, observations, and near misses, their top five always coincide with OSHA’s top five, including the industry’s leading danger – falls.
“How does HCSS help us?” Alvarez repeats. “By giving us those leading indicators. I've heard people say, ‘I don’t want to see those indicators, because I’m going to get in trouble.’ No, we’re stopping something from happening before it even gets there. We’re stopping it 3 steps before, and we can get better, but it never gets to that accident state. I’d rather have more leading indicators than lagging indicators because with lagging indicators, the accident already happened. With the leading indicators, nothing’s happened yet, so we have time to learn and fix it.”
With such a thorough approach, it’s no wonder Jordan Foster has been the recipient of numerous safety awards year after year from the most prestigious organizations in construction. If every company across the industry was this proactive, substantially more falls would be prevented.
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