Contractor Becomes Developer for Safety’s Sake
BY SHERYL S. JACKSON
Clear, accurate, real-time information is a critical component of an effective safety plan, but the size and complexity of construction jobsites makes communication difficult in any type of emergency. When an active shooter crisis developed on a property adjacent to one of Skiles Group’s projects a few years ago, it was difficult to share timely and accurate information about the developing situation with dozens of workers spread across multiple floors of an operational hospital. This raised the questions: How can project workers better alert a supervisor that help is needed, and what if the emergency was on-site and required evacuation or other safety measures to be implemented?
“We were already working on an application that would enhance the way we communicate throughout the jobsite and would provide real-time access to information employees need in an emergency when this incident occurred, but it emphasized the importance of what we were doing,” says Keyan Zandy, chief operating officer of Skiles Group, a TEXO member.
The Smart Safety application (smartsafetyalert.com) developed by Skiles Group was part of the company’s overall commitment to Lean construction, which emphasizes a focus on continuous improvement. Because safety is the top priority for the company, a variety of methods were evaluated to provide all employees on jobsites with quick and easy access to emergency-related information and procedures.
“We discussed printing wallet cards to give to all of the trades at our project orientations that included phone numbers, identification of rally points for evacuations and other critical information,” says Zandy. However, printed cards also meant providing multiple versions to address language differences and updating cards as construction progressed because rally points and other information changed, he adds. “We asked ourselves how continually printing new cards was a Lean strategy.”
The decision to forego cards and use a software application to provide the information was based on the ease of updating and customizing information as well as the proliferation of smartphones. Development of the application, which displays safety procedures as well as phone numbers for people on-site and even locations of nearest hospitals — far more information than a printed card can hold — began as a tool for Skiles Group’s exclusive use, but soon changed.
“We realized that there is no application on the market that offers this level of information, so we decided to develop Smart Safety for our own use and to make it available to other contractors,” says Zandy.
After using the app internally on a variety of jobsites, it was made available to other contractors in April 2019.
Once a contractor subscribes to the app for a monthly fee, all workers on that jobsite can download the application to their phones from Google Play or the Apple Store. Scanning a QR code loads the jobsite-specific information for the project that includes the crisis plan, contacts and other resources employees can use to respond to an emergency situation.
Current Crisis Response vs Future Response
“A $40 million project might have 150 people on-site at any time, with different people working on the site each day, and the crisis management plan — with all of the procedures, instructions and contact information — is usually located in the project manager’s trailer,” points out Zandy.
In addition to the delay caused by a need to return to the trailer, communicating the need to evacuate or explaining what is happening and where it is happening to all workers is complicated by the number of different trades and different locations on the site.
What Does OSHA Require in an EAP?
No matter how a contractor chooses to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s requirements on employers under 29 CFR 1910.38, Emergency Action Plans — written plans in the jobsite trailer or software application on a mobile phone — it is important to be sure the minimum requirements are met, which include a written EAP that is available to employees for review. The following procedures must be included in the EAP:
• An employee alarm system, which must use a different signal for each purpose
While a 911 call is always the first step, workers who witness an accident, such as an electrocution or another threat to safety, such as a storm with lightning in the distance, can easily contact their supervisor, who then confirms the accident or threat and alerts all persons on-site. When the alert is sent, it automatically pulls up the plans and protocols for that type of event. Because ingress and egress throughout the site can be complicated, specific evacuation routes and meeting or “rally” points are displayed on the phone.
Geofencing technology, which draws a radius around the project, limits the ability for workers to send an alert while off-site, but specific users — project managers, superintendents or other personnel identified by the administrator — are given the ability to receive emergency notifications even when off-site and to send alerts once they verify the information.
“These steps to verify location and information are important to the credibility of the Smart Safety app as well as the contractor’s use of the tool,” Zandy says.
The application is available in Spanish and English, with the end user choosing which language appears on his or her phone.
“Although most workers have smartphones, those who don’t can still see basic emergency action plans posted around the jobsite, and we also require every labor foreman to have a smartphone with the app installed,” says Zandy.
“We still always maintain a printed EAP in the jobsite trailer.”
Throughout testing of the app on Skiles Group’s jobs, changes made over the past year included additional user-friendly features such as photos of emergency contact personnel and the ability to text message, email or call via the app. The use of GPS and technologies such as Google Maps are also potential features for the application to better direct people to emergency resources like hospitals and urgent care clinics.
Skiles Group is not a technology company; it is a construction company, points out Zandy.
“There are a number of mobile safety applications on the market, but after evaluating them carefully, we found that they did not address our construction-specific needs,” Zandy says.
“This is a safety tool designed for contractors by contractors.”