Pepper, others commended for their safety programs: Area contractors turn to technology to track job-site performance

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Hand-held computer devices are becoming as common as hardhats and heavy equipment on the job sites of Pepper Construction Company of Indiana Inc.

The Chicago-based contractor’s Indianapolis location began using the hightech gadgetry about 18 months ago to track job-site safety and tie the results to bonus amounts awarded to supervisors.

While the company has tracked safety performance for years via written reports, the new system lets everyone from executives to subcontractors view the information almost immediately after it’s loaded onto a software program.

The innovative approach earned Pepper accolades in April, when the Metro Indianapolis Coalition for Construction Safety bestowed the contractor with its top honor, the annual Excellence in Safety Crystal Eagle Award.

Tracking potential problems

The program’s ability to track risky conditions or behaviors that might lead to an accident, on top of logging what accidents already have occurred, especially impressed the judges, said Gary Price, executive director of MICCS.

By being pre-emptive, participants might identify an issue with personal-protection equipment, for instance, and take action to fix the problem before it causes a mishap.

“They made it through 2005 without a loss-time accident, which is a very significant achievement for a company of Pepper’s size,” Price said. “But perhaps what put Pepper over the edge was how obvious it was at how the company’s safety program is always moving and always being tweaked.”

Pepper is the seventh-largest construction contractor in Indianapolis, according to IBJ research, with more than $176 million in billings from its local office in 2005. It has more than 160 full-time employees.

As a portion of their evaluations for bonuses, Pepper’s project man- agers walk a job site with safety professionals to perform a monthly audit. Participants gather and report information using the same checklists, ensuring consistency and guaranteeing everyone’s reports are in the same format.

The data is compiled into a monthly list of performance rankings for project executives and managers, superintendents and foremen, said Dave Murphy, Pepper’s safety director. Bonuses can amount to 4 percent of their annual salaries.

“They know how they’re doing week to week, month to month. There’s no surprises,” Murphy said. “They know exactly where they stand and where they need improvement.”

People feel like they are a greater part of the team, Murphy said, because each time someone produces an inspection, everyone gets a copy and has the ability to participate.

Moreover, Murphy said, the information provides greater depth than what is detailed in the accident reports from the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration.

“One accident can turn the safety metrics upside down,” he said. “When we can measure what people are doing on a regular basis to prevent accidents, now we’ve got something.”

Murphy estimated it could take three years to reap any meaningful statistics from the program, which was introduced at Pepper’s Chicago location.

Another safety initiative Pepper introduced, albeit several years ago, outfits beginning tradesmen with gold hard hats to denote their status with the company. The object is for them to stand out so others know they are new and will coach them on the importance of safety. The gold hard hats are worn for 500 hours, or about three months.

Pepper is a previous recipient of the Excellence in Safety Award, having won it in 2002 as well.

Project of the Year

Other honors handed out by MICCS at its April banquet included the Project of the Year award, which Eli Lilly and Co. received for the construction of its pilot plant as part of the drugmaker’s north expansion.

Safety innovations included Eli Lilly’s idea to provide veteran workers on the job site with a special vest signifying their experience there, making it easier for newer workers to know whom to ask for assistance.

Conversely, workers who had been on the job site less than 30 days wore a blue vest so veteran contractors knew whom to watch more closely.

Another innovation recognized employees who developed safe work plans with drawings for gift certificates. Further, the “No Name, No Blame” program encouraged workers to point out safety hazards by awarding a gift certificate for every 25 safety reports submitted.

There was an average of 195 to 425 workers on site daily during construction of the 230,000-square-foot facility that is part of the Lilly Technology Center.

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