Many in the construction industry regard safety requirements as a burden and blame them for hurting profits and hindering the timely completion of a project. This mindset may be tied to the once prevalent notion that construction is a fundamentally dangerous business and that accidents are part of the job. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What is not well understood in the industry is that looking the other way, protecting those who set a bad example, or not questioning why a worker does not have or is not wearing personal protection equipment is expensive, counterproductive, unprofessional and just plain poor management. Ignoring a key safety issue, covering up for complacency, or encouraging misplaced loyalties is a formula for increased cost, falling production, damaged morale and increased risk of injury.

In the new reality of rocketing fuel costs, true global competition and the impact of the aging workforce, we at EMCOR are determined to change the way we work in order to remain productive and profitable. Our approach includes challenging the notion that personal protection equipment is merely part of some safety campaign or regulatory responsibility.

We believe it to be far more; it is part of our technological and moral advantage that, when exploited, assists in the delivery of services with increased productivity and the achievement of goals through reduced risk, waste, fatigue, errors and injury. Redefining personal protection equipment as “Personal Productivity Equipment” (PPE) is a major development in understanding the relationship between worker and equipment and the realization that embracing productivity is the profitable approach to safety.

A few examples illustrate this point. Imagine the scenario: The temporary lighting does not provide enough light for aging eyes to see measurements on blueprints or to read equipment labels. Could the measurements be wrong? Is the equipment incorrectly identified? Does it take longer to get it right? Could these circumstances create rework at a later time?

This happens all the time in the field. In response, we could encourage a worker to go down five floors and cross the site to get a flashlight or to try and get someone to provide additional lighting - both of which require additional time and effort at increased risk and cost. If, however, our worker is properly prepared with adequate PPE, he turns on the LED task lighting on his hard hat. The emitted light is bright, his hands are free, his eyes can relax and his brain concentrates on the task at hand. Mistakes are less likely, fatigue is reduced and the risk of a slip, trip or fall is eliminated. Work is continuous, time is not wasted and productivity is improved.

Later, our worker kneels down to retrieve a fallen bolt. He doesn't think about the consequences of his 250-lb. body forcing his knee onto the waiting bolt until it's too late. We know the consequences of an injured knee — it gets cut, bruised or worse; it could be it's the last straw for knees that already have a few war stories to tell. A serious knee injury (acute or cumulative) can take a key worker out for up to six months. Perhaps his tasks are assigned to a less experienced colleague. Maybe he decides that enough is enough and retires early.

Fortunately, in this instance, because of thoughtful pre-planning and good use of PPE, this worker had gel knee protection inserts in his pants, guarding him from the impact of kneeling on the bolt and preventing a treatable injury from occurring. No need to find a replacement worker and make up for lost time. No need to investigate and report an incident. It's just a reminder of the imperative to ensure that the right kneepads are available and used - a minor detail with substantial benefits.

PPE goes a long way toward preventing injury and increasing productivity, but it is important to remember that it is not a total solution. Pre-planning for reduced risk delivery is paramount. It is late now and our worker's thoughts are beginning to wander - just one piece of threaded rod to cut before calling it a day. This one is a little tricky, it should have been cut in the shop not when hanging from the ceiling but the reciprocating saw will do the job.

Every reader probably can bring such a story to a painful and costly conclusion. But in this case, there is an uneventful ending. Our worker is influenced by EMCOR's “Be There for Life Zero Accident Program,” which instills in field personnel a sense of personal responsibility by equating safe working practice with life's family events. Because of this, he less likely to take risks. He thinks of his granddaughter and the game he promised to play with her that evening. He takes the time to set up the job properly and wears the Kevlar gauntlets provided for him. As a result, he goes home in the same uninjured condition as when he arrived at work that morning.

These stories demonstrate how changing the safety mindset, from top management on down, is an important part of changing the way we work. It is the only sure way to consistently prevent injury and increase productivity. So let's make sure workers are prepared the next time we ask them to don their “Personal Productivity Equipment.” We must truly ensure that management fully understands the wide ranging benefits available merely by rethinking a company's approach to basic safety requirements and refusing to follow excepted dogma.

David M. Copley is vice president, safety and quality management for EMCOR Group Inc., Norwalk, Conn.