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Why Stop At Rockets?

October 28 2014

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of TAUC’s official magazine, The Construction User. Click here to read the entire issue online.

As I write this, we’re just a few short weeks away from the annual Zero Injury Safety Awards (ZISA) Gala, held each October by our sister organization, the National Maintenance Agreements Policy Committee, Inc. (NMAPC), where I also serve as Impartial Secretary and CEO. It’s one of our busiest times of the year, but also one of the most rewarding. The Gala is the chance for the entire union construction and maintenance industry to honor the hundreds of contractors, local unions and owner-clients who came together in genuine tripartite fashion to perform millions of injury-free work hours on jobsites across the country.

Words like “tripartite” and “cooperation” are thrown around a lot – probably too much, to be honest. After a while, the words begin to lose their meaning. It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Let’s just work together, hear each other out and – presto! – we’ll achieve “zero injuries.” But if you want to know what those words really mean, talk to some of the folks who have won a Zero Injury Safety Award. You’ll soon realize that it takes a lot more than happy talk and good feelings to create an injury-free workplace. To quote the old Ringo Starr song, “It Don’t Come Easy.” Not by a long shot.

Each ZISA plaque represents a hard-won victory over some extremely tough odds. It’s an elite symbol. ZISA is to our industry what the Academy Award is to the film business, or the Pulitzer Prize to journalism: proof that something very special has been accomplished. Everyone wants one, but few actually succeed. It’s also proof that you try hard enough – and care enough – you can break through the barriers that have traditionally separated labor, management and ownership.

Thirty years ago, “zero injury” was a punchline. Work a six-month job without anyone getting hurt? Yeah, right. But we did the seemingly impossible in the realm of safety. The question is, can we take the same principles of tripartite cooperation that we used to accomplish that goal and apply them to other areas of our industry?

I think we can. Versatility, after all, has long been a hallmark of American business. There’s a reason why they call it Yankee ingenuity. It’s amazing how many valued products and services that we take for granted today were originally invented for very different purposes, then modified over time. Take WD-40, for example. I’m sure almost everyone reading this has at least one can of the trusty old spray lubricant in their garage or tool shed. Chances are you’ll find it on most jobsites, too. We use it for just about everything: squeaky door hinges, old bicycle chains, freeing up rusty gears and sprockets, and on and on. In fact, on the manufacturer’s website you can find a list of more than 2,000 uses for WD-40. Talk about an American success story!

But it didn’t start out that way. In fact, back in 1953, the creators of WD-40 had no idea their product would one day be used for so many different purposes. Their original idea was to create a rust-prevention solvent for the aerospace industry. They even called their firm the Rocket Chemical Company. Convair first used WD-40 to protect the outer shell of its Atlas missile from corrosion!

After a few years, Rocket Chemical founder Norm Larsen noticed that employees were sneaking cans of WD-40 out of the manufacturing facility, because it was so useful to use around the house. He began wondering if consumers would be interested in an aerosol version of the product…and the rest is history.

Larsen succeeded in his original goal of creating a product for the aerospace industry. He saw a need, worked hard and came up with a solution that the marketplace embraced. And if he had stopped there, he probably would have made a nice living serving aerospace clients, but no one outside a small circle of technicians would have ever heard of WD-40.

Luckily for him (and for anyone who’s ever had a squeaky door hinge), he didn’t stop. He kept asking questions. When he noticed his employees using the product at home, he didn’t get mad – he got thinking. Why stop at rockets? Why not see what else it can do? The next thing you know, an empire was born.

I think it’s time our industry took a hint from Norm Larsen. Let’s look at the success we’ve had with implementing the zero-injury concept on jobsites all across America. Let’s think about the tools we used to accomplish that feat – cooperation, commitment, communication, patience, planning and skill, to name a few. And now let’s ask ourselves: Why stop at safety? Why not see what else we can do using these same tools?

Here’s a quick story. Recently, at a meeting of the NMAPC Owner Advisory Committee, several owners said they wanted contractors to participate more in pre-task safety planning sessions. These meetings occur after the pre-job conference, once the work has been assigned; they are usually held just before work actually begins. Pre-tasks are a crucial component of any successful project, and the owners wanted contractors involved more directly, to ensure that everyone was on the same page safety-wise.

The owners’ request was brought before the very next meeting of the TAUC Safety and Health Committee. The members agreed that having contractors more involved was a great idea. They’re currently putting together a plan of action so that all contractors on NMA jobs will make it a top priority on a future jobs.

Now that’s tripartite power in action. A request was made at an NMAPC tripartite meeting; it was quickly brought before the relevant committee on the TAUC side (notice there weren’t any arguments or ego clashes over which organization should tackle the issue); the contractors on the committee took the owners’ concerns seriously, and now they’re pressing hard to solve the problem. That’s how things work on the safety side these days. Why? Because long ago, we decided to make safety a priority. Then we spent decades working shoulder-to-shoulder to reduce injuries. Cooperating on safety is now second nature to almost everyone in the industry.

Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we applied the same level of cooperation, communication and old-fashioned elbow grease to issues like increasing market share, rebranding our industry, capitalizing on the new wave of natural gas work, making our business model more competitive, or attracting a new generation of craft workers? I’m not saying our business would expand as quickly as Norm Larsen’s did when he moved from rockets to consumer products, but I am confident that it would grow.

We have enjoyed tremendous success in the safety arena, and we should never take those results for granted – in fact, we should redouble our efforts to ensure we don’t fall behind. But let’s also use that success as inspiration to move beyond safety as well. Let’s make our achievements in zero injury the template that we can use to improve in other areas, too.

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