Bentley Builds In Safety

The contractor shares the secrets behind its award-winning safety program.

Earlier this year, The Bentley Company, a Milwaukee, WI-based general contractor and construction management firm, received not one, but two local safety awards for posting the lowest accident/injury rate among firms logging over 100,000 hours of jobsite operations in 2003. Robert Stelter, COO, attributes the company’s safety record to a top-down management philosophy.

“It’s a focus that first starts at the top of the organization and goes down through our project management team and our leadership team in the field,” he explains. “We overlay that focus on everyone who works on the project.”

The Bentley Company is a sixth-generation family-owned construction firm founded by John Bentley in 1848. It employs roughly 40 full-time and up to 100 seasonal employees during peak construction months. Projects range from new building construction to a specialization in historic structure restoration.

Tom Bentley, owner and CEO, describes his company as a very “family friendly” organization. This is reflected in the company’s view on safety.

“We take it very seriously,” says Stelter. “Everyone comes to work at the beginning of the day and expects to leave with 10 fingers, 10 toes, two eyes, no broken limbs, etc. Part of our responsibility in the industry is to see that this happens.”

It starts with proper training

Safety training at Bentley begins before an employee sets foot on a jobsite. “We orient everyone to the safety programs when they’re hired,” explains Joseph Widmann, vice president, senior project manager and safety director. “There’s an attachment to the application for employment. When they fill out their W-2s, we bring them up to speed on safety requirements.”

The Bentley Company also works with the Greater Milwaukee Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) to provide safety training and certification. “Almost all of our superintendents and project managers are OSHA 10-hour certified,” says Stelter. “The 10-hour certification includes all the major aspects: excavation, fall protection, electrical hazards, scaffolding, concrete, masonry, trenching, etc.”

In addition, superintendent meetings are held at the office on a monthly basis.

“Superintendents are the guys on the site all the time. They are the real key to safety,” says Tom Bentley. “The monthly superintendent meetings are where we pull them together and remind them that safety’s part of it. You can give them the program and they can have the certificate that says they’re trained, but they can forget about it three months later. So it’s a constant reminder, a continuing education.”

Once at the jobsite, all workers participate in weekly “toolbox talks”. “Each week, we emphasize a different safety topic that’s appropriate to the current activity on that project,” says Widmann.

Operator training is also a core part of the process. “The primary two pieces of equipment we use are forklifts and skid steers,” notes Widmann. Forklift training is supplied by the AGC of Greater Milwaukee in accordance with OSHA standards. “We go to the manufacturers to get assistance for training our operators in the safe operation of skid steers,” Widmann adds. This training is typically provided through the local Bobcat dealer.

To further reinforce safety among employees, The Bentley Company has established a two-part safety incentive program. The first part is company wide. A cash prize drawing is held among employees who are without injury and attend quarterly safety meetings. Employees attending three out of four of these meetings are also eligible for a larger yearly drawing.

The second part rewards individual safety achievements. “Employees are rewarded for each 1,000 hours they work without injury,” says Widmann. “Currently, some workers have up to 8,000 hours without an injury.”

Safety audits pinpoint hazards

Controlling safety at the jobsite can be a daunting process. “Since we’re the general contractor in many cases, we’re responsible — as the controlling contractor — for all equipment on the site, even if it’s the subcontractor’s,” notes Tom Bentley.

To help control potential hazards, safety audits are performed bi-weekly on major projects. “We use the AGC of Greater Milwaukee to help us with those audits,” says Widmann. “We receive a report as to the status of all aspects of safety on the project. It’s e-mailed to us a day or two after the audit takes place. We also follow up with a discussion between the person who’s performing the audit and our superintendent before they leave the site to make sure any safety issues are addressed promptly.”

“The nice thing about it is, when they do a walk through, they’re not only looking at our things,” Stelter points out. “They’re looking at all the contractors on the job. If there’s a safety issue relative to someone else’s equipment, they bring that to our attention. Then we can turn that written document over to the subcontractor and they can use it to help avoid a safety problem.”

The payoffs

The Bentley Company’s safety program requires a substantial commitment on the part of the company. But management feels the results are worth it. “We’re providing the resources that are necessary to ensure a safe workplace for our employees,” says Widmann. “That investment pays off.”

While a good safety record can help keep you on bid lists, the financial benefit comes in the form of lower insurance premiums. “If you have three good years in a row, you will be rewarded with lower insurance rates,” says Stelter. “It can be significant.”

The ultimate reward, however, can’t be measured in dollars and cents. “The big payoff,” says Tom Bentley, “is keeping guys safe for their families.”

“One of the hardest calls you have to make is to a spouse telling them of an injury,” adds Stelter. “We want to make sure we don’t ever have to make that call.” N


A Safe Solution for Occupied Facilities

Each type of project presents its own safety concerns. But perhaps the most challenging are those involving occupied facilities. For The Bentley Company, this has included churches, office buildings and senior communities.

“In occupied buildings, your safety record can come into play,” says Robert Stelter.

“It’s not necessarily the safety of workers, but the safety of the staff and residents.

That can become a big selection criteria.”

As an example, Stelter cites the long-standing relationship between The Bentley Company and the Milwaukee Protestant Home, a senior community. “We’ve done over 30 projects there. Almost every one of them has been right under the feet of the retired occupants,” he notes. “We’re working in their living room and rec room because that’s the residents’ home.”

Because residents are so close at hand, it can create a safety concern. “They are so curious,” says Tom Bentley. “They open doors that say ‘don’t open’. So we put a glass doorway at wheelchair height so they can observe what’s going on without violating the site. We give them the ability to watch while keeping them safe.”

During the most recent project, photo boards of the construction process were also placed in the main lobby and updated on a weekly basis. “That showed the progress of the job so all of the residents could see what was happening on the other side of the door,” says Stelter. “It kept them involved and excited about what was happening. It really helped with the morale of the residents.”

At the Milwaukee Protestant Home, a window was placed in the door (above) to enable residents to safely watch the progress of construction on the other side.