One sweeping glance across the Seattle skyline is enough to see that something is happening in the area. If a region’s tower crane count is any indication of economic growth, then companies should pay attention to the Pacific Northwest.
For those who have been sleepless to Seattle’s modern metropolitan mania, a recent report concluded that the states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon were among the nation’s top economies in 2019, with Washington ranking first in economic activity and GDP growth, fourth in economic health, and second in innovation potential1. In the greater Seattle area, tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are fueling a frenzy of nonstop growth.
As commerce thrives and cranes continue to rise, construction in the Pacific Northwest will continue to boom – leaving companies competing for skilled labor, material, market share, and an army of other strategies to seize a competitive advantage. Amid all this commotion is one company that has the answer.
Safety is the strategy
“If this industry wants to attract a steady, strong workforce, it needs to be serious about safety,” said Angela White, marketing and relationship manager at Holmberg Mechanical.
Founded in 1949, Holmberg Mechanical is one of the oldest union full-service mechanical companies in Washington state history. With a staggering 186 percent growth in the last three years, Inc. magazine named them one of the most successful companies in America. In 70 years of business, it has established a formula for success through strategy, craftsmanship, and relationship management that has weathered drastic economic shifts and industry revolutions in the Puget Sound area. Holmberg’s strategy is clear: safety always.
“In today’s culture and as a company, we understand better than ever the importance of providing our workforce with top notch safety equipment, standards, and support from leadership. People want to work where it is safe. They need to trust that their company will get them home safe to their families each night,” said Angela White.
The strategy is simple: Win business and attract the best talent through safety. That’s the Holmberg way.
Total safety culture
Establishing a comprehensive safety program is more than avoiding hazards and providing protective equipment. It starts with promoting a culture of safety awareness and personal responsibility. As companies commit to safety in the workplace and work toward building a safety program, they typically begin by first identifying hazards and assessing risks, followed by developing policies and processes, educating employees, then continual evaluation. These steps provide an effective foundational structure, but do not secure a total safety culture (TSC).
Seeking a culture of safety in the workplace is not a new concept. Twenty-five years ago, behavioral psychologist E. Scott Geller identified “Ten Principles for Achieving a Total Safety Culture.”2 He said the goal of TSC is much easier said than done. “In a TSC, everyone feels responsible for safety and pursues it on a daily basis; employees go beyond the ‘call of duty’ to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors and intervene to correct them,” Geller said.
According to Geller, safety professionals should focus on the following principles as they pursue a TSC:
- The culture should drive the safety process.
- Behavior-based and person-based factors determine success.
- Focus on process, not outcomes.
- Behavior is directed by activators and motivated by consequences.
- Focus on achieving success, not on avoiding failure.
- Observation and feedback lead to safe behaviors.
- Effective feedback occurs via behavior- and person-based coaching.
- Observation and coaching are key actively caring processes.
- Self-esteem, belonging, and empowerment increase actively caring behaviors.
- Shift safety from priority to value.
Although Geller’s work may be older than many employees and safety managers in the workforce today, his principles and formula for success are still pertinent. Achieving a total safety culture requires commitment, communication, empowerment, and personal responsibility. In all organizations, execution and support must come from each individual regardless of their position within the company or occupation.
Holmberg’s determination to establish a culture of safety has been significant over the years. With its current executive leadership team produced directly from the field, the organization has a keen appreciation of safety and knows their responsibility to sustain it.
“It’s our mission to continue to question each other in new ways that innovate and communicate a safer workplace in the construction industry. We all must work as one team, with one voice, to build the trust and the confidence that will create the safety and security we all deserve,” said Jeff White, President/CEO of Holmberg.
Holmberg’s mission accelerated when they hired an occupational health and safety engineer.
As organizations grow in structure and size, it is important to provide a safety advocate with the authority to make changes, initiate policy, and maintain communication throughout the company ladder. Holmberg’s OHS engineer has a staff responsible for promoting TSC. This is done by using Geller’s Ten Principles as an informal roadmap rather than a rigid checklist.
The OHS staff works with employees and a safety committee to first evaluate each job and identify hazards, the volume of work, safety compliance standards, and workflow. As they focus on processes and behavior, the team works to provide the best level of personal protective equipment on the market, then develops a strategy to promote the safety plan through education and employee engagement.
“Our safety culture (and therefore safety processes) ultimately stem from support and accountability. My objective is to provide support to my field leaders in every aspect of safety, and when I provide the support they need to get their work done safely and efficiently, accountability tends to occur naturally. I think it is obvious and easy to say that we all want everyone to end each day healthy and unscathed, but it’s how we conduct ourselves between the daily start and finish line that determines our outcome. Working and supporting together; reminding, questioning, teaching, learning – it all plays a vital role in how we conduct our work and keeps our sense of culture visible and cohered,” said Kyle Foley, Holmberg CHST.
Before work begins on each jobsite, workers meet and discuss the day’s objectives. Topics include the scope of the project and milestones, timeline goals, and a dialogue on safety. Employees are encouraged to use these daily meetings and provide candid feedback. Oftentimes these discussions lead to positive changes in safety protocols, workplace efficiency, and empowerment. Before the meeting is over, the group participates in a healthy round of “stretch & flex” to promote health and reduce injuries by stretching.
Another practice driving the culture at Holmberg is the company’s employee safety action policy. When others fail to observe safe practices, workers are expected to act.
“All employees are agents of the OHS safety manager. If they see safety violations, they have the authority to take immediate corrective action. Sometimes this means removing someone from the jobsite,” Angela White said.
Recognition is important
Although safety is its own reward, Holmberg knows it is important to recognize individuals and crews who actively participate in strengthening the culture. By celebrating those who perpetuate safety on the jobsite or through improvement recommendations, Holmberg can facilitate an employee-driven safety culture. Each quarter, a project is selected and awarded according to its excellence in safety. Lunch is provided and crew members are praised for their dedication with an impressive traveling trophy.
With crews and workers shifting or spread-out across jobsites, Holmberg uses company picnics, community service projects, and other events to gather, celebrate success, and strengthen the culture. For years, the company holiday party has hosted individual safety awards for employees who have exemplified safety standards. These culture warriors are those who protect others and the company. After the celebration, employees are provided hotel accommodations to further encourage safety.
Safety is the strategy
“Without embracing a culture of safety, a construction company cannot flourish,” said Angela White.
Holmberg’s success and serious efforts in safety have not been overlooked by its peers, general contractors, or other mechanical engineers and plumbers. Much of the company’s unrelenting growth, ability to obtain contracts, and retain skilled workers relies on its strategy of craftsmanship, relationship management, and a total safety culture. Reputation is frequently the deciding factor in winning business, and Holmberg is setting the standard in the greater Seattle area.
- Best & Worst State Economies. (2019, June 3). Retrieved from https://wallethub.com/edu/states-with-the-best-economies/21697/#main-findings.
- Ten principles for achieving a total safety culture, Geller, E Scott Professional Safety; Sep 1994; 39, 9; ProQuest, pg. 18
“I feel responsible for my coworkers’ safety because I want them to feel responsible for mine.”
With over a decade of experience in construction, Jensen has observed and welcomed the industry’s efforts to change the culture of safety in the workplace. “Safety first, job second – that’s the change,” he said. In the short time he has worked for Holmberg, Will has seen the company leading the charge in safety. “They really care about their employees and families. They want to see everyone go home safely,” he said. Jensen’s motivation to work safely is focused first on his family. “They are the reason I work so hard to give them the best life possible. We love to have fun together and go to new places.” he said.
“Safety is important for longevity and quality of life.”
Wilson knows the value of following safety guidelines on a jobsite. In five years of working in sheet metal, she has seen how following safety practices has saved lives and how ignoring them has injured others. When she isn’t anchoring, riveting, or bolting large ducts for air and heating systems in new office buildings or hotels in downtown Seattle, you’ll most likely find her on an obstacle course race, at boot camp kickboxing classes, in hot yoga, traveling, volunteering for her church, or spending time with her family. For Wilson, safety means she can continue to enjoy what she loves most.
“I work safely because I want to remain healthy. I want to be a positive influence on coworkers.”
Arnie is no stranger to the industry, or to safety. In 20 years of sheet metal experience, he has been a positive influence in the persisting, effective cultural change of safety awareness on jobsites.
“If you violate safety today, you go home. Safety takes priority over speed or timelines,” he said
He considers Holmberg’s small-town community atmosphere a positive reinforcement of the kind of environment that fosters personal responsibility in safety for all employees and their families. When Barros isn’t setting the safety standard at work, you’ll find him hiking somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, in his garage building an airplane, or in the sky piloting the wild blue yonder.