Safety meeting at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Photo courtesy of Austin Bridge & Road.

By Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA

Safety is a very complicated subject,” said David Walls, president and CEO of Dallas-based Austin Industries, parent company of Austin Bridge & Road, Austin Commercial and Austin Industrial.

David Walls

Some government safety programs and manuals are as thick as old-fashioned telephone directories, he noted. Walls even wrote his own book on the subject, World Class Safety Program, which supplements the narrative about life-saving leadership and processes with sophisticated diagrams and charts.

“But you’ve got to get this information to the craftsman’s level,” Walls added. “What are the things you must do, or cannot do.”

All three Austin companies adopted “Life Critical Rules” to prevent injuries and fatalities. These “absolute rules” fit on an index card, one side in English, the other in Spanish. Austin employees and subcontractors are required to abide by them.

“There were some growing pains,” Michael Morris, Austin’s vice president of safety, said of the initiative’s launch nearly a decade ago.

The company released a 30-year veteran for breaking one of the rules.

“We’d much rather do that then meet with his widow,” Walls said.

Individual subcontractors can’t be fired, but they have been prohibited from returning to an Austin job site.

“We took a little beef over that when we started it,” Walls continued.

Getting Results

There’s no beef about “Life Critical” results. Austin had its safest year ever in 2017

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) Recordable Incident Rate at Austin Industries was 0.69 company, 1.44 at Bridge & Road, including subcontractors. The national rate for “highway, street and bridge construction” was 3.5 in 2016, the most recent year available.

“We are changing the whole industry because of our rule with subcontractors,” Walls said.

Like a growing number of construction firms, Austin goes “above and beyond” federal and state safety standards “because it is the right thing to do,” Morris said. One example is the requirement to use personal fall protection when operating scissor lifts.

Morris said he would like to see more cooperation between private industry and regulatory agencies about standardization of traffic control plans, especially in rural areas.

“I think we can take some lessons learned from the big cities and apply them in our rural communities,” Morris said. “We need a more concerted effort on that matter.”

Having a great safety record reduces business insurance premiums, and it keeps the work zone running smoothly and efficiently, which also saves money.

“Obviously, there is a financial incentive to do that, but if that is all you talk about it sends the wrong message to the craftsmen,” Walls said. “If we never address safety, then why would we expect safety to be a value?”

Whether dealing with subcontractors, or a firm’s own employees, following safety processes and procedures is only half the story, Walls said. The other critical component is leadership.

Safety Leadership

“It’s got to start at the top,” Walls said. “If safety is not important to the senior leadership of the company, it is not going to be important to the rest of the company.”

Walls said he learned an important lesson as a father: “You get the behavior that you tolerate from people. If you tolerate bad behavior, who is at fault? It’s the employer.”

Early in his career, Walls was leading a project where a fatality occurred. Soon after, the victim’s father confronted him with the unanswerable question: “Why did you kill my son?”

“It really shook me foundationally,” Walls said. “I just sat there and took it, because what can you say? It changed my whole perspective of safety. It was a defining moment for me.”

Decades later, it still motivates him. “I realized that I am in a position of authority, and what am I doing about it,” he said. “Leaders also have to keep asking what they are not doing that they could be doing to make their company world class in safety.”

Walls frequently delivers his safety message to his company, and through ARTBA and other industry groups.

“When I give a safety talk, I always ask: ‘How many people have been involved in a fatality on a job site?’ My goal is to have nobody raise their hand. It’s never happened yet, but that’s the goal.”

(This story appears in the May-June issue of Transportation Builder.)