2016 Teddy Award Winner

The Family That’s Safe Together

An unwavering commitment to zero lost time is just one way that Harder Mechanical Contractors protects its workers.
By: | November 2, 2016 • 6 min read

From a safety and workers’ comp perspective, the construction industry is one of the most daunting of all industries. The numbers say it best. One in 10 construction workers is injured every year, according to OSHA, and over the course of a 45-year career, a construction worker has a 1 in 200 chance of dying. Sobering odds.

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One company beating those odds is Harder Mechanical Contractors, a 2016 Teddy Award winner.

Portland, Ore.-based Harder Mechanical specializes in process piping fabrication and installation, equipment installation, commercial HVAC piping and plumbing, instrumentation and controls, civil and poured-in-place concrete work and structural steel erection services.

The size of the company’s workforce varies, ranging from around 2,000 to more than 3,000 employees, depending upon the number of projects the company has in the works. Having that kind of revolving-door operation can be a major stumbling block for a safety program. But it has actually made the company double down on its efforts to create a safety culture that can thrive even as workers come and go.

“It’s a never-ending battle,” said Jennifer Massey, the company’s corporate director of safety and health and claims management. “Every day we have to reinforce it.”

Jennifer Massey, corporate director of safety and health and claims management, Harder Mechanical Contractors

Jennifer Massey, corporate director of safety and health and claims management, Harder Mechanical Contractors

It’s a battle they’re winning. The company’s injury frequency plunged from 71 to 18 in the past four years, and its total incurred cost per claim dropped from $21,322 in 2011 to $683 in 2015.

“We have a team that is aligned and focused to prevent injuries at the jobsite,” said company President Dustin Harder. “Our senior leaders are trained to support our crews and a lot of attention is put on the boots on the ground. Our field foremen are the first line of defense to preventing injuries and properly managing the ones that do occur.”

“Every person in the company, from the president to the apprentice, is deeply committed to the goal of achieving zero-injuries,” agreed the company’s general counsel and risk manager, Bill Murphy.

Results like that take diligence. Massey’s team is constantly on top of its leading and lagging indicators, working to spot any sign that the company’s safety efforts may need a course-correct.

When the team became concerned that workers were suffering hand injuries despite wearing gloves, it set out to find out why.

“The problem was, we just weren’t helping them to understand that they needed to wear the right gloves for the job they were doing, or to stop and change [gloves] as the conditions change,” said Massey.

With worker input, the team created a colorful quick-reference 4-by-8-foot glove matrix banner, matching images of glove types to specific jobs and tasks.

“We don’t want to just impose something upon the people out there in the field — they’re the ones turning the wrenches, and know how to do their jobs safely. We need to get their input so they own it,” she said.

The outcome was even better than expected — a rapid 60 percent reduction in hand injuries.

Getting to Zero

Harder Mechanical’s lost-time accident rate is enviable: Zero. The company just reached a remarkable 16 million man hours without a lost-time accident.

“That one is actually our easiest situation to deal with,” said Massey, well aware of how surprising that sounds. The key, she said, is an environment of trust. Workers readily partner with the company to make zero lost-time happen.

Dustin Harder, president, Harder Mechanical Contractors

Dustin Harder, president, Harder Mechanical Contractors

Employee pay scales are negotiated under collective bargaining agreements for each state jurisdiction and craft. If somebody is off work and getting TTD payments, said Massey, “they are severely affected” in terms of salary, health and welfare benefits for their families, and pension credit hours.

That’s a heavy burden to bear. Harder Mechanical makes sure that every employee understands there’s another option.

“We effectively communicate with them that … you can partner with us, and get your doctor involved, and all of us come together and agree that we’re going to keep you working no matter what. … Which would you choose if you were an injured worker?”

In the short-term, Massey’s team provides online training platforms. Recovering workers are brought to a warehouse location, where it’s easiest to accommodate restrictions safely. Treating physicians are highly cooperative because they understand that workers’ recoveries will not be compromised, and are inclined to follow their patients’ wishes.

“I tell [workers], you have to advocate for yourself and tell your doctor, ‘No, this is what I am doing; this is how the company and I are partnering.’ ”

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In 2014, a steamfitter nearing retirement suffered a crushed leg, and nearly lost his foot. Despite multiple surgeries, he was able to utilize the online training platforms until he could return to modified duty at the warehouse.

The employee couldn’t return to his job in the same capacity, so Massey’s team brought in a vocational specialist to help design a permanent job description for him.

With assistance from the state’s preferred worker program, Harder provided numerous accommodations, including special shoes, rolling stools that allow him to rest his leg, a motorized scooter and a golf cart which he uses to travel between buildings.

“We don’t want to just impose something upon the people out there in the field — they’re the ones turning the wrenches, and know how to do their jobs safely. We need to get their input so they own it.” — Jennifer Massey, corporate director of safety and health and claims management, Harder Mechanical Contractors

Throughout the entire journey, he never had to worry about whether he’d be able to provide for his family. That allowed him to focus on his recovery. Eliminating that anxiety has a major impact on outcomes, Massey said.

“Our employees are not affected adversely, financially, so they’re focusing on getting better because they’re not stressed out about how they’re going to pay their bills, or how they’re going to have medical benefits for their family,” she said.

The Human Connection

One important feature of Harder Mechanical’s safety culture is how the company communicates with employees, reminding them why safety matters in the first place, especially in their lives outside of work.

 Bill Murphy, general counsel and risk manager, Harder Mechanical Contractors

Bill Murphy, general counsel and risk manager, Harder Mechanical Contractors

That comes into play with safety commitment letters — letters that workers are asked to write to their families, making a personal promise to work safely.

It’s a tool so powerful that the company only uses it when circumstances warrant a wake-up call.

“We use it when we feel like we’re definitely trending the wrong way and we have to take prompt corrective action to turn the train around before something happens,”  Massey said.

The same principle is applied in a lighter fashion in the company’s newsletter. That features a retiree profile in each issue that details the joys of a retirement they worked so hard for.

For Massey, getting employees safely to those golden years is personal.

“Coming up through, with my dad in the shipyard, [I knew] a lot of my dad’s colleagues who passed away from asbestosis, or they were totally broken down … their quality of life was not what it should be. … People who work hard, they deserve to enjoy the rest of their lives after working.”

Massey said the commitment to protecting every Harder Mechanical employee runs from the top down.

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“For me safety is a value that we will never sacrifice,” said Harder. “I have worked personally with many of the guys within our company; they are an extension of my family, the Harder family. If one of them were to get hurt it’s like a family member gets hurt.”

“The company’s message and safety programs are focused on every worker being able to go home to their families at night in the same condition as when they left for work in the morning,” said Murphy. “I have always been impressed with the company’s consistent approach in all aspects of its business:  ‘Do the right thing.’ ” &

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Read more about the 2016 Teddy Award winners:

target-150x150Bringing Focus to Broad Challenges: Target brings home a 2016 Teddy Award for serving as an advocate for its workers, pre- and post-injury, across each of its many operations.

 

hrt-150x150The Road to Success: Accountability and collaboration turned Hampton Roads Transit’s legacy workers’ compensation program into a triumph.

 

excela-150x150Improve the Well-Being of Every Life: Excela Health changed the way it treated injuries and took a proactive approach to safety, drastically reducing workers’ comp claims and costs.

 

harder-150x150The Family That’s Safe Together: An unwavering commitment to zero lost time is just one way that Harder Mechanical Contractors protects the lives and livelihoods of its workers.

 

More coverage of the 2016 Teddy Awards:

Recognizing Excellence: The judges of the 2016 Teddy Awards reflect on what they learned, and on the value of awards programs in the workers’ comp space.

Fit for Duty: 2013 Teddy Winner Miami-Dade County Public Schools is managing comorbid risk factors by getting employees excited about healthy living.

Saving Time and Money: Applying Lean Six Sigma to its workers’ comp processes earned Atlantic Health a Teddy Award Honorable Mention.

Caring for the Caregivers: Adventist Health Central Valley Network is achieving stellar results by targeting its toughest challenges.

Advocating for Injured Workers: By helping employees navigate through the workers’ comp system, Cottage Health decreased lost work days by 80 percent.

A Matter of Trust: St. Luke’s workers’ comp program is built upon relationships and a commitment to care for those who care for patients.

Keeping the Results Flowing: R&I recognizes the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago for a commonsense approach that’s netting continuous improvement.

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Absence Management

Establishing Balance With Volunteers

It’s good business to allow job-leave for volunteer emergency responders, whether or not state laws apply.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 7 min read

If 2017 had a moniker, it might be “the year of the natural disasters,” thanks to a phenomenal array of catastrophic or severe events— hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, ice storms and floods.

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Combined with smaller-scale fires and other emergencies, these incidents tax the resources of local and state emergency services, often prompting the need to call volunteer emergency responders into action.

But as lean as most organizations are already running, volunteer activities can sometimes cause friction between employees and employers. Handling conflicts the wrong way can potentially lead to legal headaches, harm employee morale and batter a company’s reputation.

State by State Variations

Most employers are aware of the various federal and state leave laws protecting their employees, including family and medical leave, pregnancy leave and military leave. But leave laws that protect the livelihoods of volunteer emergency responders are more likely to fly under the radar of some HR managers and risk managers.

Such laws don’t exist in every state, but more than 20 states do have some type of law in place to protect volunteers including emergency responders, firefighters, disaster workers, medical responders, ambulance drivers or peace officers.

Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management

The laws vary broadly. Nearly all specify that such leave be unpaid, and that employees disclose their volunteer status to employers and provide documentation for each leave. But there is a spectrum of variations in terms of what may trigger an eligible leave. Some, for instance, apply for any emergency that prompts a call from the volunteer’s affiliated responder group. Others may require a government declaration of emergency for the law to be triggered.

While many of the laws do not explicitly require employers to let employees leave work when called to an emergency during a shift, most specify that an employee may be late or even miss work entirely without facing termination or any other adverse employment action.

Some states mandate a maximum number of unpaid leave days that a volunteer can claim. But others may place more significant burdens on employers. In California, for instance, employers with 50 or more employees are required to grant up to 14 days of unpaid leave for training activities in addition to any leave taken to respond to emergency events. For multistate employers, keeping on top of what obligations may apply in each circumstance can be a challenge.

Significant Risks

Large or mid-sized employers may rely on absence management providers to keep them in compliance. For smaller employers though, it may be as simple as looking up a state’s law via Google to find out what’s required. However, checking in with the state department of labor or the company’s attorney may be the best way to get the correct facts.

“I would caution that just because you don’t find something [on the internet], it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said absence management and employment law attorney Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management.

For example, Cardi said, an obscure Texas law provides job-protected leave for volunteer ham radio operators called into service during an emergency.

Cardi said employers should task HR to investigate the laws in each state the company operates in, and to ensure that supervisors are educated about the existence of these laws.

“If a supervisor is told by one of his or her employees, ‘Sorry I’m not coming in today … I’ve been called to volunteer firefighter duty for the [nearby region] fire,’” she said, you want to be sure that the supervisor knows not to take action against the employee, and to contact HR for guidance.

“Training supervisors to be aware of this kind of absence is really important.”

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An employer that does terminate a protected volunteer for responding to an emergency may be ordered to pay back wages and reinstate the employee. In some cases, the employee may also be able to sue for wrongful termination.

And of course, “you don’t want to be the company in the headlines that is getting sued because you fired the volunteer firefighter,” she added.

If an employer bars a volunteer from responding, the worst-case scenario may be a third-party claim. Failure to comply with the law could give rise to a claim along the lines of “‘If you had complied with your statutory obligation to give Jane Doe time to respond, my loved one would not have died,’” explained Philadelphia-based Jonathan Segal, partner at law firm Duane Morris and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute.

“That’s the claim I think is the largest in terms of legal risk.”

Even if no one dies or is seriously injured, he added, “there could still be significant reputational risk if an individual were to go to the media and say, ‘Look, I got called by the fire department and I wasn’t allowed to go.’”

The Right Thing to Do

What employers should be thinking about, Segal said, is that whether or not you have a legal obligation to provide job-protected leave for volunteer responders, “there’s still the question of what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Employee morale should be factored in, he said. The last thing any company wants is for employees to perceive it as insensitive to their interests or the interests of the community at large.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” — Jonathan Segal, partner, Duane Morris; managing principal, Duane Morris Institute

“How is this going to resonate with my employees, with my workforce, how are people going to see this? These are all relevant factors to consider,” he said.

There’s an argument to be made for employers to look at the bigger picture when it comes to any volunteer responders on their payroll, said Segal.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” he said. “Think about the case where’s there’s not a specific state law [for emergency responders] and you say to a volunteer, ‘No, you can’t leave to deal with this fire’ and then people die. You as an employer have potentially played a role, indirectly, because you didn’t allow the first responder or responders to go,” he said.

The bottom line is that “it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s not required by law,” agreed Cardi.

“I feel that companies should have a policy that they’re not going to discipline or discharge someone for absences due to this kind of civic service, subject to verification of course.”

Clear Policy

While most employers do strive to be good corporate citizens, it goes without question that employers need to guard their own interests. It’s not especially likely that volunteer responders will try to take advantage of the unpaid leave allowed them, but of course, it could happen.

That’s why it’s important to have policies that are aligned with state laws. Those policies could include:

  • Notifying the company of any volunteer affiliations either upon hire or as soon they are activated as volunteers.
  • Requiring that employees notify a supervisor as soon as possible if called to an emergency (state requirements vary).
  • Requiring documentation after the event from the head of the entity supervising the volunteer’s activities.

If at some point it becomes excessive – someone has responded to emergencies five times in nine weeks, then it’s time to examine the specifics of the law and have a discussion with the employee about what’s reasonable, said Segal. It may also be time to ask specifics about whether the person is volunteering each time, or are they being called.

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In some cases, the discussion may need to be about finding a middle ground, especially if an employee has taken on an excessively demanding volunteer role.

“We encourage volunteers to pick the style that best fits their schedule,” said Greta Gustafson, a representative of the American Red Cross. “Disaster volunteers can elect to respond to disasters locally, nationally, or even virtually, and each assignment varies in length — from responding overnight to a home fire in your community to deploying across the country for several weeks following a hurricane.

“The Red Cross encourages all volunteers to talk with their employers to determine their availability and to communicate this with their local Red Cross chapter.”

Segal suggests approaching it as an interactive dialogue — borrowing from the ADA. “Employers may need to open a discussion along the lines of ‘I need you here this week because this week we have a deliverable on Friday and you’re critical to that client deliverable,’” he said, but also identify when the employee’s absence would be less critical.

No doubt there will be tough calls. An employer may have its hands full just trying to meet basic customer needs and need all hands on deck.

“That may be a situation where you say, ‘First let me check the law,’” said Segal. If there’s a leave law that applies, “then I’m going to need to comply with it. If there’s not, then you may need to balance competing interests and say, ‘We need you here.’” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]