Oregon OSHA Health and Safety


June 2015

Going The Distance

Company: Fortis Construction Inc.

Safety manager: Demetra Star

Demetra Star, safety manager at Fortis Construction, Inc.

Common hazards: Falls, falling objects, strains, sprains, tripping hazards, and cuts and lacerations

What is your background and safety philosophy?

I came into construction safety serendipitously. Earlier in my career, I was in grad school and involved with basic developmental biology research at Carnegie Mellon University. Later, I switched gears when I realized that I wanted to work with people and make an impact with a practical application. As a result, I was drawn to industrial hygiene and safety. I received a second master's degree in occupational hygiene and industrial safety from West Virginia University.

Although I never anticipated working in construction safety, when I found myself here, I realized that it was my calling. I love being able to distill complicated ideas into approachable, understandable concepts. I thrive on the challenge when so many people come together on a single construction project to build something bigger than themselves and that we have a chance to affect so many people at once.

My safety philosophy is that every person matters. Each and every aspect of their lives, their families, their livelihoods all matter, and a good safety approach can make a vital difference in a life.

What are some of the unique safety challenges you face on current projects?

Like many construction projects, the risk of falls and falling objects is a constant area of focus. By its very nature, construction presents unique working conditions. A vast amount of work occurs overhead, openings in floors and roofs are created, walls come down and are rebuilt. It's crucial to anticipate and prevent those safety hazards and risks by building guardrails, hole covers and sequencing the work to avoid creating exposures. When a building is designed to have permanent roof fall-protection anchors, we make an effort to install those early so that our subcontractors can use the tie-off points. Wherever we can, we attempt to reduce the risk of falling objects by ensuring that overhead work, such as forklift loading zones, scaffold systems, and boomlift activity are blocked off below by danger tape to prevent other vehicles or personnel from entering in that area.

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A majority of the construction work that we do ultimately involves de-energizing systems, re-working them, and then re-energizing or installing new systems that need to be tied into the main utility. It's the type of work that creates risks for electrical shocks, arcs, short circuits, and uncontrolled hazardous energy. Safely working around and tying into electrical systems has been a focus area for us. We require that our subcontractors create a thorough "Method of Procedure" (MOP) that outlines step by step what precautions will be taken. For instance, where and what breakers or switches will be turned off and locked and tagged out, what type of NFPA70E arc flash gear will be worn, where the safe stopping points are, and what possible impacts will need workarounds prior to the work occurring. The MOPs are reviewed with our subcontractors, project teams, building owner, and, in some cases, with the involved local utility company. Often, the MOPs allow us to require the use of remote control switch devices (Chicken Switches) that allow breakers and switches to be closed from safe distances. In this way, we feel we are raising the bar for safety.

Another challenging area for us has been preventing impacts to buried or hidden live utilities in the walls and ceilings (during demo), in the slab (during saw cutting), and in the ground (during excavation). We implemented a program called "Don't Hit It" to prevent those kinds of impacts. The "Don't Hit It" process uses multiple redundant checks (such as groundpenetrating radar scanning, reviewing as-builts, getting locates, and walking the job) to conduct exploratory work to determine what might be hidden in the walls, slab, or ground. In addition to the exploratory evaluation, we also require specific controls and effective communication to prevent impacts of known lines. The ultimate goal is that everyone involved in the process from Fortis (general contractor) to the electrical or mechanical subcontractor, and the operator using the saw or digging equipment, are provided with all the information uncovered in the exploratory evaluation.

Construction sites involve many moving pieces and include workers and equipment from different contractors. How do you ensure employees are aware of all the hazards?

Like many contractors, we have implemented processes (MOPs and "Don't Hit It") that attempt to share lessons learned and best practices with our subcontractors. In addition, we require that all personnel perform a job hazard analysis of their area each day for their task (a pre-task plan). We attempt to share recognized hazards at our site-specific safety orientations, project-wide safety meetings, and evaluate near misses and incidents with a root cause analysis. The incident report is often shared with the project teams and, in some cases, may generate a new program or initiative within our company.

How do you keep your crews engaged in safety issues day to day?

The cornerstone of our safety program is creating a self-propagating safety culture of an injury-free environment. We encourage leadership through action, a personal commitment across all individuals on a project, accountability, as well as free and open lines of communication between our subcontractors, our crews, and their supervisors. Fortis foremen and superintendents fully embrace the responsibility of creating that strong safety culture. They set the tone for a project.

I think the answer to keeping crews engaged in the safety effort is their active participation in pre-task planning (a written daily document that lists the steps, hazards, and controls for their task) that allows them to anticipate the hazards of each step and implement controls to eliminate or reduce those hazards. Each individual makes hundreds of decisions a day about how they are going to perform their work. Any method we can use to help them develop approaches that reduce their personal risk makes a difference.

What advice do you have for other safety and health managers hoping to make a difference?

Stay curious. Create a culture of transparency where near misses and behavior trends are freely discussed and enthusiastically considered. Carefully analyze your trends and develop creative, new, and simple ways to prevent reoccurrence. Keep your co-workers informed, well-trained, and active participants. Together, you can develop an approach that helps to keep everyone in good health and enjoying their lives and taking pride in their work. 

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