Future Forward Interview: Use a PERMIT System to Promote Safety on the Job Site
Patrick Tarrant is the founder and CEO of Crane Management, a consulting agency for construction companies in New York City. A well-known industry professional with more than 40 years of experience, Tarrant is frequently hired as an expert witness in construction and safety cases. Trained in all areas of crane operations, he is a certified hoist operator, master rigger, American Welding Society-certified welding inspector and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-authorized safety instructor. Tarrant is on a mission to keep job sites safe for workers.
V1: What’s your educational and professional background?
Tarrant: I started in a trade; I was a welder. I went to a technical college in London, studied engineering in the ’70s, and then I ran companies in Ireland that were involved in steel work and fabrication. I came to the United States in 1986. I’m a licensed master rigger and crane operator in New York City. I’m also an OSHA-authorized safety instructor. Those are a few of the high points.
V1: Tell us about your company, Crane Management.
Tarrant: We manage cranes in New York City. What I tell people is, ‘We know a lot about a little.’ Our clients generally know a little about a lot, so we offer them our expertise. We ensure inspections are done when they should be done and that we’re working within the building code. We also ensure we’re OSHA compliant in everything we do. Basically, we keep our clients out of trouble. We keep them from getting stop work orders and violations. We also ensure there are no accidents. We bring a team, generally, and our own lift director who’s responsible for the overall job, particularly the rigging parts of the job. That’s what we bring to the table.
V1: Why cranes, specifically? Was this something you planned to do, or did you just find a niche that needed to be filled?
Tarrant: Well, I had a steel company, which I sold in 2005. Because I had cranes in that business and a crane operator’s license, plus I was a licensed master rigger, I just switched that expertise to doing crane-related work. Then, as the regulatory environment became more restrictive, I saw an opportunity to create a niche business in just managing that one aspect of the job.
V1: Construction accidents have increased in recent years. Can you explain why?
Tarrant: There’s more work. There may not be more accidents on a percentage basis, but it prorates with the industry. We’re extremely busy now, and that creates some problems. Obviously the number of accidents will increase if the rate stays the same, but, more importantly, people are in a bigger hurry now. Developers want to get their buildings up and finished to catch the economic cycle. Also, in the United States, there’s more subcontracting than in Europe. Companies in Europe will do most of the work themselves. When you start subcontracting, you have competing entities on site that have to get out of each other’s way—one guy has to finish before another guy starts. As a result, there’s a general sort of … I would call it a hysteria to get the job done at all costs and get out of the way to let the next trade in.
V1: Do you think most construction companies put enough emphasis on safety? If not, what do you think they should be doing differently?
Tarrant: What I notice is that the executives of any given construction company understand they need to get the job done without accidents, but they also understand the cost of delays. The guys on the ground floor have OSHA training, so they know there are certain things they must do. But I often see problems with field managers; there isn’t enough buy in from them. Although site-safety people are on site, they often report to field managers, and field managers are getting pressure from executives to get the job done.
Also, there isn’t enough oversight of the trades. We brought in a system called PERMIT that basically provides a checklist at the start of a job. We let everyone know this is what we need to get the job done safely, and you better give it to us. We’re basically forcing buy in from field management. The ‘P’ in PERMIT stands for personnel. They have to have the personnel to do the job, and those people have to be trained properly. The ‘E’ stands for equipment. They have to have the right equipment and enough of it. ‘R’ is room to work. You have to have enough space to work, so the trade before you has to be done and finished. A contractor will often shove the next trade in when the previous trade isn’t clear, and that creates a hazardous situation. Again, field management often responds to the push, push, push coming from upper management, and that can create an adversarial relationship between field managers and site-safety professionals. ‘M’ stands for material, ‘I’ is information and ‘T’ is time.
That’s what it takes to get a job done safely, but there has to be universal buy in. The guys on top know the importance; the guys at the bottom, who are often the ones who get injured, know the importance. But the guys in between sort of take everything as a complaint. If you go to them and tell them what you need on a daily basis, they’ll say, ‘Oh, this guy is always complaining. He needs this, he needs that.’ So you need to tell them from the start, ‘I need 15 minutes with you. Here’s my PERMIT sheet. I have the right amount of people. I have the equipment. But you have to give me room to get my job done. I can’t be walking over other people.’
The good news is that a construction manager is distinct from a general contractor. A construction manager is paid a percentage fee, so he doesn’t have the same incentive to cut corners and cut costs. A general contractor works on a lump sum. That’s all he’s getting for the job, so every dollar he saves goes in his pocket. When you have a construction manager, he’ll bring the bad news to the owner and say, ‘Hey, you have to spend the money. You can’t get the cheapest trades, because they’re often not the best. You need to start by qualifying your subcontractors, and that means looking at their previous work; their track records; their history and, just as important, their insurance modification number.’ The insurance companies use that as a guide when they’re quoting a policy or if they’re refusing to provide insurance. They’ll say, ‘Well, you’re experience mod is too high.’
Typically, you start at 1. Then they’ll say, ‘Okay, if you have accidents, we’ll make you a 1.1 or, depending on the severity of the accident, a 1.2 or 1.3,’ which means if you’re insurance premium is $100,000, now it’s $110,000 or $120,000. Conversely, if you’re safe and you don’t have accidents, your experience mod goes down to .9 or .8, which means for that $100,000, you’re now only paying $70,000 or $80,000. You’re saving money. It’s a way a lot of the bigger contracts and construction managers are looking at subcontractors, saying, ‘If you’re above a 1.2, we’re not touching you. We don’t care how cheap you’re going to work.’ And that’s a good approach. It’s a sensible approach that needs more buy in.
So that’s on the executive side. Then the field manager has to step up and say, ‘Okay, what do you need from me to get this done? Because what I need from you is to get your work done and get out of here, because there are people coming behind you.’
V1: Okay, so when you’re brought into a job, you’ve got your own safety regulations and things you do. Is that just within your own group, or do you share the same regulations with the people you work with? Or does each group have its own way of doing things?
Tarrant: That’s the problem. Each group has its own way of doing things, so you’re sort of at the mercy of the lowest common denominator—the weak link in the chain. It doesn’t make much difference to me if I get hurt by my own crew or by somebody else’s crew. I might be right, but I’m still injured or dead. This is where the field manager and the construction manager or the general contractor has to step up and say, ‘Listen, everybody is going to have to comply at the same level. Before you step on the job, I need to look at your PERMIT sheet. I want to make sure you’ve identified and secured the resources you need.’
Unfortunately, right now it isn’t universal. It’s more of an honor system, and guys get to the job and don’t have exactly what they want. They have to improvise a little, and I tell my guys, ‘Improvise is compromise.’ I will refuse to work if there are trades that are blatantly dangerous. I don’t care what the consequences are. I’m not going to have my men there, and I’m not going to go in there myself.
Luckily, with the hoisting and rigging, ours is a very specialized trade. If the crane isn’t working, the job isn’t working. So we do have a little leverage. And I tell the crane operators, ‘Use your leverage to protect the little guy.’ If you’re unloading a truckload of rebar and they put just one guy up there, he can’t work safely. The crane operator has to be the guy to say, ‘No, I’m not working like this.’ And I’ve done that. The trade guy doesn’t have any leverage, because if he says anything they’ll just get somebody else. But if the crane stops, it becomes more confrontational. We have to step up, as the guys who have leverage, to protect guys who don’t.
V1: So, when you show up and you have your plans in place, do people listen, or do you find that most people just want to be left alone?
Tarrant: People want to be left alone, but this is where the leverage comes in. Guys have to step up and say, ‘Look, if you want your job done, you have to clean up your act.’ People invariably have an attitude and say, ‘Well, it would be nice if we had everything we needed, but we don’t. And we’re here now, so we have to get it done.’ There’s a little resistance—much more than in Europe. The Health and Safety Executives in Great Britain are extremely vigilant. We’re about 10 years behind them, but things are slowly changing. Now there’s an issue in our construction industry about undocumented workers. If the undocumented workers are removed, then they guys coming in will not be as well trained or as experienced as them. I would expect that to generate a spike in accidents until they settle in, because right now, in construction, it’s so busy anybody who can work is working.
V1: When it comes to construction accidents, are researchers investigating what contributes to accidents and why they’re happening, or are people left to make their own judgments?
Tarrant: OSHA is a reactive agency. It doesn’t have enough resources to police the jobs, but inspectors will come out if there’s an accident. They issue fines and make reports. Statistics come out. But I think OSHA needs to be better funded, and I don’t believe that’s going to happen now with the administration we have. OSHA has the teeth to levy fines for willful violations and nonwillful violations. But the problem is there aren’t enough OSHA inspectors. In an ideal situation, instead of site-safety guys, you’d have OSHA guys who don’t bear any responsibility to construction management. But again, that becomes a political argument.
It’s slowly getting to the point in New York City where there are site-safety managers, mostly on certain sites. On any site higher than 10 floors, there has to be a full-time site-safety manager. And they’re generally subcontracted, so they’re outside consultants. That keeps them a little bit insulated from being pressured. We’re going in the right direction, but it’s happening too slowly.
Personally, I think OSHA should have more resources and more people. That would certainly bring the accident rate down. I tell people all the time, ‘Look, if you get a stop work order and you get a violation, how is that helping your schedule? Just do what’s needed to get done safely and move on.’
V1: What are some of the most common accidents at construction sites?
Tarrant: There are a lot of slips, trips and falls because of poor housekeeping. Those are common, because contractors want to save on clean-up labor. There should be clean up on every floor every day.
The most severe accidents are when things fall on people. I teach a class on this, and I tell people all the time, ‘Gravity is going to get you. Either you fall on something or something lands on top of you.’ Workers can eliminate 80 percent of the problem by using common sense. For example, they shouldn’t stand under a suspended load. I constantly tell people, ‘If you stand under a suspended load on my job, you’re going home.’ That’s an absolute no no. I explain to people, ‘You’re standing under a suspended load. If you’re lifting steel beams, those steel beams probably came from miles away on a truck, vibrating, shaking, loose bolts and loose clips, things might get dislodged. Why would you stand under it?’ Stuff comes straight down. It’s not a difficult calculation.
V1: It sounds like the lack of time and the desire to get things done quickly cause a lot of accidents. Do such situations result from people taking shortcuts, or is it just a lack of education?
Tarrant: I think it’s a lack of resources in the field. Workers don’t have the right equipment, so they have to improvise and compromise their safety. They don’t have a ladder, they don’t have enough scaffold, they don’t have any number of things. I think the guys on the ground level understand. The workers have done their OSHA training, so they know the four hazards [electrical hazards, fall hazards, struck-by hazards and caught-in or -between hazards]. But they don’t have the leverage to say, ‘I’m not doing that because you haven’t given me the right equipment.’ They’re trusting management to provide them with the right equipment, and that doesn’t happen very often. And then they’re told, ‘Just get it done.’ The joke we have in the construction business is safety is critically important to everybody as long as it doesn’t affect cost or schedule. Once it starts costing money or slows the job down then all bets are off. Too often managers say, ‘Just get it done. I don’t care. I don’t want to know about it.’ That attitude is a deadly attitude.
V1: Suppose you were able to sit down at a job site with every manager—the guys who tell their guys what to do. What would you want to stress to them?
Tarrant: I’d tell them to institute a PERMIT system before any trade comes on the job. I’d say, ‘Guys, here’s the PERMIT sheet. Sit with me for 15 minutes and tell me what you need to get the job done. Let’s go through all six resources and make sure you have them.’
And it’s important to implement the system across the board. When you start a construction job, there should be an orientation where the contractors and field managers say, ‘Okay, here are the ground rules. Here’s your PERMIT sheet. I need to know, and I need to see. You need to order. Do you have everything you need to do the job safely?’ The site-safety guy should be involved in that meeting. That would have a positive impact.
Good housekeeping is another important area. You have to have a vigilant crew constantly cleaning up, because the environment is changing all the time as you build. The work environment is changing, and you have to keep up with it. There has to be somebody with authority to be able to stop the job and say, ‘Listen, stop. We’re not doing this. We’re lacking something, and it’s their responsibility to give it to us.’ But again, because of the rush to get things done, people don’t always do this.
So, in short, I’d stress the need for a PERMIT system and good housekeeping. I’d also make sure subcontractors are prequalified fairly rigorously.
V1: Now imagine you’re talking to the actual construction workers. What would you tell them?
Tarrant: I’d say to them, ‘Remember your OSHA 10 training.’ It’s a 10-hour course, and workers need to remember the things they’re supposed to do. I’d also tell them, ‘Don’t do dumb things. And, if you get into an issue or you see a problem, don’t go to your direct supervisor. Go to the site-safety guys.’ Generally when I say something to field managers like, ‘Guys, you need to do this,’ and they give me resistance, I’ll say, ‘Okay, if you want to hear it from the site-safety guys or from an inspector from the Department of Buildings, I can arrange that, too. They’ll explain it really well when they issue a stop work order.’ So, again, it’s about being insistent.
In New York City, the site-safety people are off the hook once they report an alleged violation. It’s no reflection on them. Then the city will send out an inspector. So the site-safety guy has a lot of leverage. And often he’s working for a safety agency, not for a general contractor, so he has the leverage to say, ‘Guys, you must do this, or I will shut you down. And if you refuse to stop, I’ll call the Department of Buildings. They’ll bring an inspector out, and they’ll issue a stop work order. And if you violate that, you get arrested.’
V1: How much do you see construction safety changing in the future, and what are some new issues we might see?
Tarrant: I’d like to see insurance companies get more involved. For instance, in New York City, insurance companies give contractors a break if they install a cocoon, which is basically a barricade around the top of a job that has netting on it to prevent falls and anything from falling off the building. It isn’t mandated by OSHA or by the city. But if the insurance companies became more proactive with the contractors and let them see a real dollar value to safety, there’d be more of a stake-and-carrot situation. Basically, the stake is that if contractors aren’t compliant, then they aren’t going to be insured. And if they don’t have insurance, they don’t go to work. It’s like a horse race. Depending on the odds, my money is safer on the favorite. So the insurance company is betting that, eight months along, you’re not going to have an accident.
V1: Do insurance companies typically need to suffer litigation penalties before they’re willing to make such changes?
Tarrant: I think so. I’ve worked as an expert witness for some law firms, analyzing accidents and figuring out why they happened and where the fault lies. The insurance companies are involved in that, but it comes down to dollars and cents. Often they’ll settle a case rather than fight it, even though they may be right. But it’s more expensive to fight it than to settle. So I think the insurance companies need to get more involved, and they need to get the bad actors out of the industry. Again, it doesn’t matter who injures a worker, the worker is still injured. I think construction runs in cycles. Right now, we’re in a busy period, so, unfortunately, it’s hard to get the right people. I think we’ll have a better work force when things slow down, because better people will be available. It’s a little overheated now, and that is contributing to accidents.
V1: Is there anything you’d like to add for building designers?
Tarrant: Yeah. I think it’s a welcome development that engineers are looking at constructability now when they do a design, not just aesthetics. I’ve worked with some very good engineers, and they think about construction workers. Designs have to be OSHA compliant, and I’m impressed by how well many engineers do it. But we need more of that, and we need buy in from owners to give engineers more leeway. It’s not always about dollars and cents.