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Using ES&H Practices as a Business Strategy

Brad Giles has 25 years of experience with Washington Group International, and as their Corporate Vice President of Environmental Safety and Health (ES&H), he manages and oversees their ES&H and security program and services. In this interview, Giles describes how environmental safety and health practices factor into Washington Group International’s overall strategic plan and how effective training and mentoring programs have helped the company achieve its goals and objectives.

Please provide a brief overview of Washington Group International.

Washington Group International (Nasdaq: WGII) is a leading international engineering, construction and management solutions company that is composed of heritage organizations including Morrison Knudsen (MK), Westinghouse Government Services and Raytheon Engineers & Constructors (RE&C).

Washington Group International is headquartered in Boise, Idaho. We currently employ approximately 25,000 individuals in more than 30 countries. Our signature projects include the Hoover Dams, the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. We permitted, licensed and operated the nation’s first operating deep geologic nuclear waste repository. We are the only company to vitrify high-level radioactive waste in the United States, and we are a global leader in the destruction of chemical weapons. Globally, we have installed more megawatts of power-generating capacity than any other contractor.

Please describe Washington Group International’s current ES&H staffing and resources.

We employ about 400 ES&H professionals in construction and general industry in the commercial world and another 1,100 in the government arena. In 2004, over 900 security operatives were also employed on contracts in the Middle East. All of our contracts are supplemented by over 1,000 foremen, supervisors and managers who have obtained Safety-Trained Supervisor (STS) certification in construction and general industry. More than 70% of the Safety-Trained Supervisors in the United States are employed by Washington Group International.

Please explain your and Washington Group International’s philosophy regarding ES&H investment and how it fits into the strategic goals and objectives of the company.

Our company firmly believes that a world-class organization does not use only best practices, it creates them.

We are leading:

  • Construction projects in infrastructure, power and industrial processes
  • Mining projects in coal, lignite, copper, silver, gold and industrial minerals
  • Operations of chemical demilitarization and energy and weapons plants for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

We are a service business—the value that we add in the marketplace all comes down to our people. And since the nature of our work is inherently dangerous, you can understand why the safety of our employees is our top priority. Safety is one of the five core values of the company. Our executive management understands the positive correlation between project cost, schedule performance and ES&H performance, and it makes safety a leading indicator. Safety is a component of our business objectives, and both injury metrics and leading indicators are identified and measured in the evaluation process.

Washington Group International’s ES&H program is a major part of the company’s strategic plan. We have achieved many safety performance milestones over the last several years, and we are always improving. For more than a decade, we have maintained a safety record that is eight times better than the national average for all recordable injuries and illnesses and 30 times better in the number of injuries resulting in employees’ days away from work. Each year, Washington Group business units set aggressive safety goals, and their performance is measured against these goals rather than the industry average. Annually, through more aggressive goal setting and leading indicators, we strive for continuous improvement in the range of 10% per year. Each month, Washington Group business units report on the progress of their leading indicators and safety performance in terms of recordable injuries/illnesses and those resulting in employees’ days away from work.

Our clientele has become more sophisticated in selecting the best organization to perform their work. Our executive management and that of our clients understand the strong correlation between safe project performance and profitability. Invariably, projects that have poor safety performance will also eventually demonstrate problems with schedule, budget or quality. By choosing an organization that has a good safety program, the client can be reassured that the execution aspects will also go well. In addition to not wanting poor performance or late completion, clients do not want to be on the front page of the newspaper because of an accident or incident. So in order to be successful and profitable, we need a strong ES&H program. To be considered for more work, we must demonstrate safety excellence. On the personal side, as an engineering, construction, mining and management company, our principal asset is our people. And we do everything we can to protect them.

Was there a “defining moment” that made Washington Group International proceed with its ES&H goals and programs?

There has never been a “defining moment.” It has been an ever-evolving program that looks for a shared vision and continuous improvement.

Please describe Washington Group International’s ES&H accomplishments during the last 25 years.

In the 1980s, Ben Rietze, a certified safety professional (CSP) and former ASSE president, was the Corporate ES&H Director of our heritage company Morrison Knudsen (MK). Rietze brought increased professionalism to our organization. Our corporate office then had three CSPs, two certified industrial hygienists (CIHs) who were also CSPs and a certified health physicist (CHP). They encouraged numerous project staff to obtain certifications.

We conducted company-sponsored professional development programs and participated in ASSE programs. These were our first attempts to break out of the “safety cop” mentality.

During the 1980s, David Snyder, vice president of operations for our mining unit, became a leader in management support. Snyder was a person with vision who truly believed in the correlation between safe performance and operational excellence. He required management participation, he held all levels of supervision accountable, and he fostered employee involvement. Since we were in the “contracting world,” we had to constantly demonstrate why we were better suited to service a client than our competitors. This was exhibited by low and/or zero injuries, clean and well-maintained equipment and well-planned project execution.

Once our first project in the Mining Group reached one million hours without a lost-time injury, we demonstrated that it was an achievable and attainable goal. Four other projects quickly followed suit with one million+ hours of safe performance. Snyder carried this to the former East Germany where the company took over a large lignite mining operation. Through his involvement in safety improvements there, he was awarded Germany’s highest award for a civilian.

In the 1990s, there was a significant amount of reorganization and turmoil, both within our company and within the industries in which we worked. Lowell Townley, a CSP and professional engineer (PE), assumed the role of Corporate ES&H Director. Townley was my personal mentor, and he remains a close friend and advisor. He helped to improve the professionalism of our company staff. His strong background in project execution provided our ES&H professionals with another focus. We were able to continue the professional development efforts of our ES&H staff, but we reorganized our corporate office and senior ES&H managers so that they were placed within each business unit and reported to the president of each. This move put the ES&H leadership closer to the operations personnel, and it fostered closer working relationships and better methods of goal attainment.

We continued to integrate safety expectations for supervision in work plans and performance evaluations. During this time, Tom Zarges, our current Senior Executive Vice President of Operations, was president of our process/power business unit. He brought executive involvement in evaluating field conditions and injury metrics, but he was not one to accept excuses for poor housekeeping and planning—he felt that all injuries were preventable. He also firmly believed in recognition for individuals and team accomplishments.

Mike Nicholson, Director of Safety for our industrial/process business unit, initiated supervisor safety training that included technical data, management responsibilities and the business side of safety. Under Zarges’ tenure, we also initiated the preparation and training required to attain Safety-Trained Supervisor (STS) certification in construction. This program has helped supervisors to become more involved in the safety process so that they are not completely dependent on an ES&H professional.

In 1999, Washington Group International acquired Westinghouse Government Services, which increased our participation with the DOE’s sites and the benefits of Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP).

In 2000, we acquired RE&C, which complemented MK’s project execution, engineering and design capabilities and power plant construction. The greatest challenge during this time was achieving a common vision. This effort combined 16 legacy companies of different processes and values. This led to the creation of Project Execution Procedures (PEPs) to standardize how all facets of the company would perform. These plans have been communicated throughout Washington Group International through project managers and team training sessions. We are investing over $50 million annually in employee training and education, including teaching “The Washington Way.”

However, Washington Group International was dealt a significant blow on September 11, 2001. One hundred and eighty of our employees were working on the 190th floor of the second tower to collapse at the World Trade Center. Thirteen of those employees were lost in the terrorist attack. Within two weeks, we had mobilized 16 of our EH&S professionals with those from Bechtel to provide the implementation of health and safety procedures during the first three months of rescue, recovery and demolition operations. Our professionals teamed up with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance officers who “job-shadowed” them in a non-enforcement role. The success of this “job shadowing” inspired OSHA’s Assistant Secretary John Henshaw to request Washington Group International to become the first company to sign a national alliance agreement. Through joint training efforts, this alliance, which is now in its third year, provides mentoring for subcontractors and training for high school and college vocational instructors as part of a pilot “Youth Initiative” program.

As the war on terror progressed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked our company to reestablish electricity and water resources and to construct military bases and roadways in Afghanistan and in Iraq. In addition to the ES&H personnel who were assigned from the United States and the Philippines, 40 local engineers were trained in ES&H capabilities. We used over 900 security operatives to protect our 2,000 employees and physical assets and to move our 280 expatriate managers. Four of our projects in the Middle East have worked over one million hours each without a “days-away case.”

On the domestic front, our leading indicators included a two-day safety management training program, pursuit of STS in construction or in general industry, management participation in orientation and executive participation in project walkdowns. We provided several people to the Council on Certification of Health, Environmental and Safety Technologists (CCHEST) in the development of STS for general industry and refineries, and our supervisors were the first individuals to test and certify under the general industry certification in the fall of 2004. To date, we have put over 1,000 of our employees through the full certification process.

The Associated General Contractors (AGC) recognized our Infrastructure Business Unit with Safety Excellence and Superintendent of the Year awards in March 2004. In the fall of 2004, Occupational Hazards magazine named our company as “One of America’s Safest Companies.” We were one of 17 companies on that list and the only company representing our industry. Additionally, the German government recognized our mining operations group for Safety Leadership in Industry. In the United Kingdom, two of our projects received the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) gold award for the fifth consecutive year. These two projects also qualified for ISO certification in safety, environmental and quality management.

Washington Group International helped CCHEST develop a training exam for general industry, and in the fall of 2004, 49 of Washington Group International’s employees were the first to take and pass the exam—with an impressive 100% success rate. How did Washington Group International prepare its employees for this exam? What study methods were used? What kind of success rate has the exam had since it was introduced last fall?

We initiated our participation in the STS construction program in 1997. I believe that this training and knowledge validation through certification testing is the most important action we have taken to reduce injuries and to improve our safety culture.

Since the start of this program, more than 1,000 foremen, supervisors and managers, including business unit presidents, have received their certification. STS certification is viewed positively as professional development that provides potential advancement in management and/or supervisory responsibilities.

Before we implemented this program, it was often difficult to get supervisors to participate in safety training. To prepare our employees, we developed training based on an expanded ten-hour construction safety course that included the business aspects of safety management. This course, which was presented throughout the United States and at many of our international project locations, covered 16 hours and became our company’s “Safety-Qualified Supervisor” (SQS) basic training. For projects that require supplemental training, we expanded to a 30-hour OSHA course. Using the J.J. Keller Construction Safety Handbook as a resource, we have assembled a 100-question knowledge verification exam (pre and post). ES&H topics can also be covered separately through our online training source, KnowledgeWire.

When the company recognized the benefits of the STS construction program, it wanted to apply the same diligence to the general industry component of our business. We developed a version for general industry that was similar to the SQS in construction. By using the same format of “facilitated” training, we expanded the ten-hour course and applied online training modules.

Forty-nine of our employees were the first to take the general industry test, with about half from our IBM Mechanicsburg facility management project and the remainder from global Caterpillar facilities’ support project. We were proud that all of our people passed on their first attempt.

What are the terms of Washington Group International’s alliance agreement with OSHA?

In our alliance agreement, we committed to joint training efforts and to a job-shadowing program. We also have conducted a two-day safety training course. The class included Washington Group International supervisors and OSHA compliance and training personnel. These courses have been completed in Washington, DC, Boise, ID, Seattle, WA, Denver, CO and Birmingham, AL.

OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have participated in our company’s annual ES&H professional development workshop in Idaho over the last few years. This summer, our employees will work with Region X OSHA on the verification teams for partnership and for Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) participants. We are still coordinating a suitable project in the Northwest on which OSHA can work with us in a job-shadowing role.

We are also committed to mentoring subcontractors. We have provided safety professionals who have presented on a variety of topics such as the economics of safety, lead and silica, equipment safety and accident investigation at “contractor safety forums” in Seattle, Boise, Denver and Boston. In December 2005, Washington Group International, OSHA and the AGC will host the “SafetyFest in the Northwest,” a three-day series of free courses for the Idaho contracting community.

Please further describe Washington Group International’s mentoring activities and how they have benefited the company.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has stated that the construction industry will need 185,000 new employees each year for the next decade. In our “Youth Initiative,” Washington Group International, OSHA and the AGC have instructed over 225 Idaho high school and college vocational education instructors. They earned ten-hour cards to establish their credentials in both construction and general industry. This summer, many of these instructors will participate in a “Train the Trainer” program so that they can train and present the cards to their students. The benefit of this is two-fold—safety training helps to reduce injuries during school activities, and it prepares students for the safety expectations of future employers.

Washington Group International also participates in mentoring activities for the contracting community nationwide. Our company’s performance is judged by subcontractor performance, not just our own. We use subcontractors for 25% (20 million hours) of our work activities. Our resources include over 400 construction and mining ES&H professionals and 1,100 government ES&H professionals who can help with those training activities. Others might not be as fortunate to have the availability of so many talented individuals.

The short-term goal is to help contractors understand ES&H requirements and benefits when working for some of the larger client and prime contractor organizations. The long-term goal is to improve the ES&H performance of our industry and to eliminate injuries in the workforce. Washington Group International benefits through improved safety performance of contractors and through the large pool of potential companies that can be qualified and approved for our projects.

How are supervisors trained at Washington Group International?

We are in several diverse industries that all have different requirements for supervisor training. Although we rely on the training requirements for STS to supplement our supervisors’ initial knowledge, we provide a variety of training activities.

Our online training program, KnowledgeWire, has over 50 standalone safety courses available as well as several company-specific safety courses. We require a minimum number of courses to be completed in the first 30 days of employment as a supervisor. For example, our mining group requires a 40-hour supervisor safety course in addition to MSHA’s mandated training. Other groups require 16-30 hours of safety training. By working with the Construction Industry Institute (CII), our company has developed 200 hours of supervisory/management training modules that are available in both classroom and online formats.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Washington Group International and Bechtel mobilized ES&H professionals to assist with ES&H planning and oversight. What were the specific duties of these professionals? Have Washington Group International and Bechtel worked together on similar initiatives since then?

Our work with Bechtel at the World Trade Center recovery and demolition effort was a unique experience for all. Our company lost 13 of the 180 employees we had working in the second tower of the World Trade Center. We were afforded the opportunity to help out, and we took it.

Washington Group International and Bechtel each mobilized 16 professionals to assist the City of New York as well as the contractors and agencies involved in the aftermath of the terrorist activities. The individuals I selected were all senior ES&H managers with experience in construction, environmental, hazardous material, industrial hygiene and demolition work activities. They all worked 12-hour shifts onsite in the 24/7 coverage. Stew Burhammer, who is now with the OSHA Construction Directorate, led this endeavor. In addition to preparing the overall ES&H plans, oversight of all work activities was performed. Each of our safety professionals had at least one OSHA compliance officer accompany them in a “non-enforcement” advisory role.

Although Washington Group International and Bechtel do joint venture activities in many disciplines, we have not worked together on any similar initiatives since then. However, we are both helping with reconstruction efforts in Iraq and in the Middle East. We are making a difference there by employing local nationals to open schools, rebuild hospitals, establish fresh water and waste water systems and provide electrical energy generation and transmission systems.

What recommendations can you make to companies who wish to improve their own employee training programs? What training methods do you believe are the most effective (hands-on, online, classroom, etc.)?

In improving employee training programs, a variety of approaches must be considered. For new hire craft, in addition to classroom sessions, we use a “hands-on” approach in a learning lab to establish and reinforce our expectations of the technical aspects of safety such as working on or around ladders or working at heights.

For all other types of training, having live, face-to-face instruction is the best. We make the most of our classroom sessions by using a “facilitated” approach in which the instructor leads the participants through the training, provides materials for the students and teaches the subject matter. However, classrooms are not always available because of timing and travel, so the use of online courses to supplement other training methods is helpful. Our employees who work internationally can access the online courses and then supplement this with instructors who visit them on variable schedules.

Why do you think so many companies continue to cut back on ES&H during difficult financial times?

Some companies mistakenly cut back on ES&H during difficult financial times because they believe that they will achieve some short-term economic benefits. It takes many human and capital resources to staff and administer an effective ES&H program. The benefits a company receives from an effective program are manifest by a more productive workforce, which is often many times more profitable than the cost of safety management programs and the direct losses from poor safety performance. That is part of the reason why we teach the “Economics of Safety” to all of our supervisors and as part of our mentoring program for contractors.

What motivates ES&H within Washington Group International?

ES&H excellence is motivated within Washington Group for several reasons. First, we have a moral obligation to protect our employees, the public and the environment to the best of our ability. Secondly, it is just good business. We are more profitable and able to get more work. The construction and mining business are quite closely knit, and we have all worked with a small group of people who have some previous relationship. Being the safest helps us attract the best talent.

How can safety professionals more effectively interact with senior management at large organizations?

Safety professionals can more effectively interact with senior management by demonstrating their value and observations. Companies are not looking for someone to be a “safety cop” who just tries to enforce laws and regulations. What we are all looking for is someone who has a “can do” attitude. When the safety person finds an unacceptable condition or activity, they should be able to provide one or two appropriate suggestions on how the condition or activity can be performed safely. It does not matter how smart you are or if you have the safety regulations memorized. If you cannot communicate with craft and supervision, you will not be valued.

What have you learned at Washington Group International that would be helpful to ASSE members?

I have learned that ES&H professionals have the best jobs in the industry. They get to travel everywhere, see everything and experience all aspects of a project or facility. While in the field, they have the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of a business, whether it is a construction or manufacturing project. They also have the opportunity to interact with craft and supervisory personnel and to learn from them. They then should carry that knowledge and insight back to management. ES&H professionals are like management’s eyes and ears.

What advice would you give to ES&H professionals who wish to advance into senior management positions?

For those who wish to advance into senior management positions, you should:

1. Be professional in all of your activities and pursue development in education and certification.

2. Look to outside activities to help you develop your leadership and management skills. Be an officer with the ASSE or with another organization, volunteer for the United Way, teach courses at local colleges and offer to go on peer reviews at your company.

3. Demonstrate your value and understanding of the business (both the technical execution and financial implications of it) and communicate your observations to your supervisor(s).

4. Establish your goals for the next five, ten and 20 years. Keep your goals attainable and achievable.

5. Look for a mentor who can help guide you.

What do you believe is the future of ES&H?

I believe that the future of ES&H is solid. Even though I tell our people that their job is to work themselves out of a job by training supervisors, empowering employees, etc., it is not going to happen.

I believe that we will see a lot less specialization. Areas that currently have separate safety, industrial hygiene, environmental and fire protection specialists will see more generalists. The number of professionals may not decrease, but more people will work with a larger scope of duties. There will always be a need for ES&H professionals to help employees and supervisors in the continuous improvement process.

Brad Giles is the Corporate Vice President of Environmental Safety and Health at Washington Group International. He has 25 years of experience with the company and 29 years of environmental safety and health management and engineering experience.

At Washington Group International, Giles is responsible for the management and oversight of a comprehensive environmental safety, health and security program and services provided to the company’s multinational business units. He provides functional supervision of over 400 construction and 1,100 government ES&H professionals, as well as 900 security professionals, worldwide.

He initiated the first national alliance between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and a private company. This alliance focused on the mentoring of subcontractors and on joint training efforts with OSHA personnel. He assisted in the attainment of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) STAR designation at four U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sites and one in the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

Giles’ previous assignments at Washington Group International were with the company’s mining, environmental, process, government and heavy civil units. As manager of safety at the Denver International Airport construction project in Colorado, he was named Safety Professional of the Year in 1994 for the Construction Division of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). He led a team of 16 company ES&H professionals in a joint-venture effort that provided safety leadership and oversight during the first three months of the World Trade Center recovery effort. He also sponsored Washington Group International’s participation in Safety-Trained Supervisor (STS) in Construction and General Industry Certification Program, which currently numbers more than 1,000 supervisors and managers who represent over 70% of national registrants.

Giles is a professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and a registered Professional Engineer (PE). He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. He holds a bachelor of science degree and a master of science degree in industrial safety both from Southern Illinois University.