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John Isham is safety director of URS Washington Division’s Infrastructure and Mining Group. In this interview, Isham discusses the company’s subcontractor prequalification system and explains how it has helped reduce accidents and injuries among subcontract workers.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your position as safety director for URS Washington Division.

I have 25 years of safety and health experience and hold CSP and CIH designations. My current position as safety director of the Infrastructure and Mining Group includes nationwide projects and international projects in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Canada, Egypt and Jamaica.

What separates URS Washington Division’s subcontractor prequalification system from those of other large engineering firms?

URS Washington Division has had a subcontractor prequalification policy for more than ten years. The program is run by projects and contract administrators with oversight by the group safety directors. The system is now available online and has been blended with a comprehensive prequalification program, including financial, quality and performance metrics.

URS Washington Division’s subcontractor prequalification system offers automatic scoring and qualifying. What other features does the online system provide, and why has URS Washington Division decided to retain both the online and hardcopy prequalification processes?

The online system allows the subcontractor to upload safety plans, procedures, citation information and many other documents if requested or required by the program. We have maintained both the electronic and hardcopy processes because some projects are smaller with less subcontracting and less staff to implement the online process. They can still complete the forms and conduct the prequalification review manually.

Prior to awarding a contract, the URS Washington Division project safety representative or the business unit director of environmental, safety and health reviews the safety record, safety procedures and any relevant exceptions the subcontractors submit. How does this review process work?

When a proposal is issued to potential bidders, it includes instructions to complete the online or hardcopy safety prequalification form before they can bid the work. A deadline is given, and the designated safety manager reviews the subcontractor scores, which the system generates, to see if they pass. If they fail, they are notified that they are disqualified. In some cases, a specialty subcontractor who is required to perform work may fail. If this occurs, a special work session is set up, and extra training and oversight are arranged before the subcontractor can work on a project.

What is the business unit director’s role outside of the subcontractor prequalification process?

The safety director reports to the group president and assists the president in implementing an effective and proactive safety program and in developing a strong safety culture. The director establishes all programs, leading indicators, staffing, auditing and training to ensure that projects have the means and methods necessary to succeed. In addition, development of proposals and client relations is an important function to bring new work into the business.

What process does URS Washington Division’s superintendent/supervisor follow when monitoring a subcontractor’s safety program during a project’s duration? How are deficiencies reported?

All subcontractors working at a project adopt the project safety plan or develop an equivalent safety plan. Supervisors provide oversight of all subcontractors with daily surveillances and hold the subcontractor to the same level of safety as direct-hire employees. Many subcontractors are required to have a safety representative at the project. Subcontractor employees must attend the project safety orientation, all safety meetings and must also undergo substance abuse testing.

What are the primary reasons why subcontractors may be denied a contract?

We require subcontractors to meet minimum standards for a safety program and minimum standards in injury rates. If they meet a passing score level, they can bid and perform work.

How has URS Washington Division’s prequalification system helped reduce accidents and injuries among subcontractors?

The best evidence is that during audits, our subcontractors are conducting safe work in compliance with the programs. In addition, over the last four years our subcontractor OSHA total recordable rate has been reduced by 60%.

What do you consider to be the most challenging aspect of subcontractor prequalification?

Having subcontractors successfully complete the online data input. Many subcontractors still do not have a computer or are not very skilled at using them. The hardcopy process is often used in these instances.

Does URS Washington Division plan to modify or enhance its prequalification system in 2009?

Our system was upgraded in 2008, so we do not plan to modify the system in 2009. However, we continue to make the system more user-friendly.


John Isham, CSP, CIH is safety director for URS Washington Division’s Infrastructure and Mining Group. This group takes on heavy civil and mining projects from conception, development, design and construction and through operations and maintenance. He assists the group in the development and implementation of a proactive program for both domestic and international projects.

Prior to joining the company in 1988 as a project environmental, safety and health manager, Isham worked for the Public Service Company of New Mexico managing health and safety programs at coal and gas-fired power plants.

He holds a bachelor of science degree in environmental health from Colorado State University.