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Safety First

Black & Veatch uses Memphis sewer project as moment to mentor contractors about avoiding job harm. 

Safety First: Black & Veatch Uses Project to Mentor Contractors

Hired to help upgrade his hometown’s aging sewage system and its labyrinth of buried pipes that could stretch from Los Angeles to New York, Memphis contractor Wiley Richards never lacked respect for job-site safety. In his construction world that includes treacherous trenches and the tightest of spaces, he knew, any shortcuts or attention lapses, even for an instant, could kill.

Yet the 50-year-old grandfather admits that in his two-decade-old family-run W&T Construction, conveying best practices about safety to his two dozen employees didn’t have structure or a culture. Kansas-based Black & Veatch, the global design and construction company hired to oversee the Memphis Sanitary Sewer Overflow program, helped solve that.

For a week in February, century-old Black & Veatch shared its time-tested safety practices during a free seminar for local supervisors and contractors working on the 10-year program. Explaining that the sewer makeover, expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, shouldn’t cost anyone a limb or a life, the training was steeped in the belief that keeping things safe in a notoriously perilous line of work would safeguard crews and the public. And it’d help keep the program on track and on budget.

Richards and his brother – each vice presidents of their business – snapped up two of the indoctrination’s 25 first-come, first-served slots that filled up quickly. Wiley Richards found the tutelage on what he called Black & Veatch’s “high-end safety program” to be informative and, most importantly, transferrable to his own troops.

“With a small business, there are a lot of hats you have to wear to stay in business. There are a variety of issues to deal with, and safety advocacy is high among them,” he acknowledged. “We certainly have tried to operate in a safe manner, but we lacked some protocols.”

But during Black & Veatch’s mentoring about such things as regulatory requirements, mitigation of hazards no matter how small, fall protection, and excavation and forklift safety, he said, “they really go above and beyond to cultivate the culture and speak to it.”

“They’re very consistent with it, and it has helped us tremendously to take those tools and points and share it with our employees,” Wiley Richards added. “We want our employees to have a safe work environment, and we’re very thankful to (learn from) an organization that clearly believes people are important, that people matter and that our people are paramount and critical.”

They got on board with it

As Black & Veatch’s vice president of environmental safety, health and security, John Johnson said sharing the company’s decades of safety knowledge was a no-brainer, given that many Memphis-area contractors on the job “are relatively small and don’t have very well-defined safety and health” protocols.

“Generally speaking,” said Bently Green, a Black & Veatch associate vice president who manages the Memphis SSO program, “the end users of this training have a newfound sense of why we focus on safety, and they got on board with it. It just makes things run much smoother and safer.”

Elizabeth Rodgers, Environmental, Health, Safety & Security Manager in Black & Veatch’s water business, credits the training with fostering teamwork and better quality, reducing prospects of mistakes on the neighborhood-by-neighborhood push to assess and rehab Memphis’ wastewater and sewer infrastructure. The city’s system is sprawling, involving 2,800 miles of sewers, many installed more than a century ago and now deteriorating.

Spawned by a 2012 consent decree between the city and environmental regulators, the work strives to stifle the frequency of overflows of sewage onto streets, yards, streams and into basements in Tennessee’s biggest city. Like many cities, Memphis has an aging wastewater collection and transmission system, from pipes to pumping stations. Sewers have degenerated. Pipes have cracked, and joints have parted. Corrosion has eaten away at the conduits and manhole covers.

Modernizing it all by patching what’s broken or replacing the unfixable is inherently dangerous, considering the need for crews to work in trenches or in confined spaces. All of that and more gets addressed in awareness training by Black & Veatch, chosen to manage the Memphis program because of its regional experience, local commitment, and laudable record in carrying out similar large programs.

When it comes to pressing field safety, Johnson said, “we won’t turn away anybody willing to dedicate the time of their people to do this coursework,” all accredited by the National Center for Construction Education and Research with a splash of Black & Veatch expectations.

Those who tackle the sessions get more than the payoff of knowing best practices; they automatically qualify to sit for “safety trained supervisor” certification by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals – widely considered the world’s gold standard in the field.

“We’ve formed some strong relationships with local contractors, and we’ve helped them to grow through communicating the benefits of safety and health and how financially it’s natural to spend time and resources educating people on safety-related matters,” Rodgers said. “We’re extremely pleased whenever a project invites us to come in and put on a session.”

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