October 1, 2012

Safety achievement – a continuous journey

Tomco Electric embarks on SHARP

As Bend's Tomco Electric has grown, the jobs have also become larger in scale and complexity. That's when second-generation owner Colby Thompson turned to Oregon OSHA consultation. He had heard about the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) from some of the larger peer companies his company worked with.

"Those groups were bringing a high level of safety protocol to job sites," Thompson said.

Mike Shugert installs electrical wiring at a Bend jobsite.
Mike Shugert installs electrical wiring at a Bend jobsite.

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He decided it was time to step up the safety program at Tomco, which employs 80 workers, and embarked on the SHARP process.

"My approach was give me a checklist, let me do these things, and we'll be ready," he said. "It took me six months to get that it's a cultural shift and doesn't happen that easily."

Thompson has been working for about a year and a half with his team to earn the SHARP designation – an Oregon OSHA program that encourages employers to work with their employees to find and correct hazards, implement effective programs, and continuously improve to become self-sufficient. Currently, about 75 employer locations in Oregon participate in SHARP, in addition to more than 90 facilities that have graduated from the program.

"Before this process, they didn't really have a solid system for managing safety," said Kevin Kilroy‚ an Oregon OSHA safety consultant. "Depending on where you’re at with your safety and health program, you may have to change some ways you do business. We need to see these changes in action. You have to make your program part of the way you do business."

Thompson said he now understands that SHARP required more than a checklist. It started with a top-down approach.

"I took that to heart. I made it a goal to spend one day in the field with my crew every week and I really saw areas that we still needed to improve," he said.

For instance, during a recent fairgrounds project, a number of vendors were packing up to leave an enclosed exhibition space. At the same time, Tomco employees were using a manlift.

"No one thought about carbon monoxide," said Thompson. "It troubled me that there was that much activity and no one thought about it. I went out and bought a carbon monoxide detector and put it in the basket."

Thompson said there's no question the organization is changing its focus around safety. His electricians are coming to safety committee meetings with solutions, not just questions.

"There is a lot more planning, thought, and being aware," Thompson said. "We offered an arc flash training to our staff and they were hungry to learn about that particular subject. Immediately, they started to talk to us about buying the right equipment. We're seeing employees follow through."

Frequent meetings, open communication, and enthusiasm from management about SHARP have all helped to energize employees.

"When I sat down with Kevin, I said, 'A couple months and we'll be there,'" Thompson said. "He said, 'Maybe, it's possible.' Here we are a year and a half later. What I've learned is that it's constant evolvement. You are constantly working on it."

"Don't get hung up on how long the process may take because ultimately, it's the journey," said Kilroy. "Tomco is way better off today than they were before, and they aren't SHARP yet. SHARP is about the journey, not the end. That's where the improvement takes place."

Kilroy said many of the companies he helps want to work with general contractors who expect a solid safety record. That commitment goes beyond earning recognition - it's a new way of doing business that Thompson has embraced.

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