Hill Group takes safety leadership to the highest level

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Chicagoland’s largest mechanical contractor aspires to zero injuries and world-class standards

By Mark Buckshon

The Hill Group, Chicagoland’s largest full-service mechanical contractor, has good reason to be proud of its safety record. Its Experience Modification Rate (EMR) is 0.54, “placing us near the top percentile in our industry,” says safety director Matt McKeon. “We believe that no loss is acceptable, and our strong safety culture tangibly represents our commitment to our most important asset… our people. We will never compromise safety. Economics are secondary to safety.”
Yet these safety achievements – the 700-plus employee company has virtually half the accident experiences of other contractors nationwide – only reflects a starting point for what the 79-year-old family-owned business wishes to achieve, McKeon says.

“We’re shooting for an overall reduction of 50 percent of injuries (from our current level),” he said – and even that isn’t enough. “Any goal of anything more than zero injuries is an admission of failure. We’re far from world-class. We intend to get there.”

These are ambitious goals, but they have real business advantages. The Hill Group’s lower workers’ compensation insurance premiums reflect its excellent safety record. It belongs to a captive insurance group that intends to raise the bar even further, raising their risk tolerance with more self-insurance.

McKeon says he is thankful that he has complete buy-in for enhanced safety practices from the company’s owners and other senior managers.

“We completely revised our safety program in 2015, not only on paper, but through our commitments,” he said. “We completed a third-party audit of our corporate safety program. We’ve revised our corporate safety committee, we hired additional staff, and we’ve revised our recognition programs, including recognizing personnel for reporting near misses and good catches.”

Not surprisingly, The Hill Group has embraced the recent Safety Stand Down. In the single day, “we had about 225 tradespeople we were able to touch at six different job sites” focusing on pre-task planning, he said. Safety staff and superintendents emphasized to the tradespeople the importance of pre-planning and the experience of one of their peers who barely averted a potentially disabling injury because of a failure to follow an established plan. This touched home, because the workers know and care about their colleagues.

Other Hill Group safety-enhancing achievements include:

Demonstrated management commitment
“Our owners are committed to all our personnel and constantly promote safety through their comments and actions,” McKeon says. “Our executive team participates in monthly safety assessments, demonstrating their commitment to the field personnel.”

Safety staffing
McKeon says in addition to himself, a full-time field safety coordinator and safety intern, 11 Hill Group executives, managers and superintendents have completed the OHSA 145-hour Construction Safety Administrator course, a six-month training course for safety – not an insignificant feat, because of the time and expense required to complete the program – so there are eyes and ears on every job.’

Extensive safety planning
“We push planning from the project inception through the final task. This is critical.”

Safety training and education
“We touch every person in the company on a weekly basis with basic safety training and also provide comprehensive training for all pertinent subject matter such as fall protection, electrical safety, rigging, confined space, equipment use and more,” McKeon said. Additionally, all foremen, project managers and executive management must complete the OSHA 30-hour Construction Training Course.

Worker participation and involvement
The company encourages feedback and conducts safety perception surveys, and promotes comments by email, texts and other means.

Recognition and rewards
“We utilize various recognition programs to promote safety and safety involvement.”

Subcontractor management
All subcontractors are put through a thorough vetting process for safety performance and are held to high standards.

Accident incident/reporting and investigation
“We utilize a very good telephonic reporting system for our losses,” he said. “It minimizes reporting delays and provides us the opportunity to begin our investigations and get our personnel back to health and back to work in a timely manner.”

Drug and alcohol testing
The company performs random and post-accident testing for all personnel.

Enhanced modular/prefab construction systems
McKeon says The Hill Group has also taken measures to enhance its use of prefabricated and modular construction, so it can build many key components off-site in controlled environments, reducing the risky and less-controlled on-site safety issues. The modular construction has other advantages in improved quality, greater efficiency and reduced costs, allowing the company to be competitive in the low-bid-wins-the-job environment.

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