A Lean Site is a Safer Site

BY Burns Mechanical IN Construction

Written By Dan Kerr (President, Burns Mechanical, Inc.)

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar on the topic of construction safety excellence organized by our insurance broker. The speakers were primarily executives of various types of construction companies – construction managers, site contractors, and specialty contractors. Choking back emotion, executive after executive explained the irreparable impacts of “The day that everything changed”-the day a catastrophic injury occurred on their project site.

Hearing their stories consecutively was eye opening. Unfortunately, in some cases it took a fatality or terrible injury to propel a firm’s safety policy from a dust-covered notebook on the shelf into an every-day action plan and new way of being. When times are good (and seemingly safe), it’s all too easy to take safety best practices for granted, forgetting that those practices must evolve just as our industry and businesses do.

Not surprisingly, Lean construction methods as a proactive site safety strategy were a significant topic of discussion at the seminar. Lean and modularization are trending industry buzz words, most often touted from a cost-efficiency, quality control, or schedule compression perspective. However, Lean’s positive effects on site safety are often taken for granted, just like the dust-covered safety manual on your shelf full of bureaucratic policies. But it shouldn’t be that way.

Burns Mechanical’s depth of experience with Lean methods and modularization confirms the findings of leading industry researchers: Lean sites are safe sites. 77% of Lean practitioners reported improved safety as a benefit of implementing Lean practices.*

To illustrate one practical application with real-world results, we can take a look at one of Burns’ recent urban high-rise projects. Facing significant time and accessibility constraints, we developed and executed a plan for prefabricating more than 80% of the project’s 200,000+ pipe joints within the controlled environment of our Fabrication Shop. The plan virtually eliminated the need for loose pieces and parts at the project site, while moving the work of 20 craftsmen from the site into the controlled environment of our shop. The sub-assemblies were delivered on easy to handle, reusable wheeled carts specifically designed for the various physical constraints of the site. The plan enabled the equivalent of 12,000 feet of piping systems to be installed each week and eliminated site generated waste by for twenty-four (24) 40-yard dumpsters. There was no cost premium for our plan. In fact, we improved our labor efficiency by 20% to 30% as compared to a traditional “stick build.”

Of course there’s no fool proof method of completely eliminating construction safety risks. But do we really need to explain the safety benefits of this approach; the fewer tripping hazards, less crowded floor plates, less labor stacking, less working from ladders and lifts, etc.?

So why does Lean largely remain a sideshow in large, active markets such as Philadelphia’s? Why is there a resistance to evolve our project approach, even though the many benefits of Lean are widely understood? Perhaps we’ll attempt to tackle this 800-pound gorilla in the coming months. Stay tuned.


*“Lean Construction” McGraw Hill Construction, 2013.