Beginning work at a nuclear power plant last year — the first new reactor construction in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 — SMACNA contractor Research Air Flo expected heightened safety requirements.
They were more than prepared.
Thanks to years of internal work developing a culture of safety, Research Air Flo’s testing and balancing technicians have excelled at the Plant Vogtle Units 3 &4 Project located in Waynesboro, Ga. Pete Boyzuick, contract manager for prime contractor SSMI, recognized the Atlanta-based company with a Spotlight Award earlier this year for their safety performance.
“Our staff was already used to many of the rigorous protocols that are in place at Vogtle,” said Kevin Derrick, CFO at Research Air Flo. “It’s an historic project that we are proud to be a part of. We are also very proud of our safety record. Through it all, 2020 was a successful year for Research Air Flo, Inc. We also placed 3rd in our man-hour category and won the SMACNA Safety Award as well as a Zero Accident award.”
“I was surprised,” said Wesley Webb, field superintendent for Research Air Flo. “There are over 10,000 badged people for this project. We’re a small team, and our contact with people is fairly limited on site. For SSMI to recognize us was a huge achievement.”
Webb and his technicians are testing and adjusting all HVAC equipment, including 164 air handler fans and related hydronic systems.
“These guys have been on site for over a year with zero incidents,” said Bryan Beckham, Safety Manager for SSMI, “We wanted to recognize them for going above and beyond with the safety, quality and production they bring to the project.”
Intense safety training and monitoring are part of every work day at Plant Vogtle. Webb said general contractor Bechtel Corporation essentially has a safety school. Subjects range from hearing protection to working at heights. In addition to Bechtel’s thorough safety program, Southern Company, one of the Plant Vogtle owners, also requires specialty training for specific areas and tasks such as Rad Worker training. While Research Air Flo staff does not access high radiation areas, they sometimes work in environments where they may be exposed to some types of low-level radiation. Therefore, they have been trained on how to properly dress out in protective gear. They also learned to identify marked hot spots, and were educated on how to reduce their exposure by keeping a safe distance and limiting time in certain marked areas.
Aerial Work Platforms (AWP) training at Plant Vogtle is extremely thorough, according to Webb. Every contractor worker is trained on most AWP competencies. “It didn’t matter if you had a [certification] card or not,” Webb said. “Most job sites just ask who is certified for what type of lift.”
Webb said the Plant Vogtle safety program covers every detail, including training in dropped object prevention.
Derrick attributes much of Research Air Flo’s safety success to a strategic partnership with safety consulting firm SMART Safety Gulf Coast, a relationship that began in 2016.
From left are: SSMI General Foreman Brett Milligan, SSMI Safety Manager Bryan Beckham, SSMI Safety Rep. Lorie McDonald, RAF Technicians Wesley Webb, Nathan Wilkerson, Clint Ramlow, David Laird, John Duffy and Sean McCormick.
“Research Air had an EMR [Experience Modifier Rating] of 1.56 as a result of a large workers comp claim. My business partner, Joel Shannon, CEO and I decided that we had to make very deliberate moves to turn this around and elevate the safety consciousness of our team,” Derrick explained. “We now have an EMR rating of 0.91. Companies with an EMR greater than 1.0 are not attractive to general contractors and are viewed as a liability. Though we were still awarded work, those awards were only made after having to jump through hoops and likely having to submit site-specific safety plans. Our safety record was a real negative for us at that time. All business impacts aside, our top priority is doing all that we can to ensure that every member of the Research Air Flo team returns to their families each and every day. They are the reason for our success and we owe it to them.”
SMART Safety Gulf Coast provides four site visits per month in the Atlanta area to coach Research Air Flo staff. They provide a structured response to an incident of any kind, including automobile accidents. Each project folder has a safety packet within it, so each technician has a roadmap with him or her that will guide/direct immediate steps in the event of an accident.
“SMART Safety Gulf Coast helped us develop a safety manual that truly was ours,” Derrick says. “The structure is what we needed.”
Derrick said Research Air Flo considers SMART Safety Gulf Coast an “invaluable partner.” “We need them on our team, so the same message is presented to new employees and re-enforced with our senior technicians,” Derrick said. “Complacency breeds accidents and operating safely each and every day is no accident.”