The single most important element of any construction project is safety. While it is everyone’s job to promote and maintain safe practices on a job site, there are special individuals whose role is strictly to keep the team safe. Sounds like a big job, right? We caught up with Jeff Johns, one of our Site Safety and Health Officers, to find out what it’s like to be in charge of job site safety and what he’s learned throughout his career.
What got you interested in construction safety?
I started my career in the electrical field. After several years in that field, I became more interested in safety after watching and talking to the safety guys. My first safety gig was working the night shift during an outage at a Paper Mill project in Courtland, Alabama. After that, I was hooked.
Each project is different, with a different place, scopes, and hazards. I guess I like the challenge and that’s what kept me interested after that first project.
How and why did you choose the role of SSHO?
After being in the construction industry for several years, talking with the “Safety Man” on job sites, sitting through safety meetings, and attending all the required training, I became a safety professional. Once I realized what SSHOs actually do day to day and how it’s a very important part of construction, I wanted to be more involved.
Do you need a degree to become an SSHO? What are some of the requirements?
A degree wasn’t required when I began my career 33 years ago, but the industry has evolved considerably. Today, a degree is required, as well as OSHA Training. Also, the more experience and BCSP (Board of Certified Safety Professionals) certifications you can get, the better. I recommend getting the CHST (Construction Safety and Health Technologist) certification to begin with. It’s designed for the construction industry and shows that you’re willing to put in the time and effort it takes to pass the testing requirements and achieve the certification.
What do you do each day on the job site?
The day typically begins with daily meetings, site walks, and communicating with the subcontractors and client. As I mentioned before, each job is different and the daily tasks may vary quite a bit depending on the hazards you’re dealing with. A lot of projects involve reviewing or writing various project specific plans such as Fall Protection Plans, Scaffolding Plans, Excavation Plans, etc. It may take most of the day to work with a single plan, especially if the plan is has to be reworked for any reason.
Is there a lot of travel?
Yes. I spent the first five or six years of my career as an SSHO on the road, living in a travel trailer. Fortunately, my time with Ross Group has mostly been spent in my own bed. But yes, travel is a common part of the job.
What do you like about being an SSHO?
For me, it’s rewarding knowing I had a part in my project team getting to go home safely to their families.
What are some challenges in your role?
A construction site is a place of constant change; keeping up with that change and being prepared for it is the number one challenge. My advice on how to prepare for and manage change is to do what you can to be proactive. Being involved in scheduling meetings helps me a lot because they are usually forecasted six weeks out. That gives you a reasonable amount of time to evaluate the project scope, identify the hazards, and plan accordingly.
What is something about your job that would surprise someone outside our industry?
There is a lot more to it than walking around the project site being the “Safety Cop.” There are a lot of education requirements. Also, trying to proactively keep up with the constant change is always full of surprises.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into construction safety or field work?
It’s a lot different in the field or on the site than what you learn in a classroom. Get all the field experience you can.
Is an internship a good place to start to get into the construction safety profession?
Yes, I think so. It gives you the opportunity to get in the field and see a safety program implemented. Being able to see the hazards for yourself – the excavations, working at heights, etc. – gives you a good perspective, I think.
What was your favorite project and why?
I don’t think I can pick one. I have been involved in a variety of cool projects in my career: paper mills, semiconductor facilities, power generation plants, and federal projects. If I had to pick one, Stennis Space Center on the Gulf Coast was pretty cool. It was a rocket engine test facility and we were able to interact with Navy Seal Special Operations team members while we built their new training facility.
Safety is key to every construction project. But, that doesn’t mean it’s the same thing every day on every job site. Like Jeff said, being an SSHO gives you the opportunity to explore a wide variety of project types, locations, scopes, and potential hazards. If you’re interested in constantly learning, facing challenges head on, and being essential to making sure everyone gets home safely, a career in construction safety might be exactly what you need.