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Meet David Watts of Skanska USA

Top safety professionals have their way of assessing different crews’ commitment to safety on construction sites. 

David Watts, an Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) director for Skanska USA Building, overseeing the multinational construction firm’s New England region, says one way to gauge safety is by the sheer number of corrections he needs to make during a project.   

“As I’m walking through a job site, I’ll take a close look and identify things that need to be addressed,” Watts tells Highwire ahead of Safety Week 2023. “And if that count starts to approach a problematic level, then it’ll be time to sit down with the project team and talk … about their personal and professional commitment to making corrections in the field.” 

But with 35 years in construction safety under his belt, Watts knows having hard data on hand is only half the battle. The other half, he says, is messaging, managing expectations, and relationships—at the heart of it all is communication. 

“Essentially, communication is a cornerstone of what’s necessary to have the strongest safety culture possible,” Watts says.

Having difficult conversations

The focus of this year’s Safety Week campaign is “Strong Voices, Safe Choices,” which, among other things, highlights how empowering workers on the front-lines leads to safer outcomes on projects.

Workers ought to feel empowered to speak up, Watts says; similarly, safety managers shouldn’t dodge meaningful conversations with field personnel or executives if there is an opportunity to address a safety concern or question. 

That might mean having difficult conversations. For example, Watts says he is tasked with ensuring all of Skanska’s contracting crews are wearing cut-resistant gloves. The company’s requirement goes beyond what is required by federal standards. As a result, not all teams may be used to using them—or feel they’re even necessary. 

“In general, my thoughts on the “strong voices” element is we have to be courageous in saying the things that need to be said and following through with it,” Watts says. “And sometimes the things that need to be said are not popular. But to move the needle on safety, we’ve got to address the challenging conversations.”

The power of storytelling

Watts likens the process of building a strong safety culture to a kind of collective storytelling. As such, he often asks his teams and supervisors open-ended questions, such as: Who around here has the best safety conversations, and how do you know?

“They’ve got to tell me a story,” Watts says. “After 35 years of doing this, you can tell when someone is telling a story that’s not valid.”

“Many people think that they’re working safely—they believe it in their hearts,” Watts continues. “But it may take a different perspective for them to recognize and understand they are taking an unacceptable risk.”

‘Normalize the playing field’

At the end of the day, Watts stresses every company is on its own safety journey. Ergo, everyone—owners, GCs, and subcontractors alike—should be focused on “continuous improvement.”

“You are where you are … with your safety program and safety culture,” Watts says, “but you have to recognize you are in a specific place on the journey, and you have to acknowledge where you are is likely not where you need to be.”

Which is why, Watts says, the Highwire platform can be such a useful tool, as it helps large firms such as Skanska recognize each contracting partner’s individual needs and proficiencies—a way to measure progress toward a shared mindset of continuous improvement. 

“One of the things I admire about Highwire is they’re normalizing the playing field,” Watts says. “Everyone is evaluated and assessed the same way, and everyone has a different set of opportunities for improvement.”

Meet our Safety Leaders

  • STEVE LARUSSA, REGIONAL CONSTRUCTION SAFETY MANAGER, EHS – GOOGLE
  • GAVIN TAYLOR, CSP, DIRECTOR OF EHS – LEE KENNEDY (COMING SOON)
  • JOSHUA JOHNSON, CSP, CORPORATE SAFETY DIRECTOR – ROSENDIN ELECTRIC
  • SAMUEL PEREZ, SMS, CHST, SAFETY PROFESSIONAL – TORCON
  • THE SAFETY TEAM – W. L. FRENCH EXCAVATING CORPORATION
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