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Phyllis Harden

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Earth Day Exclusive: AGC Members Share an Impressive List of Ways They Incorporate Environmental Stewardship into All their Construction Operations

April 22, 2016

Earlier this week, AGC hosted a day of roundtable discussions in Denver, Colo. that brought together environmental professionals who work for some of the nation’s leading construction firms.  The group shared their best practices and strategies for incorporating environmental stewardship into their companies’ projects and overall business operations.  A consistent theme throughout the discussions was the value in using every opportunity to get in front of the construction workforce and raise environmental awareness.  Certainly there is no better opportunity than Earth Day, for AGC to share its multi-year collection of contractor ideas and tips on how to approach environmental issues: straight from one environmental manager to another.

On more than one occasion, AGC has put the following question out for discussion: “How does your company incorporate environmental stewardship into its operations?”  The responses we received are organized below by leadership strategies and environmental management solutions — plus a special look at ways to celebrate Earth Day.  To the greatest extent possible, we have tried to use members’ own words.  (Click here for an Earth Day handout related to this article.)

LEADERSHIP STRATEGIES

Be visible and relatable – As an environmental professional, make sure you are visible and take advantage of opportunities to get in front of your crew and demonstrate that environmental management is important to your company and that it is a shared responsibility.  Try to identify new and different ways to get your crew to understand and appreciate the environmental performance goals that executives have set for your company.  Then work together to identify the tools the workforce needs to accomplish them.  For example, your company may have set idling limits for equipment, which would be a hard goal to meet without buy-in and help from the equipment manager.  Talk to your team, get to know them, and respond to their concerns.  For example—

  • Frame the issue from a personal perspective: especially for hunters, fisherman, hikers, etc.  You might refer to a neighborhood trout stream that is having problems due to urban runoff, and explain why the team needs to work together to maintain the site’s stormwater controls and keep the streets clear of track out.  Even if the local stream isn’t affected by the project directly, everyday people understand this better than quoting from the rule.  If you make it personal, people will carry it with them day-to-day.
  • Show the connection: Take a picture of the stormwater outfall – it may be a stream or place that people recognize.  And make the connection that the work performed at “this” facility drains into “this” location.
  • Appeal to hard facts: “Our company spends “x” amount on fuel, and we want to reduce those costs by “x” percentage through an idling program.”
  • Inspire innovation: Some workers are motivated by a connection with the community and sustainability.  By educating your staff on your client’s sustainability goals, it may spark innovation and ideas that will bring further value to the project.

You will also want to keep environmental programs and priorities in front of executive management.  Executives should regularly receive environmental information, including summaries of performance and data and statistics on risk management and exposures.  Be upfront and clear regarding consequences of noncompliance, which can include huge fines and penalties, tarnished company reputation, stop work orders, costly litigation, potential jail time, etc.  Take the opportunity to “shout out” about any good news, including savings attributable to the environmental program and good performers.

Provide support through education and training – It is essential to give your team support, including subcontractors and trades.  If field staff identifies a need, follow through and provide support.  Relate any training to their job duties.  For example, equipment managers may have tips for how to train on and/or spread awareness of an idling program or ways to reduce fuel use.  You can use your knowledge of the requirements and their job skills to create a tailored training program for crew on environmental issues specific to them.  Here are some examples of ways environmental professionals have provided training—

  • Do not be a “corporate seagull” – fly in, eat their food and then dump on them.  Rather, be a problem solver.  Find ways to make following environmental requirements on the job easier for them.
  • Include environmental issues as part of your mandatory, new hire orientation that all employees must complete.  Similarly, incorporate environmental training into employee orientation process or jobsite orientation process (e.g., stormwater, secondary containment, equipment fueling, materials storage, etc.).  Even with the executive team.
  • Consider adding government-provided compliance tools and resources to your company training.
  • Try to establish ‘The Authority of the Resource,’ which is a communication strategy that brings relevance to seemingly arbitrary requirements and makes everyone an active part of the solution.
  • Combine environmental with site safety audits (spill kits, stormwater permit compliance, and best practices for stormwater). Or incorporate environmental inspection items (like your top 10 stormwater items) into your safety checklist.
  • Tailor your training material to the audience, for example, if you get 30 minutes at the supervisor training once a year, then talk more about the big picture and the types of things that they need to be aware of and how they impact company projects. 
  • Plan regional fly-ins where all employees come together at once.  Identify issues and things that are common on many projects and have a show-and-tell.   
  • Try to incorporate environmental awareness at all levels in the company (e.g., hold training programs throughout the year and weekly calls with team leaders that include various environmental topics). 
  • Hold a monthly “Sustainability Forum” to keep projects on track and workers engaged.
  • Offer various types of “on-demand” training.  For example, keep a collection of videos, toolbox talks, and graphics in a central location.  When someone encounters an issue and needs information presented during a training session (or just needs a refresher) – it’s great to be able to access the training information after the fact and review it right from their computer.

Competition and ratings can be very motivating – If you want to give your crew well-defined targets to meet for performance, then you will need a tracking and scoring mechanism to set those goals, track performance, recognize achievements, and build accountability.  These mechanisms will help you draw up reports to see who’s doing well and who’s not, so that you can promptly follow up with them. Let employees know that you are generating reports to help instill a sense of accountability on environmental performance.  At some companies, people will get fired over not properly reporting incidents and/or inspections.  (Be sure to include this information as part of your training of new employees.)

  • According to member observations, lots of companies take disciplinary actions for safety violations and now many are starting to reduce pay or bonuses or otherwise discipline people for not following company’s environment procedures.
  • However, motivations do not need to be purely punitive to be effective.  Tracking and scoring mechanisms will also help you recognize achievement, for example, via annual excellence or stewardship awards (recognize an entire jobsite or an employee with the best environmental performance).  Some contractors also recognize subcontractors who are doing good work. 
  • Likewise, a little bit of competition goes a long way in helping to motivate staff.  You can try friendly competitions among field staff at all company jobsites to motivate workers: such as a waste competition where teams are challenged to collect the most trash, cigarette butts, and recyclables.  You can pass out hard-hat stickers, T-shirts, or a free lunch to the jobsite team that wins.

Optimize communications strategies – Environmental managers can face challenges in how to communicate with different generations.  Communication is not a one-size-fits-all activity.  Try different ideas to see what works with your company culture and your project teams.  Ideas include—

  • Use corporate social media or staff list-serves to send out notices of sustainable services and/or provide a “lessons learned” feed.  (Potential downside – social media can also be a distraction and you may not want staff on social media during work hours. Set clear rules on cell phone usage on the job.)
  • Start a company environmental newsletter.
  • Use visual aids such as posters and signage, simple checklists, or environmental-themed hard-hat stickers.
  • Use toolbox talks – translate into Spanish or other languages depending on the needs of your team.
  • Hold weekly safety and environmental briefings (tie the two issues together).

ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS

Develop a plan or a program – Time and time again at AGC events and meetings, members have raised the development of a formal program as a great tool for effective environmental management.  These programs are not off the shelf solutions — although AGC has a template to get you started (see sidebar).  Rather you must tailor the program to fit your company.  The program takes a commitment of staff time and resources up-front, but you can see returns in improved compliance and reduced risks through: 1) setting goals, 2) maintaining information and best management practices on requirements, 3) documenting compliance, 4) checking for and correcting problems, and 5) training staff.

  • Start small and work up to a larger program as you see the benefits.  Your program can just address one issue to begin with, such as stormwater or waste management.  To return to our idling program example: start on one project (maybe where there is an idling requirement) and then slowly move towards a corporate-wide approach with the added benefit of having data available from that initial project.  Then you can look to add other “problem areas” or improvement goals to build the program.
  • Develop an environmental management program or system: to address the basics first, then issues of greater complexity and risk and finally to incorporate sustainability and/or certification.  Make sure your program includes accountability (or it won’t get done) and training, and strive to make it proactive.  Environmental Management Programs: Resources and Case Studies, by Granite Construction, Ames Construction Inc, Zachry Construction Corp, Lane Construction Corp, Clark Construction, AGC’s Contractors Environmental Conference (CEC) 2014.
  • Take your various operations and impacts, such as purchasing, commissioning, water use, waste management and incorporate them into your plan.  Your plan can address business planning, operations, and individual project goals (such as sustainability).  Create company-wide best management practices to help you meet your goals, which are supported by training and education. Integrating Environmental Management and Sustainability into Your Business Plan, Sellen Sustainability, CEC 2012.
  • One contractor’s sustainability plan relies on five steps: committing, educating, preventing pollution, reducing waste, and conserving resources.  Their program addresses issues such as greening their offices, sites, equipment, fuel use, etc.  It uses simple techniques like environmental purchasing at the office, using recycled materials for formwork, preventative maintenance, renewable technologies for temporary onsite power, etc.  They track and report on progress for each jobsite. Environmental Stewardship and Construction Site Sustainability, Walbridge, CEC 2013.
  • Over the course of several years, one company implemented several initiatives that saved money and brought environmental benefits.  Starting with eWaste recycling to corporate and jobsite recycling; lunch and learn sessions to full-blown training programs; and including environmental purchasing, paperless office initiatives, an environmental management system, and even a green headquarters, and more. A Profitable and Sustainable Case Study, HITT Construction, CEC 2014.
Get a head start on your environmental program - Members have provided case studies on environmental management programs at many of AGC’s Contractors Environmental Conferences and other meetings. Members also have helped AGC develop tools so that you do not have to start your program from scratch.  In 2004, members helped create a template for an in-depth environmental management system; and, in 2014, members shared a guide for putting a simple environmental program in place. Both AGC resources are available at no cost on the Construction Industry Compliance Assistance Center at http://cicacenter.org/ems_toolkit.html.
 

Brag about savings – Avoiding fines and maintaining your company’s good reputation can be hard to quantify monetarily.  Yet, environmental professionals often need to show executive leadership the savings that can be achieved through environmental management in order for the company to invest time and resources into building a program.  Here are a few examples of distinct programs that have brought savings to members—

  • Establish an anti-idling program to reduce fuel consumption, emissions, noise pollution and needless engine wear and tear.  One company’s estimated fuel savings were more than $800,000 on just one project. Benefits of Idling Policy, Kiewit Corp., CEC 2012.
  • Save fuel by switching to hybrids for fleet vehicles.  One contractor explored alternative fuel vehicles and estimated potential fuel savings using entire fleet of hybrid vehicles at $38,194. 
  • Consider converting vehicles or your fleet to Compressed Natural Gas, an option that may be viable in some areas.  Is LNG or CNG Ready for the Construction Industry, Francis J. Palo, Inc., CEC 2014.
  • Paperless distribution of paystubs, accounting, and project documents saved more than $1M over two years at one firm.
  • Build a construction site recycling program to reduce disposal costs, generate revenue from the sale of materials, and create opportunities for tax breaks through material donations.  Recycling savings on one project were $44,900, a 15 percent savings in disposal costs. Another job saw $133,080 in savings in disposal costs. “Success depends on job team collaboration and communication.” Construction Site Recycling Program, Kitchell Environmental Services, CEC 2012.
  • Incorporate recycled materials programs into your operations, including: concrete (from roads, curbs, sidewalks, barriers) into base materials, metals collected for scrap, recycled oil for reusable fuel, water reuse for equipment washing and maintenance, and incorporating roofing shingles and recycled asphalt pavement (RAP) into new asphalt paving.  Recycled materials also lend readily to quantifying amounts, which can be helpful for measuring savings.  For example, one company reported that its facilities can use up to 110,000 tons of RAP each year.

CELEBRATE EARTH DAY

AGC often asks member firms how they celebrate Earth Day.  To inspire your future Earth Day plans (or an impromptu event), here are a number of first-hand testimonies from environmental managers about how their firms celebrate—

  • At our company, we shut down work for half the day on Earth Day and have different activities throughout week.  We take and send in pictures of the crew around a spill kit, or cleaning up a jobsite.  We have short environmental quizzes, and hand out trophies and special recognition gifts.
  • We typically send out an annual memo with a list of ways to get involved in the community events.  Our compensation program also provides each person with eight hours of Volunteer Time Off (VTO) per year.  This allows many more people to get involved in a variety of ways with our community to make an impact that aligns with their specific values.
  • This year, one of our teams is working next to a daycare and will hand out tiny hard hats and engage the toddlers in an activity with building blocks to explain the concept of building and recycling materials.
  • In past years, we have partnered to create a new pocket park.  We prepared the site-surveys, erosion control measures, creating drawings, and pre-building large elements of a timber-framed landing and steps to make a technical project involving more than 200 volunteers go more smoothly.  Volunteers cleared the site, set the timber frames with gravel infill, installed jute mat, planted vegetation and set temporary irrigation.
  • For Earth Day, we are holding a recycling challenge between two districts.  We are partnering with a company to recycle plastic bags. If we recycle 500 pounds or more in a six month period, the company will donate a park bench to us. Whichever district recycles the most plastic bags will get to choose where the park bench is ultimately placed. The challenge will start on Earth Day and will end at the end of October, right before America Recycles Day.  The type of plastic bags that are recycled are grocery bags, ice bags, newspaper bags, bubble wrap, produce bags, case overwrap, re-sealable bags (such as ziplock), cereal bags, etc.
  • Our company is family-oriented and we encourage safety and environmental awareness as a culture, not just a requirement, to promote at work and at home.  For Earth Day, we are encouraging family participation, either through organized community clean ups with the towns/cities where we have active projects followed by appreciation cookouts or lunches; establishing a new community garden or donation to community garden or recycling drive to benefit a local conservation organization or park.  By reaching out to the community we promote positive interaction with them.  By including family, our team members are given a little more time with them than they would have had if it was just another day.  We promote competition between projects by challenging them to submit photographs of their Earth Day event, sharing the best via our internal newsletters.
  • We collected #5 plastics, such as yogurt cups, take-out containers, Brita filters and Chapstick containers to be recycled.  Also, if you participated in our company’s Earth Day events, you are entered in a free bike raffle (in support of our carpooling and bike to work programs).
  • From planting trees at a local elementary school to river cleanups to fun, green-inspired contests, our offices get into the Earth Day spirit far and wide. One office will be helping to build large cinder block planters that will serve as vegetable gardens for the young residents at a local homeless shelter. At another, employees will hold a “Trashion Show” featuring outfits they make out of trash/recycled items. Additional activities include a prairie path cleanup, planting trees with K-12 students, an employee “Taking Action” contest where employees submit ideas they have put into action at home or on the job site to better the environment, and a public space cleanup day.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

If you’re interested in connecting with your peers, consider joining AGC’s Environmental Forum.  AGC members in the Environmental Forum receive news on the latest industry developments, find out about special forum events, and participate in the Association’s policymaking on environmental matters.  Members can also connect and interact with each other at AGC events.  Sign up online at www.agc.org/enviroforum

Many of the tips and suggestions shared here have come to AGC’s attention through special forum events, such as the roundtable discussions at our In-House Environmental Managers Meeting (just held in Denver, Colo. on April 20) or as part of the contractor commentary during AGC’s annual Contractors Environmental Conference.  You can attend the next conference and roundtable discussion meeting in a few short months.  The fall In-House Environmental Managers Meeting will be held October 4, co-located with the October 5-6 Contractors Environmental Conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  Additional information and registration (early-bird rates apply) are available online at http://meetings.agc.org/cec/.

For more information on AGC’s environmental services and conferences, contact AGC’s Melinda Tomaino at tomainom@agc.org

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