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Thomas Zarges
Thomas Zarges
President of Energy & Construction
URS Corp.
URS Corp. is one of the world’s largest engineering, construction and technical services firms. The Fortune 500 company provides services for power, infrastructure, industrial and commercial, and federal projects and programs worldwide. Headquartered in San Francisco, URS has approximately 45,000 employees in a network of offices in more than 30 countries.

Why is safety a core value at your company?

Safety is a critically important component of all our work at URS. It is essential to the welfare of our employees, the successful execution of our projects, the satisfaction of our clients and the overall success of our business. In other words, world-class safety performance is a central part of the value we deliver and is at the core of everything we do. URS is committed to the safety of our employees, clients and the general public in the communities where we work, and our safety achievements are an important source of pride for us. The focus on safety starts at the highest levels of the company and flows through the entire organization. We recognize every employee has an obligation to prevent accidents and contribute to the continuous improvement of our safety programs.

Besides being the right thing to do for our employees and clients, we regard safety as a key indicator of our disciplined work practices. We set goals, have established programs to achieve them, measure effectiveness, motivate employees to achieve success and take corrective actions as needed. These are precisely the same elements that drive successful project execution. We believe outstanding safety and project execution are inseparable indicators of our success.

How do you instill a sense of safety in your employees on an ongoing basis?

We regard safety as a fundamental job responsibility for all employees – not simply the responsibility of our dedicated safety professionals. A key to the success of our safety program is a focus on continuous learning and improvement. Beginning from the first day on the job, we provide our employees with the tools and resources they need to perform their work safely. To help keep our employees safe, we have developed a series of employee programs that promote safety, provide information on new practices, and recognize and reward excellence. We rely on experience, training and adherence to strict standards to ensure the safety of our employees, business partners and the communities we serve. We also have established safety committees across the organization to share best practices and ensure we are constantly improving and updating our processes and procedures. Finally, our commitment to safety is reinforced through annual performance reviews, which measure each employee’s performance based on specific safety criteria.

We also recognize that safety starts at the top. Whether in the office or on a jobsite, each manager and supervisor has the responsibility to create a climate in which every employee is encouraged to share concerns for his or her safety and the safety of fellow workers. Our commitment to safety has earned us recognition from regulators, clients and professional organizations around the world, including, the Department of Energy and the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

What is the biggest obstacle to safety in your workplace, and how do you work to overcome it?

We have a large and diverse workforce with a wide range of prior on-the-job experiences, and getting our people quickly aligned to our stringent safety standards is a major challenge. In addition, given the size and complexity of many of the projects we perform, we often hire subcontractors to perform specific assignments. These subcontractors need to be staffed with talented, dedicated, well-trained and skilled professionals for us to successfully and safely perform our projects. While trade unions, industry associations and nonprofit organizations have helped promote workplace safety and train professionals on safety procedures, we have found many small and medium contractors seeking subcontract work lack appropriate safety support. This is often caused by budget constraints, employee turnover or the inability to implement appropriate safety training due to project demands and schedules.

At URS, we address this problem in several ways. We require the prequalification of contractors with clearly stated safety performance expectations and documentation of a successful and fully implemented safety program. We also look for leading indicators such as certified and trained safety representatives, frequency of safety meetings, commitment of supervisors and management to safety objectives, and the quality of safety and health programs. These standards result in a better trained workforce, better contractors working on projects and better performance for our clients.

How does safety “pay” at your company?

On an individual basis, we have a wide variety of programs throughout the company to recognize and reward the safety achievements of our people and projects, and safety is a key criterion in our performance evaluations. At the organizational level, safety increases the profitability and success of our business, which leads to greater opportunities for employees. Our safety programs have resulted in the reduction of workplace injuries and illnesses and, as a result, our compensation costs related to injuries are at the lowest levels in the company’s history. The recent introduction of exercise initiatives at certain jobsites, for example, has significantly reduced strain injuries and enhanced our performance on these jobs.

We believe promoting the health of workers and enabling them to perform at peak levels benefits the individual, the company and our entire industry. URS supports the development of new industry standards by encouraging our in-house safety professionals to serve as committee members, officers and board members for various professional safety organizations. In addition, the company supports an annual scholarship program for students in the construction safety field.

How do you measure safety? What are the leading indicators that show you how safe you are, and where do you see room for improvement?

We measure safety in various ways. Like other engineering and construction companies, we track and report indicators of errors in performance such as lost workdays and recordable injuries and illnesses. We apply the lessons learned from these measures to improve our safety programs. We also have implemented behavior-based programs that proactively reduce risk. For example, just last year we initiated an indicator for reducing vehicle accidents through our driver safety program. The program requires operators of company or client vehicles to enroll in a driver registration program, which allows safety directors to identify “at-risk” drivers and take appropriate action to prevent accidents. In addition, employees who operate company vehicles on public roads must complete a driver safety training course. Through initiatives such as these, we are identifying potential issues before they happen and providing quality training to our employees.

How important is off-the-job safety to your company’s overall safety program? What types of off-the-job safety programs does your company offer to employees?

URS takes off-the-job safety very seriously. Our employees are encouraged to share safety topics that impact their families, communities and recreational activities. The company provides training that is just as applicable off the job as it is to our worksites. For example, URS offers first aid and CPR training to employees at many locations on a regular basis. This training has proved extremely valuable on many occasions outside of the workplace. Recently one of our employees who had completed a company-sponsored first aid/CPR class witnessed a motorcycle accident the same weekend he completed the class. He was able to respond to the accident and use his training to assess the situation and provide assistance while waiting for professional emergency technicians to arrive at the scene.  

URS regularly schedules health fairs in a variety of offices and project sites, and provides health-related news broadcasts through our intranet site. The company also has a large number of employees who travel internationally for certain assignments. These employees receive information on health warnings, support for medical conditions as needed and security tracking of their travel.

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