When we started American Homebuilders five and half years ago, we had a vision of transforming the way housing was delivered in West Africa. From ad hoc to systematic. From inefficient to efficient. Bringing quality up to international standards. But we also had a vision of transforming the construction process to implement technology and bring it closer to international standards. Two months ago, I realized that we were not achieving our goals in the area that is most important – safety.
From my first day as a trainee engineer with Peter Kiewit in 1989, the importance of delivering every employee back to his or her family with ten fingers and ten toes at the end of each day has been paramount. Two months ago, one of our subcontractors’ employees was seriously injured when he fell from a scaffolding adjacent to a nearly completed home. This incident was a wakeup call to the whole team that we were not doing enough to be leaders in safety in West Africa as we were leaders in reliability, integrity and quality. Simultaneously I realized that with the rapid growth we are experiencing, if we did not get in front of safety quickly it would become an unwieldy problem that would prevent us from continuing our growth.
AHWA has grown up a lot over the last few years. Our sales, marketing, accounting and construction operations all operate with policies and procedures which enable us to continue rapid growth with minimal disruption. In all of those areas, we have had to transform not just our teams but the prevailing culture in our first market to create efficiency and the kind of customer experience our clients delight in. Each presents its own unique challenges.
Construction safety is perhaps the greatest and most important challenge we have faced in going against the grain of prevailing culture. When I asked one of our superintendents if he valued the safety of our subcontractors, he responded, “every soul has the same value everywhere in the world,” and thus we should ensure workers’ safety. And yet cultural norms tell a more nuanced story when it comes to personal safety. Millions of Guineans think nothing of walking alongside traffic speeding by at 90 km/h with no safety barriers or pedestrian controls. Thousands get into vehicles every day that would never pass a safety inspection in an OECD country. And painters climb onto scaffolding that is not level and does not have a proper foundation every day without giving it a second thought.
We realized that to transform safety on our job sites and approach international standards, it was going to take a lot more than the standard Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that is the default answer of nearly all of safety experts we can find in the region. It was going to take a change of attitude among our executives and our local team who would have to go against the grain of local culture and change attitudes from top to bottom.
We are in the early stages of our transformation, and progress is measured. We decided to start with getting buy-in and leadership from all of senior management. In our case that meant all of the senior team would show everyone else that safety was our top priority. One of the first steps was for our country manager to make site visits exclusively focused on site safety. He also put safety as the first item in his weekly all hands meeting. Similarly the weekly executive meeting now starts with an update on safety progress and executives delving into the details of what progress is being made. As a result we now have weekly tool box talks, new hazard communication signs and a special emphasis on our Big 3 – scaffolding, ladders and fall protection.
It is an exciting time for American Homebuilders. Annual sales growth continues to top 100%. Quality has never been better and keeps improving. We have built a great land pipeline inside of Guinea and in our initial expansion countries. But what I am most excited about is that our team seems to have really changed their attitudes and is putting the right kind of focus on site safety. I am embarrassed that this transformation only came after a serious injury. I wish that I had realized three years ago that haranguing our team about scaffolding, ladders, fall protection and poor housekeeping was not effective. I have learned that the key change was not to activities but to attitudes. We had to genuinely put safety first in word and action. I was surprised at how easily change came once the executive team really showed that we cared and prioritized safety.
AHWA is just starting its journey to become the safest residential contractor in the world. We no longer strive to meet international standards in safety – we now want to set them. We know that progress will come in fits and starts. We know that we are likely to have more injuries as our construction volume increases dramatically. We know it will be difficult to onboard every new apprentice into our program. But we are up for the challenge and we look forward to celebrating our safety wins along with our sales and production wins.
Jonathan Halloran, CEO
American Homebuilders of West Africa