Proven practices

COAA's involvement in developing industry best practices goes back 40 years

You need look no further than the Construction Owners Association of Alberta (COAA) for some of the world's most advanced approaches to best practices in industrial construction.

There are about 25 different best practice initiatives, but, for the most part, they fall under four broad categories:

  • Workplace health and safety.
  • Workforce development and training.
  • Construction performance.
  • "WorkFace" planning.

The overall concept of these initiatives is to prevent those in industry from cutting corners, giving them an unfair advantage in competing with others and bringing discredit to the overall industry.

The COAA takes best practices so seriously that it organizes an annual conference to discuss how they might be applied to the construction sector. These conferences are popular, usually attracting about 500 people.

Larry Staples, an engineer by training who has been involved in the sector for several decades and is now an advisor to the COAA, remembers the factors that led to formation of the organization in 1973-and to creation of the suite of best practices.

"The COAA was formed 40 years ago, during the development of our first [oilsands] mega projects, the Great Canadian Oil Sands [now Suncor Energy Inc.] and Syncrude Canada Ltd. plants," he recalls. "Alberta needed to bring in offshore expertise like Bechtel Corporation. There were a lot of inefficiencies and challenges. Those were teeth-cutting projects. We knew there would be more of these in the future and decided we have to do better."

Today the COAA has a number of committees to develop and review best practices to help industry enhance efficiency and performance.

For example, its contracts committee has developed standard contracts that clearly spell out the obligations and risks of jobs. Rather than creating one from scratch, you can go to and download a stipulated price form contract. Or suppose you need a standard form EPC contract for use in industrial projects in Alberta. You can download that as well.

The goal for providing these is the same: To maintain a consistent approach in contract development, preparation and administration in order to reduce the costs and uncertainty associated with contract formation and administration.

Working safe

Best practices tend to spread throughout industry after a success has been demonstrated. And they also can lead to the creation of other best practices. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of health and safety.

The COAA was one of the first organizations with employees subject to workplace injuries to throw its support behind an Alberta government initiative-launched about a decade ago-to reduce worksite lost-time incidents, injuries and fatalities. The result was the Work Safe program, which focuses on education, transparent presentation of workplace incidents, inspections by government occupational health & safety officers, and stiff fines for companies where workers are hurt or killed due to inadequacies at worksites.

Alberta has experienced a steady decline in workplace incidents for workers covered under the Workers' Compensation Board-Alberta system. In 2010, for instance, the lost-time claim rate was 1.41 injuries for every 100 full-time jobs. That's down from 4.13 in 1991.

The disabling injury claim rate, which includes workers injured but still able to perform modified work, declined from about 4 per cent to 2.67 per cent in the same period.

There has, however, been an increase in the overall number of annual fatalities in Alberta in the last decade, but that has corresponded with a tremendous increase in the number of workers in the province during that period of 47 per cent.

The statistic most commonly used is the number of deaths per million person-years worked. Since 2001, the number of person-years worked has grown from 1,178,582 to 1,729,355. The province-wide fatality rate in that period dropped from 101 deaths per million person-years worked in 2001 to 63 per million person-years in 2009.

Overall, 1,266 deaths occurred between 2001 and 2010 in the province, with the construction and trade services sector recording the highest number of deaths at 453.

However, Staples argues that without the Work Safe initiative and the heavy construction industry's buy into the program, the workplace incidents could have been much higher.

"Ten years ago our industry recorded four lost-time incidents per 200,000 hours worked and that's now down to one lost-time incident for the same number of hours worked," he says. "That adds up to saved lives."

Staples, who played a key role in completing the study of future construction worker needs for the COAA, says many of the other best practice categories of the organization revolve around worker recruiting and training and productivity.

Another in the works

In fact, it is now in the process of developing a new manual revolving around best practices for hiring and training female tradespeople.

"We're working with the Women Building Futures Society," he says. "One aspect of that initiative is discussing how women can be valuable members of a construction site, for instance."

Women Building Futures has a mandate of attracting women into the construction trades, working with industry to establish appropriate training, helping to provide mentorship and identifying barriers to women in the trades. But fewer than 10 per cent of those who work in the trades are women, Staples says, "so it's a non-traditional workforce our industry needs to target."

Additional target groups are Aboriginals and foreign workers.

As part of its workforce development best practices strategy, COAA also wants to emphasize the effective use of apprentices on heavy industrial projects and better mentoring of apprentices.

Future plans include developing a guide for the qualifications and training of supervisors, conducting an annual forecast of the supply and demand of workers, and developing programs to encourage young people and others to consider construction as a career choice.

Staples says another area of best practices is in what the COAA calls "WorkFace Planning."

"The idea is to emphasize worksite planning and material ordering so that workers aren't standing around waiting," he says.

The COAA has been a leader in the area, having tested a WorkFace Planning model on a refinery project in Montreal recently. The result, according to Staples, was impressive.

"We found worker productivity improved by 25 per cent at that site."

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