Clay Collins’ first day in railroad construction didn’t exactly instill the importance of safety upon the impressionable 18-year-old. His foreman promptly handed the rookie builder a cedar tie plug and instructed him to place it in his back pocket. The tool should’ve been used for plugging spike holes, but Clay’s supervisor advised him to use it instead as a place to hang his hard hat while he worked. If management happened to make an unexpected visit, he could access his protective gear quickly and easily, with no one being the wiser. It wasn’t long before Clay learned that the only safety mandate anyone on this crew actually had to follow was “don’t get caught.”
This certainly wouldn’t be a rule Clay would espouse for very long. As the Alaska native witnessed teammates get hurt—often in the name of working faster—he began questioning an approach that encouraged rule-bending and enabled rule-breaking. In his twenties, Clay’s rail career took him to the “Lower 48.” As time passed, he underwent not merely a mind shift, but more importantly, a heart shift about safety. “Smashed fingers really aren’t ok. Will you be fine? Probably. But it’s not worth it. If it can be prevented, why wouldn’t that be the first choice?” Clay recalls thinking. When Clay began conducting risk assessments at home, he knew the change had come full-circle in his life.
As Clay progressed from driving spikes to managing complex and large-scale railway projects, he developed a philosophy about safety heavily influenced by his time in the field. He knew, perhaps better than most, that the phrase “safety culture” wasn’t just another industry buzzword. Certainly, it was about an organization’s beliefs, values and behaviors. It was about the ways management measured progress and the seamless integration of business and safety goals. But at its core, he knew that a “safety culture” could only be achieved if safety served as the benchmark for every decision and if every employee embraced his or her role in creating it. When Clay joined Balfour Beatty Infrastructure, a company whose views about safety mirrored his own, he made it his mission to encourage those around him to share in this tremendous responsibility.
“Culture is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but do we really understand what that means?” Clay implores. “If you visit a crew and only ask ‘How much longer is this task going to take?’ they know production is all that matters to you. They know exactly where safety falls in your hierarchy of values.” And if you meet Clay, you know exactly where it falls within his. He’s an authentic and passionate champion for Balfour Beatty’s Zero Harm safety program who consistently searches out new best practices to create a model safety culture. Most recently, Clay stopped opening his team calls with a discussion of incidents in favor of lessons learned during safety audits—a seemingly minor shift but one that is reflective of Clay’s deep-seated belief that every injury is wholly preventable.
Because he’s been the one swinging the hammer, Clay has developed a leadership style that’s more coach than cop. “We have to begin with the belief that our people and partners want to do what’s right and treat them accordingly,” argues Clay. “Discipline has its place, but when someone falls short the first time, it’s much more effective to share the ‘why’ behind the rules,” he adds. Having built a successful 20-year career dedicated to heavy civil and track construction, Clay has plenty of lessons to impart. He knows all too well that construction is inherently dangerous work, and that it takes a village, so to speak, to ensure every worker is protected.
That village includes the Federal Railroad Administration, which took positive and impactful steps to protect workers long before it was considered the norm to do so. One of the FRA’s most beneficial initiatives, according to Clay, was empowering the labor force with “right to challenge” cards—a non-punitive mechanism for raising and resolving safety concerns. In 2017, Balfour Beatty launched a similarly-spirited campaign called “See Something, Say Something” to encourage productive worker dialogue.
A number of years ago, Clay stumbled across a quote that, in many ways, summarizes his approach to construction safety. It went something to the effect of “Fight the culture by creating the culture.” While his first job in the industry showed him what a culture looked like that had forgotten to be afraid, Clay has forged a culture in which no imperative—whether it be schedule, quality or the bottom-line—is given preference over the safety, health and well-being of any worker.