A bullet-list of our problems in today's building field could fill a New York City phone book.

Having recently attended the first annual Aerial Work Platform Safety Conference (AWPSC) in Dallas and Roofing Contractor's Best of Success conference in Myrtle Beach, I am reminded once again of how difficult it is to stay on top of all the issues found on any construction site. A bullet-list of our problems in today's building field could fill a New York City phone book. There's no doubt we've got a smoldering pot of problems in each of our specific trades, but boil them all down to the bottom, past the unions, lawyers and insurance adjusters, and what do you get? Materials, labor and equipment. The project schedules, construction estimates, and contract documents orbit around these three items as much as these items revolve around the scope of work. It's a snake-eating-tail situation.

It can appear as if no one outside of your corporation cares much about how you get it solved, unless their solution is ultimately dependant on the success of yours. Sometimes "synergism" can be just a fancy way of dressing up cronyism. Way out on the thin ice of liability and litigation, a contractor has to have far greater tactical skills than building talent in order to survive these days. Let's face it, you're in this construction business, to a large measure, because you can take a beating and still keep your feet underneath you. Leaving cynicism behind for a moment, I want to tell you about what these two conferences taught me, despite what I wanted to learn.

I train and consult occupational safety and health to the rank-and-file. I've been at it quite awhile, which surprises me daily. I am also self-employed, which means if I want to complain, I'm the only one who hears me and I don't often listen.

For me, there are many days on a job site when coaching safe work practices resembles trying to empty a swimming pool with a shovel. Sure it can be done, but it won't be easy and I'm sure I'll be late for dinner. I must either stand for hours in front of several dozen bored, butt-tired construction workers in order to train and evaluate them in particular safety practices or else address a boardroom filled with upper management suits trying to convince them that implementing a compliant corporate safety and health program can be line-itemed and subtotaled into the profit margin.

But then events such as the AWPSC and Best of Success occurs and I am surrounded by intelligent, energetic, dedicated and well-prepared professionals for several days in a row. (Who says you can't have too much fun?) There are some with whom I agreed with too much and others who I disagreed with too little. As a result of such exposure, my outlook inevitably turned from exhausted determination into encouraged optimism. Fearless people with brand new ideas tend to affect me that way. After some 38 years of coast-to-coast construction site abuse, I begin to hope again.

As a former contractor, as well as a safety trainer and consultant, I want and need to stay positively affected by such experiences. I've also got enough miles to realize that no one is capable of sustaining a single mental or emotional state (good or bad) indefinitely. But what does it take to extend it to its productive limits? Dr. Phil notwithstanding, I understand it is necessary to have professional relationships with others of like mind as well as communicate freely with those who have differing view points. However, after attending a conference where specific problematic construction issues have been addressed, I seldom return having experienced both.

Such was not the case with the aforementioned conferences. This may be due in some fashion to my own aging process. Perhaps the "adolescent" U.S. construction industry is grudgingly approaching "maturity." In any case, I seemed to receive more insight into the problems, obstacles and inconsistencies inherent in construction safety by speaking with those of like mind as myself. I better understood the potential for hazard abatement, control and solutions from those individuals with whom I held opposing philosophy regarding workplace safety. In a way, I felt the ground moving under my feet.

Whenever I am asked to train, in subcontext, I eventually act as a consultant. Likewise, when I am consulting, training becomes a starting line and a central reference point throughout the process. The overall "success quotient" of any trade convention can best be determined by balancing these two factors: consulting and training. They aren't always measured in the break-out seminars but rather in the intense discussions found at dinner tables, bars and lounges, and in cab rides, elevators and hallways.

It was my experience that all you needed to join any such heady conversation was to wait for a polite pause and rustle up the nerve to introduce yourself. If you care strongly enough about something, you'll be given the floor. And don't worry about the technical razzmatazz. I've been convinced more often by demonstrations using salt shakers, water glasses and butter knives than with snazzy Powerpoint presentations and Hollywood production videos. Some of the most valuable ideas I've ever received came after midnight and three turbo-cups of coffee via a felt-tip pen and a napkin. How I wished I saved all those napkins.

Just what I am trying to convey here? It is that we must intelligently and passionately discuss, argue, consider and, by all means, listen carefully to each other. There were hundreds of construction folk who took a chance and got themselves to these conferences. They gave up valuable family and work time to do it. We have to get out of our comfortable work zones and into the worrisome wide world if we're going to turn the construction trades into thriving, encouraging occupations for our sons and daughters to participate in and enjoy. We must get up off our recliners and drive to a conference center and take some new skills training; call on our competitors to encourage local trade assemblies to discuss our specific problems and develop our own solutions; and write to our specific trade periodicals expressing our thoughts, ideas and complaints.

Actively attending building conferences should double the size of your Rolodex. It's not how much you know, but knowing where to find it that counts. A professional support network is just waiting for you to tie into. All you have to do is show up. Don't be concerned that others will think your ideas are poorly considered. So what? An idea is a brave arrow when it's shot and a total waste of arrow-smithing when it isn't. How about writing a letter to your local paper to let them know what the real-life, daily problems confronting a building contractor are in 2004? Most nonbuilders have no idea what it takes to get something built today. Just ask a pharmacist, school teacher or truck driver if they understand how the building market can affect their paychecks.

If, like most contractors, you're tired and sore from being slapped around by the rising cost of building materials being shipped overseas, the uncontrolled increase in lost-time accidents, unfair competition in the marketplace, the growing unskilled and unmotivated workforce, the frustration and fear of insurance abandonment, and the job-drain from outsourcing, then it's time to talk, listen and do something about it. If we can get clear of our narrow neighborhoods and out into the world at large we will be enabled by a 360-degree view of the playing field.

Listen to what others like you are accomplishing in other countries five time zones away. Maybe the answers to some of your questions are out there, just locked away in another language. Let's climb to the high ground together and leave passivity to those who don't dare to do it. There are hearts, minds and laws to be changed out there, and it won't get done by those who "do" unless we can affect change in those who "don't".

Pick up a pen (or a computer) and write to this and other periodicals and let them know what it is you need from them. They'll listen because it's in their best interest to hold the forum on their pages. It has been my experience that builders won't wait in the parking lot very long. Once the ground has been broken, you better get out of their way or grab a hammer. There's a lot of rebuilding to be done before cold weather sets in.