March 13, 2019 by Jillian Morgan
Sprawling construction sites, swarming with workers during the day, but abundant in valuable tools and unguarded equipment once crews clock out, are ripe for pilfering.
Unlike picking a lock or breaking a window, prowling a vacant construction site after-hours hoping to swipe a chop saw or achieve 15 minutes of fame atop a crane are crimes that, while brazen, can require considerably less forethought.
Robert Duffy, president of Kinkora, P.E.I.-based Duffy Construction Ltd., has had three incidents of “very serious theft” in the last year and a half. In his 27 years on the job, Duffy says it’s as bad as he’s seen in it the province.
“We’ve lost over $50,000 worth of tools [and equipment] in the last 18 months,” he says. “Any day you open your iPhone, you’re hearing about contractors losing building supplies, losing their tools, coming in and there’s no fuel in their equipment. It’s affecting everybody on P.E.I. and across Atlantic Canada, and probably right across Canada.”
It’s not just material losses.
“Your crews are literally shut down,” Duffy says. “You show up to work that morning and you’re out of business for the day.”The upfront cost of on-site security can pale in comparison to the more substantial losses that often result from theft and vandalism. Patrick Perron, commercial insurance unit manager at Aviva Canada, says the investment is paramount for contractors to stay afloat in the wake of a security breach.
“In the event of claims for theft, vandalism or fire, damages are not exclusively limited to loss of property, but also to loss of business income, loss of customers and potentially the deterioration of the company’s reputation,” he says. “In a sector as competitive as the construction industry, it is imperative that contractors remain ahead of the competition by implementing all possible measures that may increase their competitiveness, and these include damage prevention.”
‘TRICKLE DOWN EFFECT’
On Canada’s opposite coast, one city experiencing an outsized building boom is also facing more than its fair share of problems.
Vancouver Police Department Const. Jason Doucette says the force frequently receives reports of break and enters to construction sites across the city.
“Most of them have to do with pretty low-level opportunists, criminals. People that are looking for things like tools or copper… small items, stuff that they can carry and flip for a quick profit,” he says. “They can get up to a construction site that may or may not be secured, may or may not have security features.”
While the return on those items is “pretty low,” Doucette says those individuals can leave behind “thousands of dollars in damage.”
The sentiment is echoed across the country.
“When people break into properties like large construction sites or industrial sites, and are there when there’s no supervision, even just hanging out or playing with the equipment puts a risk for when employees attend work the next day,” Toronto Police Service Const. Jenifferjit Sidhu adds.
Adam Rockmacher, a project manager at Turner Construction Co., recalls a particularly troublesome security breach on a project site at the University of British Columbia.
“Somebody got onto the site, tampered with the handrail system, which was a cable system, [cutting] halfway through it,” he says. “Here’s a system that’s protecting people from falling, and we didn’t realize it was vandalized in this capacity, and it could have had catastrophic if not fatal consequences.”
Rick Eggert, a general superintendent at Turner, adds that these incidents also affect clients that require the company to keep mum on sensitive project details.
“During the project, it’s of the utmost importance to them sometimes that no one knows what we’re building for them or how we’re building it or the details of it,” he says. “There’s impact to our reputation as well. If we’re running sites and there’s vandalism and security issues and you get a bad reputation, it affects our ability to get more work.”
Rockmacher echoes Eggert, adding that theft and vandalism “can have a trickle down effect that can affect the job and the whole project.”
For Duffy, on-site security only goes so far. He says the courts should stiffen up the fines in order to deter theft and intrusion on construction sites.
“We’re already dealing with a shortage of skilled people in the industry, and then you’re dealing with the theft of your tools and your building supplies and it just drives up the cost of doing business,” Duffy says. “At the end of the day, if everybody has to start getting security and incorporating their losses into the next build… it’s all rolling back to the people that are building these buildings and the people that are renting them. It’s not just one contractor.”
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Traditional site security methods that relied heavily on guarding have undergone an evolution in the last five years, largely due to the emergence of remote site security, according to Robert Barnes, vice-president of EllisDon’s Energy and Digital Solutions Group, the company’s in-house security provider.
The shift centres mainly on replacing traditional guards with technology, usually cameras. “The issue that we have on our sites is to be able to provide the required level of security coverage for both theft and intrusion,” he says. “And, obviously, everyone is aware of the issues with people’s desire to climb tower cranes for whatever reason.”
While less common, crane climbers and rooftoppers that make construction sites their playgrounds present a considerable security threat.
In August 2018, a woman was apprehended after scaling and damaging a crane at an EllisDon condo development site along Toronto’s waterfront. Though, the incident was just the latest in a string of similar escapades in recent years.
“It’s extremely dangerous, to the person and to the public,” Sidhu says of rooftopping. “Everyone wants their hit for their next five seconds of fame by getting those cool pictures. They’re cool pictures, but not worth it.”
Controlling access to a job site around the clock can protect contractors against those intrusions, Jason Simpson, the Canadian manager of Corporate Risk Services at G4S, a security solutions provider, advises.
“Without the proper access control, those things can happen,” he says. “Construction sites have a lot of people moving around them… You don’t want people roaming around your site that you don’t know are there.”
Leveraging a mix of remote monitoring technology and guarding services can seriously bolster site security, Barnes adds. Though, Simpson says the basics are still a good place to start.
“The fundamentals still work,” he says. “Lots of locks, fences, posted signage, notices, lots of identification and record keeping of materials and assets, proper lighting, proper cameras and surveillance systems, alarms, good-quality people.”
Jared Freeman, risk management specialist at Aviva Canada, says contractors should also avoid leaving valuable toolboxes — a “hot item of thieves” — in unsecured vehicles.
He adds that simple, cost-effective solutions, such as disconnecting batteries, removing wheels and ignition fuses, parking equipment in clusters and installing engine immobilizers and hidden fuel cut-offs, to name a few, can be highly effective.
“All industries experience theft, and it’s sort of mitigating those little thefts, those ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ that is really going to help make site security on a construction site a little better,” Simpson says.
Still, for Duffy, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to site security.
“The only way to prevent it is very good quality cameras, but that’s all hinging on where you’re working, if there’s access to satellite feed and power,” Duffy says. “What might be good on site A is no good on site B, C, D and E.”
Taking the location and size of a project into account is an essential aspect of on-site security. In a project to build a casino in Vancouver’s notoriously crime-ridden lower east side, EllisDon enlisted an arsenal of preventative measures.
“You’re going to have more issues at that site than you would have elsewhere. That’s why we used a combination of cameras, remote monitoring and guarding services, because the site required it,” Barnes says. “And it was a large site. So based on the size of the site that also creates more challenges for you.”
At Turner Construction, the contractor will adjust its security needs to meet the different phases of a project. Fit-for-purpose rooms, expanded security systems in highly sensitive areas and the use of security guards are all key tactics.
“We build that into our budget,” Eggert says. “For the construction industry, it’s the balance between level of security and cost of that security. It’s always a challenge because we’re in a competitive market, we’re bidding against other people, and how much is too much and how much is enough? We have these debates with project managers and superintendents all the time and with owners, because they’re ultimately paying the price.”
On-site security requires a buy-in from the entire team, Simpson says, adding that contractors often overlook a key resource at their disposal — the workers.
“That lost time and lost materials and lost tools can affect the entire team,” he says. “If everyone feels like they have a stake in the project and a stake in the site, they’re going to be less likely to overlook a sub-contractor of a sub-contractor looking and moving where they’re not supposed to be or taking materials off-site.”
Eggert echoes Simpson, adding that an investment in site security doesn’t just benefit a single job site, but the entire industry. He says all stakeholders on a project have a responsibility to make the job site less attractive for theft.
“We all share the same workforce. We want them to be safe,” Eggert says. “We want them to have good experiences on our sites. Collectively, as business operators, we need to support that… We have, as the construction industry, a huge responsibility to make our sites as secure as possible.”