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The Safety Risks of Construction Theft

March 17, 2016
 / Safety / 

At a construction site in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in September, security camera footage shows a man in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans calmly walking up to a Bobcat steer-sled, entering the vehicle and starting the engine. After maneuvering the equipment onto a tractor-trailer, owner and landscaper Mark Hoppe was now about $30,000 poorer, according to local news station WISN. While police claimed they had a suspect in mind, the ordeal had turned into "an insurance nightmare" for Hoppe, who had taken precautions to protect the equipment, such as setting up cameras and fencing.

"As much as $1 billion is lost per year due to construction theft."

Hoppe's plight was just one of thousands of cases of construction equipment theft that get reported each year. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, 11,625 heavy equipment theftswere reported to police in 2014. As data from the NICB and Associated General Contractors of America show, theft and vandalism of construction equipment and materials together accounts for at least $1 billion per year in losses to businesses. This amount has grown by as much as 10 percent since 1996. Physical damage resulting from theft or vandalism can put the safety of workers in jeopardy. Yet these crimes present relatively low risk opportunities for criminals, who take advantage of construction sites abandoned for the night for an easy reward.

Industry experts agree that preventing construction theft should be a priority for workers and supervisors. How to go about it successfully involves careful planning and the right construction safety systems, but also relies on the ability of the entire crew to work cohesively and minimize any risk.

Construction site theft may be common because, in many cases, sites present an easy target. According to a study by construction safety products maker Lojack, criminals know construction sites are often unguarded, with entrances to vehicles and buildings typically open or unlocked. It is common for universal keys to be used to operate multiple pieces of equipment, making unauthorized use a relatively simple task. Lojack also commented on a lack of consistent, reliable record keeping throughout the industry. Many contractors simply don't catalog their equipment and materials, or neglect taking precautions to even identify them.

Protection and prevention
The most effective theft prevention methods aren't usually the most practical. Many companies simply don't have the money to hire security personnel, and some job sites may be big or inaccessible enough to make this option unfeasible anyway. What managers must do is adopt a comprehensive plan to prepare for theft before and possibly after it occurs.

  • The first step to mitigating losses due to construction theft is perhaps the most basic: inventory. According to a guide on the subject, insurance agency Travelers stressed the importance of making inventory monitoring a high priority.
  • Assign one person to this task and ensure they are as meticulous as possible. A master list of all equipment and materials should be made for each job site. This list should include serial numbers and photos when possible, especially for larger or more expensive equipment.
  • The worker in charge of inventory must add new items as soon as they are received, and check invoices for shortages before signing for deliveries.
  • The most important attributes to note on an inventory for insurance purposes (besides serial numbers) include the original purchase date, original cost and the age and manufacturer of the equipment.

Work with law enforcement
The next step is to work with law enforcement to ensure any thefts that do occur can be handled effectively. According to Construction Equipment Guide, police officers around the country are very much accustomed to dealing with construction theft, but they say contractors aren't always the most helpful partners in this uphill battle. With an emphasis on productivity over security, contractors prefer to use universal keys and forgo cataloging equipment for the sake of convenience. These practices can come back to bite them later, however.

  • Before beginning any project, managers should meet with local law enforcement and provide details of the project, including the work schedule, start time and expected completion date. Provide the contact information for key personnel. Be sure to inform them how equipment has been marked for identification.
  • According to Travelers, it may be worthwhile to ask police to conduct a survey of your site for the purpose of assessing security risk. Police may be able to provide useful advice on how to make your worksite safe and secure.

Keep employees educated
The task of protecting property doesn't have to come down to just the supervisor, inventory manager and police. Every worker should do their part in ensuring the security of everything on site.

  • Let employees know that construction theft is a real problem, and that thieves tend to go for easy targets. A 2013 study by Lojack identifiedthe four most commonly stolen pieces of construction equipment. Work trucks and trailers top the list, followed by backhoe or skip loaders, generators and skid steers.
  • As paranoid as it may sound, theft can be caused by employees. Smaller contractors especially should conduct background checks on new hires whenever possible.
  • Create an environment of mutual trust. As OnSite Magazine noted, most employees would be bothered by witnessing or knowing about theft, but hesitate to come forward for fear of reprisal. Larger companies especially would be wise to establish some form of anonymous communication, or at least encourage the use of established hotlines like Crimestoppers or the police.

By utilizing all the resources available, construction professionals can effectively minimize the risk and prevalence of theft to a significant degree. Using traditional and low-tech options like fencing and adequate lighting can help to deter crime. An inventory manager utilizing an adequate equipment management system will also make certain all equipment is accounted for and kept safe. But as mentioned in ConstructionEquipmentGuide, it takes a group effort to really make an impact in theft, namely by being selective in buying resold equipment and materials. If a deal is too good to be true, it likely is. 

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