Hilmerson Safety® Case Study: Mortenson Helps Usher in a New Era of Fall Protection
Deb Hilmerson is a 30+ year construction industry veteran. As a respected safety consultant, Hilmerson routinely encountered safety guardrail issues and frustrated contractors. She spent 2-½ years talking with industry-leading contractors, foremen and tradespeople to determine what would keep the industry happy, OSHA happy and save lives.
Her first product was the American-made Hilmerson Safety Rail System™, made from 13-gauge hot-dipped galvanized steel, coated with zinc inside and out to prevent rust. It has a 15+ year lifespan.
With her prototype in hand, Hilmerson sought candid feedback from her former employer, Mortenson. The company was preparing to construct Allianz Field, a 19,400-seat major league soccer stadium in St. Paul, as well as a 26-story apartment highrise at 333 Hennepin in Minneapolis. And Mortenson was open to taking its safety precautions to the next level.
With only a few minor modifications, Mortenson became the first construction company to use the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™. Mortenson is so impressed with their sturdiness, low maintenance and ease of use that the company now uses the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ on all of its sports projects throughout the country. This is creating a significant return on investment as well as safer, more professional looking and more productive job sites.
Mortenson is a U.S.-based, top-20 builder, developer and engineering services provider serving the commercial, institutional and energy sectors. Mortenson’s expanding portfolio of integrated services helps its customers move their strategies forward, ensuring their investments result in high-performing assets. The result is a turnkey partner, fully invested in the business success of its customers.
The existing safety rail problems
Mortenson was dealing with the many challenges commonly associated with building and using traditional safety rails made with 2x4s.
Beau Bune, Mortenson Safety Manager
“Wooden rails take time to build, and there’s always the concern of achieving the correct height and lengths to ensure they are OSHA-complaint,” comments Mortenson Safety Manager Beau Bune. “Then there are the maintenance issues. The wood gets wet, it can crack when people bump into it, and the rails can come loose. When it’s time to take them apart, we must deal with all the scrap wood, and avoid injuries from the nails and wires.”
Adds Mortenson Senior Design Phase Manager, Sports & Entertainment Taylor Gunkel, “We had tried some pre-engineered safety rail systems. But they weren’t overly resilient and would often arrive at the site damaged and bent. Plus, we still had to wire on a 2×4 as a toe board.”
So, when respected construction safety consultant Deb Hilmerson, a former Mortenson employee, asked Mortenson to provide feedback on an entirely new safety rail system she was developing, they eagerly agreed.
Taylor Gunkel, Superintendent & Design Phase Manager, Mortenson
“My number-one goal was fall prevention, which remains the leading cause of construction fatalities,” states Hilmerson, who at the time was developing the rail system as a side business. “I approached Mortenson because we had a good relationship. They were willing to allow me on their jobsites and give me candid feedback. Plus, Mortenson is highly respected. I knew that if we built a product they liked, others would follow.”
Driving a truck and trailer throughout the country, Hilmerson gathered input from the field on what she should produce. “I used a wooden cart with casters to transport a sample of an existing rail. The Mortenson team laughed at me and told me to get that junkie cart out of there,” she recalls. “They knew the cart needed to be robust and made of steel if it was going to last in the construction industry.”
Once the laughter died down, Hilmerson asked: ‘If you could have everything, what would you have?’”
Having sold and/or installed the competitors’ systems, Hilmerson wanted every piece of her new system to be well thought out from each user’s perspective. “I already had a long list of specs in mind, starting with using construction-grade™ materials for durability. My list also included an integrated toe board, a plate-steel weighted base and a plate-steel anchored base that required just one anchor. Our system also had to be ergonomically correct and designed so it could be moved easily even if someone decided to carry it,” she says. “Mortenson confirmed that I was on the right track.”
For Mortenson, this was a timely opportunity. “We were ready to stop using traditional handrail systems as much as possible, and were looking at what best suited our needs in multiple applications,” recalls Gunkel. “Playing a role in product development enabled us to see the benefits and have an early buy-in.”
They were in sync with Hilmerson on the need for a weighted base component that didn’t require a hammer drill to affix it to the slab. They also asked for the rails to be available in multiple lengths.
But the Mortenson team laughingly rejected the wooden cart. Instead, they worked with Hilmerson to design a robust alternative.
After about 2-½ years, it was time to go from drawing board to prototypes. “I was also running my full-time safety consulting business at the time. So, this process took longer to develop and produce,” explains Hilmerson.
She invested in producing a single cart with everything Mortenson had said they wanted. “Then, I loaded it into a trailer and rolled it out to them. It was sturdy. It stacked. It could be picked up with a crane or forklift. It had heavy casters that allowed the cart to be pushed on concrete. It could hold 20 10-foot rails plus anchor bases in side baskets, so it was an all-in-one kit ready to install,” says Hilmerson. “Now, we needed to verify that it would work.”
The only change turned out to be to the size of the side baskets. “The original baskets were as long as the cart. But when the crane did a 4-way pick, the rigging rubbed on the basket. So we brought them in 6 inches on both sides to clear the rigging.”
Says Gunkel, “That cart was a game-changer! Instead of lifting as much as 75 pounds, our crews can save their backs. We can store a couple hundred feet of the system neatly on a single cart that moves around easily using either a forklift or crane. Everything’s in one place. We no longer have to do multiple pick-ups to gather all the components.”
In 2017, Mortenson became Hilmerson’s first customer when they purchased the initial 1,000 lineal feet (five carts) of Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ for its Allianz Field project, a 19,400-seat major league soccer stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota. “This project was chosen because I was close by and we could easily go onsite to get feedback,” comments Hilmerson.
The craftspeople immediately appreciated the system’s ease of use. “Hilmerson Safety Rails are robust and we get fewer questions about how the system should be installed and used,” says Bune. “We never have to put a tape measure to them because they are at OSHA-compliant height. Because they are galvanized, they don’t rust and they hold up to repeated uses. With the weighted bases, we don’t have to patch holes afterward. And when we’re done, they’re easy to load onto the cart.”
Gunkel confirms their simplicity. “We found that we can quickly do an inspection to see if they are installed properly. And our crews were immediately more productive since they spent less time fixing and adjusting guard rails.”
Another immediate improvement: These rails made the jobsite look more professional. “Nothing is stacked in the way. Everything is accessible and safe,” observes Bune. “And if a section needs to be tweaked slightly, it’s easy to add or move because of the weighted bases. There’s no getting the hammer drill back out.”
To Mortenson’s crews, the arrival of the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ on their jobsite signaled something even more important. “This was an example of us leading our industry,” says Gunkel. “They saw us continuing to invest in their safety. A two- or three-person crew could easily install a safer system without having to lift backbreaking loads.”
The transition to the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ was so simple that Mortenson increased its order for Allianz Field and ordered another 6,560 lineal feet for its high-rise apartment building project happening simultaneously at 333 Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.
By the end of these builds, it was also clear that this new safety rail system would substantially reduce waste. “Think about how big a pallet of 2x4s is. We go through multiples on a job. It was nice not to fill the dumpsters with 2×4 railings at the end of the project,” observes Gunkel.
In June after the initial roll-out, Mortenson announced during its annual meeting that the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ would be its best practice for sports projects moving forward.
Mortenson’s inventory of the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ is paying for itself
Gunkel stresses that the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ is a long-term investment. “We purchased this product to use for the next 15 years or longer, and we are easily recouping our investment. I’ve never thrown away a piece of Hilmerson railing. It leaves the job in the same condition as it shows up. We just pick it up and store it on the cart. That’s very unique because every other piece of durable equipment on our job sites requires ongoing maintenance. Having the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ in our inventory has definitely changed the way I plan and budget jobs.”
Fast forward to 2021
Mortenson is currently using its Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ on its MLS Stadium project in Nashville, Tennessee. “We had high hopes for this system and it far exceeded those. It’s grown from trying a system on one job to using the rails on our projects across the country. We budget for their use for all of our sports jobs because of their many advantages,” says Gunkel.
Bune and Gunkel confirm their trust in Deb Hilmerson. “She puts out an excellent product. Deb Hilmerson is not just a vendor. She’s a friend who answers the phone, who stands behind her products and who helps design solutions. She’s from the field. She understands the challenges we face day in/day out, and her systems are truly designed to make our lives easier and safer,” says Gunkel.
Adds Bune, “Deb backs her product. It’s a partnership with her. She came out to our job to teach our craftworkers. There’s a reputation that comes with every Hilmerson Safety Rail System™.”
No longer a safety consultant who spent most of her career conducting OSHA compliance auditing, inspections and training, Hilmerson and her team now produce a line of robust, American-made safety products full time. “I’m not stopping here. We’ll continue to come up with products that solve common problems in the industry, save time and money, and improve the bottom line.”
About Hilmerson Safety
Hilmerson Safety® is a full-service safety product design and manufacturing company serving the construction industry. Since 2001 Hilmerson Safety® has been working with construction industry leaders and contractors to develop safe, lean, construction-grade™ products and solutions that add to the company’s bottom line.
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