Protecting Tools, Materials from Jobsite Theft

I BELIEVE IT WAS Mark Twain who once said the locks on doors are meant only to keep honest men out. When I was a kid growing up in a strip of rural countryside between North Carolinas capital city of Raleigh and what would become the Beige Capital of the world in nearby Cary, my parents would often leave the front door locked to let visitors know we werent home but would leave the back door open just

I BELIEVE IT WAS Mark Twain who once said the locks on doors are meant only to keep honest men out. When I was a kid growing up in a strip of rural countryside between North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh and what would become the Beige Capital of the world in nearby Cary, my parents would often leave the front door locked to let visitors know we weren’t home but would leave the back door open just in case someone needed to get in. Seriously! My stars, how times have changed.

Call me cynical if you wish, but when it comes to truly petty theft as opposed to major theft, I’ve pretty much thrown up my hands and resigned myself that a certain small single-digit percentage of little stuff will walk off my jobs. Losing a few hundred dollars worth of materials, fittings and consumable supplies on a $1 million job won’t break my job’s budget and isn’t worth my losing sleep over.

What will break my budget, because it affects total crew productivity, is tool theft.

Now, there has always been and still is a concept called “job justice.” When someone on the job starts stealing the other mechanics’ personal tools, the crews have a way of figuring out who’s doing it and they take care of business themselves, usually without getting either me or the police involved. It’s the original “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

But since there has always been a natural anti-company, anti-management attitude on the part of many field personnel regarding theft of company-provided major power tools, that’s another story.

My philosophy on protecting major power tools has always been threefold:

1) I.D. it;

2) Ugly it; and

3) Assign it.

First, every single power tool bought should be immediately logged into a master folder at the main office, making sure that its serial number is noted. Then the company’s federal tax I.D. number should be engraved somewhere on it, in a prominent place that lets all know the time has been taken to give the police a chance to recover it if it’s stolen.

Second, I always “ugly” up the tools. Along with painting stripes or blotches of company colors on the tool, I always like to add some colorful highlights of safety orange or, better yet, hot neon pink. Nothing like a god-awful ugly tool to make a thief think twice about taking it. If he does take it, he’ll have to spend a lot of time grinding off the engraved federal tax I.D. number and then removing or painting over the ugly paint job so he can fence it. If he uses the tool, I’ll at least be pricking his conscience (assuming he has one) every time he uses it. And, who knows, that ugly paint job might actually aid in the tool’s eventual recovery.

Third, I always keep a formal or informal sign-out sheet. I do the best I can to try to assign some responsibility for keeping track of that tool to someone, usually a working foreman. The reality is that tools get loaned out and used by other crews, not even necessarily your own, on a daily basis. If you let your foremen know, however, that it’s their responsibility to keep track of them, they’ll try at least and you’ll know who was supposed to have them and where.

Not permitting employees to park next to or near the building, or even onsite, helps cut down theft a lot! Unless it’s some small stuff that can be easily concealed on their persons, all but the most brazen of thieves disguised as loyal employees aren’t willing to lug something that’s obviously not theirs from the job’s footprint all the way to their cars and take the chance that I or someone else who cares will see them doing it.

High-dollar items such as HVAC equipment, large valves, fixtures, expensive accessories like controls and such should be kept off the job entirely until the last possible moment. They should be installed the same day, if possible, and the same week at minimum.

Finally, if and when you do catch someone stealing, don’t be afraid to get the police involved and have them arrested and prosecuted. There’s nothing like being known as a true hard-ass project manager who won’t stand for being messed with and who will throw their butts in jail if you catch them stealing to make most criminals think twice before walking off with something. Not even the most arrogant and blatant of thieves enjoys going to jail. Let it be known that if they’re caught, that’s just where they’ll end up.

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. He may be reached by calling 919/851-9550, or via e-mail at [email protected].