Successful construction companies know that safety always comes first. The large majority of the time, that tenet refers to employees, subcontractors and job site visitors. Sometimes, however, it's the tools that need a little protection. According to the National Association of Home Builders, job site tool theft accounts for upwards of $1 billion dollars each year.

Disappearing tools are certainly a frustration, but they also lead to necessary increases in client billing in order to cover the costs, a situation that can tack on as much as 1% to 2% to new residential construction costs. Builderonline.com states that over the last decade, as many as 90% of builders claim they have been victims of theft in the past calendar year, and 60% of those experienced multiple hits in a single year.

Preventing jobsite tool theft is a systematic endeavor

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a one-size-fits-all fix. Rather, most construction firms and small builders find preventing jobsite theft requires a systematic approach. This ranges from adequate safety lighting and well-secured storage units, to bona-fide alarm systems with 24-hour video surveillance.

Here are some strategies your company can put into place to reduce the theft of tools and materials. Most of them also make for a safer jobsite in general.

Communicate with neighbors

Communicate with neighbors and occupants of nearby buildings. This is a good practice for developing a good reputation in the community – as well as building your company's brand. However, it's also a good way to educate people about the prolific nature of jobsite theft and request that they keep an eye out for you. Encourage neighbors to call the police if they notice any suspicious activity outside of business hours.

Up the lighting ante

One of the most dramatic changes you can make is to increase jobsite lighting for the off-hours. A dark jobsite is a thief's playground. All he and his cohorts need is dark clothing and a little bit of stealth, and they can make off with tens of thousands of dollars worth of tools and equipment in a very short amount of time. Once nighttime lighting is added to the scene, that protective cloak of darkness disappears.

  • General lighting: Light should be placed such that it eliminates shadows as much as possible, providing an evenly lit scene. Not only will an illuminated jobsite deter the less-bold thieves in the community, it also makes it easier for neighbors or any nearby witnesses to identify bold thieves, their vehicles and/or to call the police to report the crime while it's in action.
  • Motion-sensitive lighting: Motion-sensitive lighting is a smart addition, allowing you to place high-powered flood lights around the house, building, and darker corners of the site. The sudden flood of lights will make most thieves think twice and hightail it out of there. Because lights are only activated by motion, electric bills will remain reasonable.

Lighting is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent theft. Once you invest in high-quality lights, they can be stored and used repeatedly at future job sites.

Use physical barriers

A locked gate will be more than enough to deter your small-time thieves and vandals since going up and over a fence (especially on a well-lit jobsite) is already a questionable behavior. Plus, fences make it more difficult to remove whatever it is they want to steal. Of course, a locked storage box or trailer is an even better way to store or protect tools that are easy to move in and out each day.

You can also create physical barriers using equipment and/or vehicles. Construction equipment and vehicles can be situated such that they form the barriers around certain tools and materials. Lift palettes of valuable tools or copper wire to suspend them out of the reach of thieves. Block storage containers or create a ring of heavy equipment to form a barrier around more bulky tools and materials so thieves can't access or extract them as easily.

Install a security system

You can install a very decent security system, including an alarm and 24-hour monitoring, for roughly $40 to $50 a month. This is a very reasonable investment, which will both prevent crime as well as help in identifying perpetrators should a jobsite theft take place.

  • Take advantage of signage. Post signs along the jobsite fence and in obvious locations that state your jobsite is monitored 24/7.
  • Use cameras. The cost of live surveillance cameras is very reasonable but even dummy cameras, when paired with lighting and signage, can be a pretty good deterrent.
  • Install loud alarms. Any loud noise, like an alarm, will scare thieves quickly because it draws the attention of neighbors and police.
  • Hire a security guard. This is the most expensive option but may be necessary for particular phases of a high-end project and/or when expensive upgrade options, equipment or tools will be exposed for a short length of time.

The level of security you put in place should be proportional to the value of potential stolen goods.

Plan materials delivery

The longer tools and materials sit out in the open, the more enticing they become and the more time a thief has to plan the burglary. Keep a tight construction schedule so your deliveries can be timed just right. The closer a delivery is to being used, the less time there is for its contents to disappear.

Photograph, mark, and log equipment

Thieves rarely steel tools or materials because they need them; tools are stolen so they can be cashed in via craigslist, flea market, pawn shop and or the backs of trucks. If your tools have been photographed, etched with serial numbers and logged into your inventory system, you'll be thankful if your jobsite does become the scene of a crime. This information goes a long way with police officers and other law enforcement investigators who know exactly where these types of items are typically sold.

It will also help you when it's time to file your insurance claim. Experts advise marking it in two places – one obvious and one not so obvious – so the tools can still be identified if the thief is able to remove the obvious mark. A driver's license number is a good option because it can be looked up in all 50 states but doesn't give away any real personal information – like a social security number – that can be used by the thief or his cohorts.

Paint tools with bold colors

The sad fact is that job site theft is often perpetrated in-house or by others working onsite. Painting tools bright colors – neon green or pink, for example – is a good way to prevent them from being stolen. While it is disappointing to see that florescent pink tool hard at work in an adjacent building, the perpetrator will be caught and removed and you'll get your tools back. Using a Rommel and an engraving bit to engrave your name on it is even more permanent protection.

Finally, don't contribute to the problem. Tools being sold for cheap on the secondhand market are probably stolen. Keep tool and equipment purchases on the up-and-up, and always report any tools or equipment you suspect may have been stolen.

by STEVE WRIGHT | Steve Wright works for Whirlwind Steel, a manufacturer of pre-engineered steel buildings. Whirlwind Steel metal buildings are manufactured and designed to meet the highest quality standards.