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Construction Safety

A Safety Value Proposition

Peter Furst | May 1, 2014

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Building inspector at a construction site

It is amazing how many safety practitioners are quite comfortable engaging in "reactive" safety management. Reactive safety is what is mostly done traditionally in industry to manage safety performance. This generally involves writing or rewriting elements of the safety program. It usually involves providing training or retraining, conducting inspections, analyzing loss data, investigating accidents, posting signs, possibly developing incentive programs, and instituting disciplinary practices, to name a few.

In a recent conversation with a large contractor's safety director, I was told that he was making inspections a priority for the coming year. The intent was to get project superintendents and site safety coordinators to do a better job in finding and eliminating hazardous conditions. He had a nine-page form that he used when conducting safety inspections. He prided himself that it was more comprehensive than any form he had come across.

He said that, during his site inspection tours, he usually found a rather small group of things that seemed to occur time and again that needed correcting. There always seemed to be something wrong with cranes and rigging, scaffolds, ladders, exposure to falls (both same level and from heights), faulty tools, electrical exposures, housekeeping, and workers violating safe work practices. He said that he especially focused on hazards that could cause serious injury to workers on site. His approach was to be friendly but firm when he found a situation that needed correction. He always used examples of similar situations that led to serious consequences to drive the point home to the exposed workers. He also made it a point to try to see the workers with whom he had a conversation on a previous occasion and praise them if they were following his suggested correct actions.

He always invites his company's superintendent, foremen, and site safety coordinator to accompany him on his inspection tours. This generally assists in getting the corrections implemented quickly. He also makes it a point to invite key subcontractor site safety coordinators as well as superintendents and/or foremen to accompany him on his job walks so that they are sensitized to finding hazards and are exposed to his way of dealing with safety issues. On average, the site tours take a couple of hours, and a handful of people usually accompany him. He said that this goes a long way in getting the safety message out, stressing its importance, and indirectly providing safety training to the persons accompanying him on the walks.

This might seem like a reasonable approach to finding and eliminating hazards as well as a good way to train others to do the same. But is it the most effective and efficient way to accomplish this? He told me that on average he finds at least two to three things that fall into the "serious hazard category" on most sites during just about every visit. He also told me that he tries to visit every job once a month. He said that they have an average of 10–15 jobs going at any given time. What was interesting is that he admitted that he finds similar unsafe situations during many of his site visits. This fact seems to indicate that, despite others accompanying him on the job walks, they do not seem to understand or get the "message" he thinks they should be getting since similar hazards are discovered time and again.

Taking a Proactive Stance

Analyzing the visit time and frequency information indicates that 4–5 people spend about 2 hours on 10–15 jobs on a monthly basis. On the low end, this represents about 80 hours and, on the high end, 150 hours to find and correct 20–30 serious hazards. This approach represents spending 4–5 man-hours to find and deal with each serious hazard. So, back to the question of effectiveness and efficiency, is there another way to achieve the same outcomes while expending fewer resources or using these resources to accomplish more? Can we transition from a reactive stance to a more proactive stance? Let's be clear; I am not suggesting the elimination of inspections, because they do have value. If nothing else, inspection findings provide the following general information.

  1. An overall picture of the effectiveness of the organization's safety management process
  2. Comparative information on the safety management of different projects
  3. A basis for comparative safety performance evaluation of individual supervisors

The primary responsibility for managing hazards and exposures should be the responsibility of the field staff. Therefore, they should be cognizant of hazards and exposures as they go about doing their jobs daily and intervene to correct any deficiencies. Inspection by the safety director may find a few things that need correcting, which is an added benefit to the site supervision's effort in managing field safety. It also may provide a different perspective on fieldwork as well as provide some training.

Inspections are rather easy to conduct, as not much effort, preparation, or planning is required. One can practically roll out of bed and conduct an inspection. Another issue with inspections by safety practitioners is that they see the job a small fraction of the time—in the example above, maybe 2 hours out of 160 to 200 hours worked. This represents about 1 percent of the time work is performed. So, the other 99 percent of the time, workers may be working at risk, and no one is "minding the store"! Which begs the question: why isn't the field staff, who are there all the time, responsible for inspections and corrections of hazards and exposure?

The thing to realize is that the site work practices allowed the hazards to be created, and then the inspection team goes out looking for them. So, between the time the hazards were created and the time the inspector found them, workers were exposed to harm. The exposure time could be anywhere from that same day (a few hours) to potentially 30 days. This begs the question again: why not take some of the time spent by all these people looking for hazards that the field operations and practices allowed to be created (after the fact view) and have them engage in a preventive activity (stopping some of the hazards from occurring in the first place)? A few things come to mind.

Participation in the Planning Process

A potentially powerful tool is planning. All contractors plan their field operations. Some do a better job at this than others do, but they do plan nonetheless. So, we are not asking them to do something more and different to address hazards associated with worker exposures; all we are suggesting they do is to conduct their planning in a slightly different way. Typically, their planning looks for barriers (hazards) to efficient production, coordination, material delivery, etc. All they have to do is address and mitigate the possible hazards faced by workers while they are engaged in their work into the existing planning process and practices.

The advantage of the safety practitioner participating in the planning process is that in the few hours spent, he/she may be instrumental in eliminating a few risks of injury from the project, which will reduce the exposure to a great number of workers potentially over the life of the project. This is far more efficient than spending time looking for them after the fact. Planning requires a different mindset and skill set from those used in inspections. The safety practitioners must have a good understanding of not only safety but also construction means and methods, as well as being able to "read" plans to identify potential hazards. This is something many safety practitioners may have little expertise doing. This may also require that the safety practitioners get outside of their comfort zones.

To properly plan, we have to first be able to visualize field activities. We have to be able to build the project in our mind's eye. We have to "see" who is going to do what, when, and where, as well as visualize the physical state that the project may be in at that given point in time. Every physical creation is preceded by a mental creation. This implies planning. There are basically four types of plans: strategic, tactical, operational, and daily, along with specialized plans for unique situations.

Strategic Planning

The strategic plan represents the goals and objectives of the organization as a whole—what it is trying to accomplish over the long term. It in some subtle ways influences all the other plans that follow. Strategic plans may involve a 5- or more-year perspective. Strategic planning is generally handled by senior management.

Tactical Planning

The tactical plan tries to come up with a blueprint of how to achieve the objectives of the strategic plan. It deals with what needs to occur and in what time frames to achieve success. The tactical plan may cover a 1- to 3-year perspective. It becomes the framework for the operational plan.

Operational Planning

The operational plan deals with specific project objectives. These can be single-use plans or ongoing plans, depending on what is being planned, the nature of the project, and its size, duration, and complexity. Operational plans are usually used to "run" projects. This plan is influenced by the tactical plan. The operational plan is created during the bidding process, firmed up before the job starts, and refined (updated) during construction. This plan should be carefully reviewed and updated at each logical phase of the project.

Daily Planning

The daily plan is a very specific plan that tries to achieve the daily production in order to meet the project's overall goals and objectives. This plan's effectiveness depends on the "quality" of the operational plan as well as the ability of first-line supervisors, along with the support of the project staff.

Operational Plan Steps

The operational plan has six steps. The first step is to determine the project's (mission) objectives. What are we trying to accomplish? The project objectives must meet four criteria.

  1. The objectives have to be clear and well understood by all who are going to be involved in the project.
  2. They have to be achievable, not necessarily easy, but doable given the circumstances, available resources, and capabilities of those involved.
  3. The objectives have to be measurable. This is important so as to be able to determine the level of success at time of completion.
  4. The objectives have to support the project's (mission) vision.

The second step involves identifying all the necessary or available resources required. Are they sufficient to meet the project challenges? Do the staff knowledge and capabilities match the project needs? Is the staff clear on the objectives and sufficiently motivated? Do you or will you have all the information necessary to carry out the project successfully?

The third step is to identify barriers and constraints that may affect successful performance. This step has two elements: external and internal.

  • External elements include such things as what is going to keep you from completing your project within the required parameters? Which organization in the supply chain could possibly fail to deliver on its promise to you and why? What are the strengths and weaknesses of its assigned staff? Other relevant issues may need to be considered.
  • Internal elements include any organizational factors that may impact the project's success. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the assigned staff or others in the rest of the organization whose contribution is necessary to success? Are there any resource constraints? What are the communication and information flow channels? How can they be effectively managed? Are there any other relevant issues that need to be considered?

The fourth step is to know your project partners (the designer's and the owner's representative, etc.). Who are the key players in the different organizations? Are there any factors that might influence working relationships? What are their "hot buttons"?

The fifth step is to develop an executable management plan. How are you going to deal with the key players? How are you going to gain their cooperation? How will you carry out the project mission while managing the key players' expectations? How can problems be resolved quickly and amicably? This is when you need effective teamwork and synergistic cooperation.

The sixth step is to plan for contingencies. There are going to be problems; that is a given! What are the possible issues that might crop up, and, if they do, what are the steps that can be taken to respond quickly so as to minimize their adverse effect? Can processes be established beforehand to more effectively deal with some of the possible contingencies? Who are the key players who should be involved in the resolution of potential issues?

Planning for the Unexpected

Strategic plans influence tactical plans, which influence operational plans, which impact daily plans. Since plans are "best guesses," they are prone to errors or discrepancies, and these deficiencies are usually cumulative. Planning flaws come to light when the plans are carried out. The plan that drives performance in the field is usually the project's operational plan. This is where "the rubber meets the road." Well-designed plans play a key role in reducing uncertainty and garnering success.

The safety practitioner can be effective in assisting the organization in the identification and elimination of possible safety-related risks by engaging in all the different planning stages. The challenge is to convince management that they can add value to the process. The place where they can easily get involved and be effective is at the operational planning level. Here, they can be instrumental in assisting in the identification and elimination of hazards before they manifest themselves in the field. If elimination is not an option, they may be able to assist in diminishing their potential negative impact. But, to be effective here, they have to have an understanding of the strategic as well as tactical plans and their objectives. The organizational policies and politics as well as business processes, procedures, and practices impact field operations, so the safety practitioner has to have an understanding of these as well.


To effectively participate in the planning process, the safety practitioner will have to have a good understanding of construction means and methods to be able to understand the concerns and constraints faced by the field personnel and the workforce. Another area of concern is the field staff's operational capabilities, their understanding of worker perception as it impacts safety performance, and their ability to identify potential hazards created by their general plan to execute the work. This understanding will allow the safety practitioner to offer practical operational solutions to address hazards and exposures that may adversely affect safety outcomes.

They certainly can also contribute at the daily planning level. At this level, their safety expertise will play a greater role in addressing and resolving issues related to physical hazards and worker exposures. They will be able to provide greater understanding of the risks the workers may face while performing the work. Participating in this planning process also enables the safety practitioner to evaluate how the foreman's as well as the worker's knowledge deficiency relates to safety matters and to provide a general understanding of injury risks as well as the applicable training needed. This effort will not only make the work more efficient by identifying barriers to performance but will also empower the crews to more effectively participate in safer execution of the work.

To paraphrase Harold F. Dodge, you cannot inspect quality into a product ... you have to build it in. This clearly applies to safety as well. You cannot inspect safety into operation ... you have to plan and design it in!

If safety practitioners engage in the traditional safety processes, they function as on "add-on" activity to the main effort of the construction company, which is putting work in place. If they are able to get involved in the planning process, they become part of the mainstream activities of the company. They are then part of the management team and become recognized as directly contributing to the value proposition.

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