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Construction Safety

Avoiding Deployment Failure of Safety Change Initiatives

Peter Furst | December 31, 2020

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Worker on stretcher going into an ambulance

In construction, generally, there is a safety change initiative launched just about every year. This is because the workers compensation insurance policy is renewed on a yearly basis.

The broker's or insurer's representative may sit down with their customer and report on the status of their losses during the past year and may offer some suggestions as to how to control the company's rising cost of insurance, which is affected by the number (frequency) of accidents and to some degree by the severity of the losses. The safety manager is then tasked with coming up with a plan of how to reduce the accidents and their associated costs. 

The resulting change imitative that is implemented usually includes the traditional interventions such as training the workforce, focused inspections, making certain safety program elements a priority, implementing an incentive program, or resorting to some form of discipline, to name a few. The trouble is they will probably go through the same scenario the following year and the ones thereafter. Each of these efforts will initially garner some small improvement, but ultimately, no permanent or sustained positive outcome results will materialize from these knee-jerk efforts.

On a shorter and more frequent time frame, some form of change effort may be engaged in just about every time the safety practitioner visits the project. The bulk of the visit involves a walk around the site looking for unsafe physical conditions or unsafe acts by workers who are engaged in performing their tasks. Upon finding situations that are deemed hazardous or unsafe, the safety practitioner immediately tries to affect a change. The physical hazard is either brought to the attention of the worker or the supervisor, and what needs to be done to correct it is discussed. In all probability, this will be addressed in some shape or form.

The weakness of this approach is that the underlying forces creating such conditions or behaviors were not identified and changed so as to eliminate the risk of their recurrence. So, such interventions only fixed the "present situation or condition," but in all likelihood, similar conditions or situations can occur later on because such interventions address symptoms and not the underlying causes of the problem.

The interventions on people generally prove somewhat more complex and difficult to implement as well as sustain. Upon observing a seemingly unsafe act on the part of a worker, the safety practitioner will intervene so as to initiate a change. The worker is informed that the way they are performing the task is not safe and that they may get injured if they continue in that fashion. The safety practitioner may then suggest different and safer ways that the worker may go about performing the task. The worker may use the suggested way while the safety person is present but revert to the original way after they depart for any number of reasons.

These may include the worker's habits, practices, experience, or available tools, equipment, or physical conditions or work-related goals such as time available, production goal, workflow, etc. As mentioned above, the safety practitioner offered a different (safer) way for performing the task without finding out why the worker was doing what they were doing in that particular way. That would have identified the underlying cause of the behavior, which may have required the participation of the foreman or superintendent in resolving the issue and thereby structurally changing things so as to enable the worker to perform the work in a safer manner going forward.

Traditional Safety Behavior Management

The underlying reason for this is that the organization is focused on somehow "changing" their workers' behaviors or work practices, utilizing interventions used in the past without really changing the organizational as well as operational systems that ultimately drive the outcomes the organization is experiencing. Their poor results are also being impacted by the fact that the change process is not properly planned, implemented, and managed, which accounts for about 30 percent of all change initiatives launched failing to garner any results. Research has also shown that up to 70 percent of all organizational change initiatives fail to achieve some or many of their intended potential or anticipated outcomes for one reason or another. This is the sad state of affairs in many construction organizations.

One thing of note is that when safety change initiatives are implemented, there is some measurable change that takes place soon thereafter. But there, generally, is no statistical correlation between the improvement and the implemented change. All one has to do is study the Hawthorne effect to understand this. Later studies of the original research conducted at the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, suggested that the novelty of attention paid to workers as well as work processes and practices during the activities to identify problems and resolve them could lead to some temporary improvement results.

In construction, minor operational discrepancies or failures are generally tolerated to some degree, as that is easier than having to take the time and effort to make any changes. Change initiatives are embarked upon when it is deemed that the state of affairs with their negative results are not tolerable any longer. The methods used by management to change the unacceptable situation may include the traditional intervention mentioned above. This stems from the belief that the problem stems from the behavior of the people who were involved in the adverse outcomes (accidents and/or losses).

The basis for this approach is to cast the role of these individuals as being primarily independent actors with virtual control over the situation in which they find themselves. To paraphrase the domino theory, the immediate act prior to the adverse outcome's occurrence is engaged in by a person. So, the next logical step is to say that if this person had done things differently, the outcome would have been different (acceptable). This then leads to the traditional safety interventions mentioned above in order to correct the unacceptable outcomes.

In a few cases, to achieve the change, organizations may try to copy what another organization is doing in their safety practices, or they may hire a new safety manager in the hopes that this person will magically improve the organization's safety outcome. In all probability, these efforts will fail due to the fact that the organization is not addressing the underlying causes of the problem, or they do not deploy the change initiative properly. 

A rather common scenario at too many organizations starts with the owner, CEO, or president announcing a new bold initiative intended to bring about dramatic performance improvement. The planned initiative may call for blanket changes to the systems, processes, practices, and/or procedures. The initiative is rolled out with ostentation and utilization of substantial resources over time. A retrospective assessment of the effort may show some short-term improvement, but invariably, the concrete outcomes end up producing less than stellar results, if not an outright failure, with operations generally sliding back to prechange conditions.

This obviously requires a well-devised and robust change initiative to be implemented. Change initiatives invariably have downsides. Employees generally do not like any form of change. Change may cause stress or some form of "pain" through uncertainty, lack of clear information, disruption of the work routine, misunderstanding of the potential impact on the work, etc. A significant amount of unnecessary disruption, distress, or distraction can be avoided. Some of the possible factors impeding the successful implementation of change include the following.

  • Failing to articulate a compelling vision
  • Not devising an integrated strategy
  • Failing to create a powerful guiding coalition
  • Allowing the continuation of worker complacency
  • Failing to identify and remove barriers to excellence
  • Allowing the normalization of deviations
  • Failing to create short-term achievable wins
  • Failing to implement systems to sustain the change
  • Failing to properly empower and enable employees
  • Failing to change the climate and culture
  • Elimination of dysfunctional behaviors
  • Claiming victory too soon

One of the typical safety change-initiative rollouts usually occurs after the annual review of the organization's accident and loss picture. One of the long-term downsides of engaging in such a repetitive change implementation process is that any change initiative is viewed with skepticism, and employees view them as "flavor of the month." The change initiative is not taken seriously, and management loses credibility, which almost guarantees the next initiative's failure. To ensure the success of the change initiatives, organizational systems, processes, practices, and procedures must be integrated and aligned so as to enhance the acceptance of the change initiative by the employees as well as enable the successful implementation of the change process prior to the launching of the initiative.

Key Change Initiative Elements

To implement change successfully, the organization must have a robust well-defined process in place prior to the launching of a change initiative. This process has six elements. These elements take task-related, emotional, and behavioral, as well as metrics factors, into consideration.

Key Change Initiative Elements

These elements are briefly described below.

Examination. What is wrong (present state), how things should be working (the ideal state), and the collection of relevant data in order to understand what is wrong and the analysis of the data to find the appropriate means of improving the conditions or the situation.

Engagement. To ensure that the change initiative is accepted by the employees, management must articulate the underlying vision so the employees understand the need for it. They must build excitement for it by explaining the benefit to the organization as well as to the workforce that will result from the changes. They must create teams to provide input and define the process by which to accomplish the change, devise a robust strategy for implementation, define the scope of the initiative, and set objectives with target milestones for the implementation.

Actuate. Assign a champion to closely oversee the change process, mobilize all of the employees in the deployment, work toward acceptance of the changes, test the strategy to ensure it is "right" for the situation, energize everyone, coach those that need assistance, mentor those who may need some encouragement, and refine anything that is not quite in line with the overriding premise.

Implementation. Roll out the change initiative and involve everyone, closely monitor the process as well as the reaction of the people, ensure that everything is in line with goals and objectives as well as expectations, identify barriers, and solicit input to expeditiously find a solution to problems or barriers.

Monitor. Collect data in order to determine if things are progressing in line with the goals and objectives as well as expectations resulting from the change, solicit input, evaluate the data and present results to management, inform everybody of the progress and intermittent goal achievement, identify areas that may need adjustment, and assess progress toward goal achievement.

Improve. Realign elements of the process that requires improvement, and ensure the effectiveness of the change-initiative implementation toward complete success.         

Steps to Sustain Change Improvements

To ensure that the change initiate not only is implemented successfully and is accepted by the employees but that the expected improvement is sustained over time requires the changes to be institutionalized in the organization.

Steps To Sustain Change Improvements

Firstly, the organizational systems must be checked to determine if there are misalignments in their interaction with each other, which may drive or contribute to the conditions that created the discrepancies encountered. Management must ensure that the systems are integrated in such a way that they function in complete harmony with each other. The systems must operate in such a way so as to enable workers to perform their work efficiently and effectively, as well as safely.

The next area that needs to be addressed is the people factors to determine if these in some way have generated the unacceptable discrepancies. The people must be encouraged to be fully involved in the procedures and practices in order to perform their tasks well. Management must discourage deviations in procedures and practices.

Management must create a work climate that is conducive for workers to identify barriers to performance and voice suggested changes. Managers must actively oversee the basic function of management to ensure that deviations are not allowed to creep into procedures and practices, thereby leading to the creation of discrepancies.


To create enabling conditions so as to ensure the implementation of change as well as sustaining the improvement garnered from the change, two areas need to be addressed. These are the system factors as well as the people factors. Involve the people in identifying the good points and the not-so-good points of the policies, procedures, and practices. Create teams of people to work on coming up with better ways of doing what is not working well, or even with a new way of doing things. This will, in all likelihood, diminish or even eliminate resistance and uncertainty associated with the change.

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