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Construction Safety

Avoiding Unacceptable Behavior in Construction

Peter Furst | January 13, 2022

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In safety, construction managers and field supervisors often ask this question: "Why did so-and-so do what they did that they should not have, which led to the accident and the resulting injury?" It's hard to understand how experienced, reasonably intelligent people commit illogical acts despite their past experiences and knowledge of commonly accepted safe industry practices.

After the event, speaking with the individual who was injured, one generally finds that they seem to be rational and reasonably knowledgeable. They may generally indicate that they did what seemed to be the right thing to do at that point in time given the conditions and what they thought was appropriate as well as required. So, the question is why did this person do what they did that got them injured? To get a clear understanding, one has to go beyond the traditional safety conclusions that seem to revolve around some form of shortcoming on the part of the worker.

Safety Basics

For those of you who may not be familiar with Heinrich's domino model of accident causation, it represents a causal chain of events leading to an injury. This model can be generalized to apply to construction work activity. This model contains the following five elements.

  • The social environment and worker factors
  • The fault on the part of the individual
  • The individual's inappropriate act or an unsafe condition
  • The resulting incident/accident
  • The injury or loss

The basic assumption is that pretty much some form of deficiency on the part of the worker is associated with the first three elements of this model, leading to the accident that potentially results in the injury. The first element may include such things as the worker's capabilities, skills, beliefs, character, bad habits, etc. The second element may include such things as the worker's carelessness, inattention, negligence, etc. The third element may include such things as the worker using the tool in a wrong way, utilizing an inappropriate work technique, not using proper protective equipment, making a mistake, etc. The unsafe conditions may be categorized as the very nature of construction work with its inherent risks, which anyone working in the industry should be aware of and be expected to manage so as to avoid injury.

There are a number of other theories of accident causation that were proposed after Heinrich's. Some of these include the following.

  • Human factors. The premise here is that the worker causes the accident through personal, physical, or situational factors.
  • Epidemiology. The premise here is that the worker causes the accident through predisposed personal or situational characteristics.
  • Systems. Considers accidents occurring through the interaction of humans, machines, and the environment, with inadequate controls to manage the situation.
  • Energy release. Deals with the sudden transfer of large amounts of energy that may be harmful to humans.
  • Behavior. Interventions are focused on the worker's actions while going about performing their tasks.

Fundamentally, all of these theories, in one way or another, have the worker involved in causing the resulting accident.

The typical traditional response to ensuring that such accidents do not occur in the future falls under what is known as the three Es, which were proposed by the National Safety Council over a century ago. They stand for the following.

  • Engineering. Eliminating the hazard or somehow diminishing its negative outcome by making a change in the work environment or utilizing personal protective equipment to keep the worker from getting injured.
  • Education. Training the worker by providing information or presentations on relevant sections of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, or going over the company safety program elements or codes of safe practices to inform the worker of safety rules and regulations, so that they may perform their task safely.
  • Enforcement. Performing site inspections to ensure that there are no physical hazards on the worksite and ensuring that the workers are following the required safe work practices.

But it is also a fact that construction companies generally tend to experience accidents, injuries, and losses on their worksites in spite of their concerted effort in implementing and utilizing the three Es or some other accepted safety management approach to accident prevention. So, the question is, are there other factors at play that occur on the construction worksite that in one way or another cause workers to do what they do in a way that leads to accidents, injuries, and losses?

Some Possible Reasons for Unacceptable Behavior

There are instances where an accident, injury, or loss occurs and may be attributed to "bad luck." That is an excuse used by people who are unwilling or unable to find the underlying cause and take the necessary action to resolve the problem. Another situation involving an injury may be labeled as being a false claim on the part of the worker to lodge a bogus workers compensation claim. These are rather rare events and have their solution in hiring and oversight practices and controls.

There is another cause of accidents that involves a person's attitude, which is challenging to address: a person's attitude is generally manifested in their behavior. The worker's safety attitude may be influenced by their perception of the organization's culture, the leadership style of the supervisor, and the overall work environment. Almost all of the interventions utilized in safety use an extrinsic approach to accident prevention. Working on improving worker attitudes toward safety necessitates an intrinsic mechanism to improve safety results.

There are some other possible reasons for unacceptable actions or behavior on the part of employees that are more manageable. This group of behaviors can be caused by the organizational systems or are endemic to the people. Every organization has systems that define how the organization is to operate by providing guidance to the people on what, why, when, where, and how to properly do things. These are spelled out in the policies, processes, procedures, and/or accepted in practices, all of which, in one way or another, are manifested in the worker's performance, actions, and behavior. The results can be acceptable or unacceptable.

Organizations may have many systems that are developed over time. It is possible that newly developed systems may not be fully coordinated with existing ones, and these discrepancies may cause people to have to make choices as to which alternative to follow. These could lead to three different outcomes.

  • All of the various choices will result in good outcomes.
  • There will be different outcomes, but all will tend to be acceptable.
  • Some of the outcomes will be unacceptable, causing problems, losses, or injuries.

Some of the many possible choices created by the system discrepancies may cause some of the employees to select different means or methods, resulting in errors that may lead to adverse outcomes.

Some of the more common or obvious areas leading to a performance problem may result from the interaction of any one of the workers in the crew.

  • Communication. The supervisor may not provide clear and complete information on what to do, or the worker may misunderstand the order given by the supervisor.
  • Direction. The supervisor may not provide clear and complete direction on what to do or how to do it. The worker may misunderstand the information provided by the supervisor.
  • Expectation. The supervisor may fail to convey the time or date for the completion of the task or the urgency for its achievement. The worker may misunderstand the target or not appreciate its importance.
  • Selection. The supervisor may fail to convey, or the worker may fail to understand, why that worker was picked to perform that particular task.
  • Performance. The supervisor assigns the task to a worker who does not have the experience, skill, or knowledge to perform the assigned task properly.
  • Motivation. The supervisor may fail to provide the impetus for the worker to enthusiastically carry out the assigned task. The worker may be demotivated for a number of reasons to engage in effectively performing the task, thus doing an inferior job at it.

There are other reasons for issues in performance that may be endemic to the responsibilities of the involved people themselves. Some of these may fall within these general categories.


One of the key reasons for the prevalence of accidents in construction is the way risk is addressed and managed on-site. Typically, the production and quality of the work are the responsibility of the site's supervisory personnel. The safety of the workers is the responsibility of a safety manager. So, the superintendent selects the means and methods to meet the project schedule. This involves planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling the work. The safety manager visits the site during construction on some predetermined or random schedule. This involves inspecting the site for unsafe conditions as well as observing the workers for any unsafe behavior or action and then trying to influence change that did not meet expectations.

Sources of Risk

There generally are two basic sources of risk on-site—it either is associated with the production of the work or in the behavior of the workers. The risks associated with the work may include such things as the physical environment, the planned means and methods, the expected production goals, tools available, access, etc. The risks associated with the workforce involve the workforce's physical and mental states. These include such things as abilities, experience, knowledge, and motivation, as well as behavior.

Risk Management

In construction, operational risk (production and quality) is addressed by the project superintendent or other operational personnel, while the safety risk (actions and accidents) is managed by the person responsible for safety. So, the superintendent may select means and/or methods that may have inherent risks that are left to the workers and safety practitioner to discover and deal with. This is ineffective and inefficient and inevitably contributes to the occurrence of accidents on the project.

Responsibility with limited control is also a contributing factor in this scenario. The frequency and nature of the inspection may possibly be contributing factors. Generally, safety inspections are made by the person responsible for managing worker safety performance. Depending on this person's workload, travel distances, or size of the workforce, visits to the site for inspections may only occur once a week or maybe even once a month.

The time available for the walk-around looking for unsafe acts and/or conditions may amount to a couple of hours. Two hours out of a 40 or a more likely 50 hour or more workweek really equates to a snapshot in time. Depending on the size of the workforce and the complexity of the work, this allows very little time for the safety manager to provide coaching and counseling to workers engaged in at-risk behavior.

Habits and Behavior

There are all sorts of rules that keep us within an acceptable envelope of behavior. Going outside of this envelope generally results in consequences of differing severity. Frequent rule-breaking behavior may not be the result of a deliberate act but may be committed without conscious intent. In other words, it can be an automatic response to a given set of conditions or circumstances. What causes such behaviors, and how can they be prevented?

One of the strongest influences on our behavior are habits. Habits result from how we have primarily behaved in the past when a particular situation or set of circumstances were present. So, over time, we learn to respond (behave) in a particular way when we encounter a set of circumstances that we recognize as having successfully dealt with before. This then becomes part of our automatic mental process due to the need to reduce the amount of information we encounter in our environment that requires our careful attention.

Personality also plays a role in habit formation as well as propagating the use of a habit once it is formed. Over time, one is likely to come up with a collection of habitual responses to a variety of elements or situations in the environment. This collection of habits may be characterized as one's "mindset." This can then strongly influence one's personality traits and how one perceives or reacts to the world. This is particularly true of one's affinity to break the rules, which may leave one open to making errors of judgment in behavior, resulting in potentially serious consequences for safety.

It is rather difficult for a person to change their own habits, which occur unconsciously. To affect a change in an individual's habitual response takes a concerted effort on the part of that person's supervisor by repeatedly providing constructive feedback every time that habit is used. The utilization of the habit will extinguish when the effort associated with dealing with the feedback outweighs the benefit derived from using the habit.


Unacceptable behavior may originate from operational systems or people. The systems issues are somewhat straightforward to deal with as we have to identify the source and then change it. The people issues are more complex. There are many reasons why people do what they do. And to change this takes some effort on the part of management. First, we have to determine if this is a problem involving one person or many. This will identify the extent of the problem and highlight the importance and urgency of addressing and fixing it.

People use habitual responses to deal with issues because they derive a benefit (save time, use less mental energy, simplify things, etc.) from it. One way to get them to stop this is to diminish the value of the associated reward. This can be accomplished by providing means and methods that are easier to use or provide greater benefits by virtue of an alternative. Some of this may involve constructive feedback or teaching innovative ways to deal with issues. This is probably the more constructive and probably the more useful method.

Another method is by making the use of undesirable habits disappointing or punishing. This can be achieved by providing correctional or negative feedback and can be strengthened by making the feedback social, tangible, and, more importantly, a part of the work process. However, do not just make the consequences negative. This should only be used in select cases, if at all. If the problem exists with a recalcitrant person, it might be easier to outboard them.

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