Expert Commentary

Construction and Safety Performance

Among the classes I teach at University of California, Berkeley, is one on advanced construction safety. One of the students who works for a smaller midsize construction firm made an observation indicating that construction was an industry rife with hazards and that people were bound to get injured notwithstanding any effort on the part of the organization's management or project personnel. This comment also brought to mind the number of times I had been told by various foremen and safety practitioners working in the construction industry that construction is hazardous and injuries were inevitable. So, I conducted some research to provide the class with some relevant information and statistical data on how construction as an industry stacks up to others.

Construction Safety
July 2013

During the industrialization period in the late 19th century, tens of thousands of workers were killed or seriously injured in industrial settings. Industrialists paid little attention to work conditions and the plight of the worker. These occupational conditions eventually caused a social outcry, which led to the enactment of workers compensation laws in the beginning of the 20th century. As a result, worker injuries had a financial impact on industry, so efforts were made to find ways to control such losses. Most of these interventions focused on making the work environment safer. This was the beginning of engineering (physical) controls in the workplace.

The Role of Unsafe Acts by Workers

Research into the cause of accidents uncovered that, besides unsafe conditions, unsafe acts led to industrial accidents. This theory, which is still held by many regulators, business leaders, labor unions, and safety practitioners, has been rightly criticized as oversimplified with too narrow a focus. The original unsafe acts theory is associated with Herbert William Heinrich in a 1926 report called "The Origins of Accidents." In it, Heinrich analyzed 75,000 accidents and found that 88 percent of all accidents were caused by the unsafe acts of persons, 10 percent were caused by unsafe physical conditions, and 2 percent were undetermined and labeled as "acts of God."

In 1969, while with the Insurance Company of North America, Frank Bird analyzed over a million accidents representing more than 3 billion person-hours worked during the exposure period analyzed. The study resulted in the 1:10:30:600 ratios. For every serious injury, this study found 10 minor injuries, 30 property damage cases, and 600 near misses. A 10-year study of accidents by DuPont in the mid 1980s found 96 percent of accidents were caused by unsafe acts and 4 percent were caused by other factors.

Studies such as these have placed the focus on the worker's actions as the cause of accidents for which interventions were developed and implemented. These interventions included the development of different training modules, toolbox talks, safety meetings, postings, etc. Many of these interventions are fundamental elements in the safety standards promulgated by various states or the federal government. These interventions, along with physical controls, are at the core of virtually every safety program implemented in industry. And, to ensure compliance by the workforce, most safety programs have some form of site inspection as well as sanctions. Some even have incentive programs to facilitate and encourage compliance.

In the past 100 years, we have come a long way in reducing industrial accidents and injuries. A total of 4,609 fatal work injuries were recorded in 2011, according to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries program conducted by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The rate of fatal work injury for US workers in 2011 was 3.5 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. Fatal work injuries in the private construction sector were 721 in 2011. Compared to other industries, construction has the second highest number of fatalities and the fourth highest rate. The construction fatality rate range averages 2–4 times higher than those in the other industries. One may attribute this to construction being "more dangerous" than the others. However, I believe this is something of a myth.

Injury Rates in Various Industries

Rather than fatalities, let's look at the injury rate of various segments of the economy. Construction is considered part of the goods-producing sector of the economy. The 2011 BLS published data indicate the following.

Private Sector of Economy (Goods Producing) Annual Average Employment (thousands)Total Recordable CasesDays Away from Work, Job Transfer, or Restriction (DART)
Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing974,9005.53.2
Mining 669,7002.21.4
Construction 5,576,7003.92.1
Manufacturing 11,627,700

From this data, it is obvious that, within the private sector, there are other industries with higher injury rates. Another segment of the economy the BLS uses is service providers. One would expect service to be less hazardous than construction. The 2011 BLS published data indicate the following.

Private Sector of Economy (Service Providers)
Private Sector of Economy (Service Providers)
Total Recordable Cases
Days Away from Work, Job Transfer, or Restriction (DART)
Transportation & Utilities
Financial Activities
Professional & Business
Education & Health
Leisure & Hospitality

From the above data, it is evident that there are other industries that employ far more people than construction that have injury rates that are equal to or higher than construction. This shows that those who state construction is a dangerous endeavor are using it as an excuse for their company's injury rate and are propagating a myth. There obviously are other salient factors that affect the injury rate.

Behavioral Aspect

A further development in the safety management process was the introduction of behaviorism as an avenue to control worker actions in occupational settings. What has become known as behavior-based safety (BBS) is based on the work of I.P. Pavlov, J.B. Watson, E.L. Thorndike, and B.F. Skinner, to name a few. Skinner is known for the development of operant conditioning. It basically worked on changing behavior by the use of reinforcement, both positive and negative. This approach was developed by subjecting laboratory animals (mice and pigeons) to electric shocks or rewarding them with food to elicit certain behaviors. Skinner proposed that the way humans learn behavior is much the same as the way animals learned to press a lever in the lab experiments. Basically, behaviors are causal factors that are influenced by consequences.

The application of behaviorism to the safety management process was a vast improvement over the traditional interventions that preceded it. In the 1980s and much of the 1990s, many organizations adopted BBS. There is no question that this process reduced the accident rate of these organizations, but it did not eliminate all incidents. If fact, many of the large consultancies that were preaching "grass roots" BBS started talking about leadership and its effect on worker behavior by the late 1990s. In the human condition, there is complexity. The worker has to successfully function in the organizational environment. This includes the organizational culture, the climate, systems, politics, and people (management, supervision, and peers), and, at the operational level, there are production goals, task design and demand, tools, equipment, human dynamics, etc.

Then there is the worker to consider. The worker has expectations, biases, perceptions, an agenda, and needs (emotional, economic, physical, etc.), as well as his or her own personality. All these factors influence the worker's decision-making process. So, the organization may actually or inadvertently put its workers into situations where they may perceive that they have to or actually have to choose between following safe work practices and meeting production expectations to stay employed.

Private versus Public Sectors

In looking at the BLS published data, we find some additional interesting information. The BLS has an additional classification for workers working for state and local agencies. One would expect working for the government or public agencies to be less hazardous than construction or other sectors in the private industry. The 2011 BLS published data indicate the following.

Sectors of the Economy
Annual Average Employment (thousands)Total Recordable CasesDays Away from Work, Job Transfer, or Restriction (DART)
Goods Producing
Service Industries
All Private Industries
State & Local Governments

The injury rate in both the recordable as well as the DART rates for government is higher than almost all the goods producers, as well as the combined rate of all the private industry sectors. So, the question is: What makes the public work different from private work? The work certainly is not more complex or more hazardous than private work; so it must be the result of how the workforce is managed. There certainly is a difference in the management systems, policies, practices, and the value proposition between these private and public sectors.

These differences are clearly linked to the contexts within which these leaders and managers have to operate. The former are under constant financial and marketplace pressures to improve results and increase benefits; the latter are guided by a huge number of rules and regulations, with responsibility to politicians. Private sector leaders are prepared to take calculated risks, while public sector leaders distance themselves from problems and take a risk-aversive approach to solving them. The former often have clear and measurable objectives and are judged on the outcome they produce; the latter often have unclear objectives and are constantly confronted with a range of stakeholders and pressure groups, ready to condemn every mistake or failure. Based on the fact that public sector leaders often operate in an overly structured environment, governed by rules and regulations, it is normal that they essentially focus on monitoring what is going on and how things are happening, rather than on guiding and stimulating the teams for which they are responsible. So, if this conclusion is even remotely valid, it would seem to indicate that many organizations go about managing the safety process in an ineffective way.

What Is Safety?

Safety is not a thing, nor is it an activity in and of itself. At work, people do things that produce results. In construction, workers work, which results in an outcome (work completed). If they work effectively and efficiently, they are productive. If they follow prescribed methods or practices in their work, it meets expected quality requirements. How they go about performing the work may injure them. This would indicate that task design, task demand, make ready, communication and information, production goals, exposure, and risk assessment, as well as operational planning of the activities, all play a significant role in the prevention of injuries.

Some of the fundamental elements of management are planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling. If a construction operation is to function at a high level of safety performance, the operational plan must take into account the risk of injury. The organization must address the sequencing and execution of the work and potential exposures. Workers should be provided with the information and resources to enable them to safely perform the tasks. Management should provide proper guidance (direction) to ensure effective practices. Management should make proper worker selection and assignments that place the "right" worker in the "right" work situation. Management must ensure that it is overseeing the practices and procedures (control) performance to ensure the "right" outcome.

This may not totally remove all the risk of injury, but it is guaranteed to significantly improve performance (productivity and efficiency), reduce waste (rework), improve safety, and increase profitability as a result.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

Like This Article?

IRMI Update

Dive into thought-provoking industry commentary every other week, including links to free articles from industry experts. Discover practical risk management tips, insight on important case law and be the first to receive important news regarding IRMI products and events.

Learn More