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Construction Safety

Construction Operational Factors' Relation to Accidents

Peter Furst | June 23, 2023

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According to industry statistics, construction ranks among one of the highest in worker injury. Typically, the construction industry accident prevention effort focuses on the more obvious physical hazards as well as worker's behavioral risk factors. But there is a plethora of preconstruction as well as construction project delivery process risks that may contribute to accident causation.

To effectively manage the risk of accidents on construction projects, one has to truly understand the underlying operational factors and their contribution to accident causation to effectively address this reality. The main construction project factors involve the following general areas.

  • The nature of the project and facility design
  • Owner realities, procurement methods, contract requirements, and project involvement
  • Construction factors such as the project delivery means and methods, site aspects, subcontracting considerations, and supply chain issues, as well as the management of the operation or other elements of the project delivery process

All potentially may contribute to the risk of accident causation. However, how they contribute to accident causation and the extent of their contribution depends on how the three areas mentioned above interact and influence the resulting outcome.

Underlying Preconstruction Risk Factors

The implementation of an effective project delivery process that actively supports accident prevention through the elimination or reduction of the associated risks requires knowledge of the underlying operational accident causation factors, how these factors contribute to the risk of accidents, and understanding of the extent of their contribution and its severity.

Project Factors

Project factors include the nature of the project, the location and general environment of the site, and the potential influence of jurisdictional factors, as well as the project design. These factors can in one way or another contribute to accident causation risks that may result in incidents, accidents, injuries, or losses.

The nature of the project does affect the potential level of the risk of accidents on construction sites. The project may be a new facility, renovation, repurposing, tenant improvement, high-rise, low-rise, etc. It may include civil work like roads, bridges, dams, canals, treatment plants, etc. It could involve maritime projects such as piers, jetties, breakwater, etc. The hazards and exposures during renovation, refurbishment, and demolition work is different than new work due to inherent uncertainties or complexity and may be potentially difficult to anticipate, observe, or evaluate. Additionally, in some types of work there is a greater possibility of falling debris, collapse of building elements, dust, noise, fumes, hazardous conditions, situations, weather, etc.

The project location and the area around it may also contribute to requirements or limitations that may potentially increase the risk of accident causation. This may include general limitations on noise that may limit work before and after certain times or on certain days. There may be certain operations close by that may impact vehicular or pedestrian traffic with a possible impact on jobsite access. Also, the area may have certain restrictions on truck traffic that may impact site operations, to name a few.

The infrastructure in the surrounding area, such as the number of traffic lanes, public parking, or volume of flow, along with traffic in and out of the site, are a few issues that may create public concerns, impact construction flow, and affect operations or progress, as well as possibly increase the potential for accidents. This may lead to traffic congestion, possibly expose pedestrians to potential harm, or necessitate some form of traffic control that may impact the smooth flow of on-site operations.

Design Factors

The influence of certain project features or elements of the design may create or enhance the potential risk of accident causation during construction, which has been encountered on many projects. Certain design features may hinder or limit access, complicate or inhibit construction, or require a certain sequence of installation that may tend to have a greater potential of creating an unexpected risk that may increase the potential of the occurrence of an accident.

Some of these potential conditions may not be readily discernible or occur as the work goes into place, thereby complicating the safety management process. This reality should encourage project owners to engage an experienced and knowledgeable construction organization or professional to provide input during project design on the implications of certain features and their potential contribution to the increase of the risk of worker injuries during construction as well as possible future facility maintenance work.

Owner Factors

The owner's means of securing the general contractor (GC) or the construction manager (CM) does indirectly affect potential accident causation factors. If the owner is looking for the lowest price, and the contractor is in need of the work, the price may be cut to secure the project. If there are few opportunities to increase the price through scope changes, then the contractor may be forced to find cost reduction means that could potentially increase risk. Some of this may result from using less experienced (less costly) staff to run the work, continually pushing the workforce to increase productivity, or trying to squeeze subcontractor pricing of their portion of the work, which may lead to the increase of risks of accidents as well as losses.

The quality of the information provided is important as deficient information may lead to questions, confusion, slowing of the progress, or increased paperwork. A very large number of scope changes will also have a potential negative impact, all of which will impact workflow, increase possible delays, and put added pressures on production that could increase the potential of the risk of accident causation.

The contract requirements may have both a positive and negative effect on project safety. If the owner includes liquidated damages for failing to meet the project completion date, it will more than likely increase the focus on the speed of production, which may increase the risk of accidents. If the owner includes contract language regarding the management of safety on the construction project, it may cause contractors to more actively and effectively focus on safety outcomes in their planning, organizing, and managing the project, which will in all likelihood diminish the potential accident causation risks.

Underlying Construction Operational Risk Factors

General Site Factors

Sites where there is not sufficient area available to allow for storage and/or the laydown of material and supplies will require smaller quantities to be delivered. This will increase traffic on the streets around the jobsite, possibly causing congestion, requiring traffic control to avoid vehicular instigated accidents. This will also increase the worker-traffic interface on site, leading to greater potential for worker injury.

Smaller sites may also cause the workers working or moving around at ground level to be closer to the structure being built and, therefore, increase their potential to be hit by falling objects from above. Small sites may contribute to the limitation on the extent of parking spaces for visitors, inspectors, or others, exposing them to potential site condition hazards.

Overall Management

Main office oversight may be an important factor that may enhance the project's overall success. It strengthens accountability, facilitates communication, ameliorates cooperation, speeds up decision-making and problem-solving, improves relationships, and benefits planning, organizing, directing, staffing, coordinating, executing, and controlling. With little random or no structured main office oversight, many of the benefits listed above will be diminished and as a result increase the potential for a situation to arise, which may increase accident causal factors.

Field Operational Management

Research studies have shown that the selected construction means and methods does have an impact on operational efficiency and worker productivity. One of these considerations involves reducing field labor through the possibility of incorporating prefabrication and preassembly where practical and modularization where possible to minimize the need for on-site manual labor. This has a significant underlying improvement in productivity as well as quality, thereby improving efficiency and promoting safety along with profitability.

Preoperational Planning

Preoperational planning facilitates the incorporation of prefabrication in the operation to minimize manual material handling. Research studies have shown that the selected construction means and methods do have an impact on the degree of risk and the extent of accident causation factors. Some studies have shown that fully one-third of construction operation injuries emanate from work involving manual material handling, so any planned use of prefabrication or preassembly would reduce worker accidents as well as injuries, thereby improving project safety and increasing efficiency due to reduced production issues.


Sufficient experienced and capable field staff is of great importance to the effective and efficient management of project operations. The staff also needs to be enabled, supported, and given the necessary resources to be able to perform their work and carry out their assigned duties and responsibilities effectively. There needs to be regular interactions with the main office technical support staff and management to address barriers and assist in problem resolution and to oversee and ensure effective and efficient progress.


The extent of recordkeeping depends on the size and complexity of the project. The minimum recordkeeping requirement must be established in advance along with the regular review and evaluation of the information established to ensure goals and expectations are met.

Subcontracting Practices

Since much or even all of the work is going to be performed by subcontractors, it is in the organization's best interest to procure the firms who best fit the project's unique requirements as well as the project's goals and expectations. For critical path work, the GC/CM must also have the contractual ability to interview, evaluate, and accept the key subcontractor person responsible for overseeing and managing the day-to-day fieldwork to ensure the meeting or exceeding of performance goals and expectations.

Labor Factors

These include the assurance of the sufficiency and availability of experienced, capable craft persons working on the site. Regular field oversight ensures the availability of necessary tools, equipment, information, and resources. Along with proper task design, align worker capabilities with task demands, enable performance through proper coordination, and anticipate and remove barriers to create the proper flow of the work so as to ensure smooth operations in order to meet and where possible to exceed planned progress.

Unique Issues

Include factors associated with the general environment around the site, the site itself, or unique structure features. Possibly extensive high-hazard tasks such as below-ground work, working at heights, material handling, access issues, etc. generally tend to result in more serious accidents and, therefore, need to have a more focused approach to identify potential causal factors as well as the planning and control of such risks.

The nature of construction generally is prone to some degree of variability, uncertainty, or unpredictability, resulting in unforeseen situations or conditions that may potentially cause disruptions, delays, or increased risk. Due to the complex supply chain and the number of participants, there is the likelihood of some form of failure to deliver on promises that may affect the planned smooth flow of the work. Another factor that plays a role in such eventualities is the project size or complexity.

Besides active project staff involvement, it may also require a possible intervention or support from the main office, especially for complex issues, to effectively address and resolve potential problems. Given the potential of such events occurring, management should have some generic recovery plans and procedures available to rapidly address such eventualities. This will facilitate a more rapid response and reduce the possibility of overburdening field staff and distracting them from their routine daily workload required to manage the smooth flow of operations.

Understanding and Dealing with the Underlying Risk Factors

Many construction errors or accidents are driven by multicausal underlying operational risk factors and/or processes that are rather complex. It is recognized that the underlying operational factors may not directly cause the accident but create the potential risks or hazards that, if ignored or missed, may interact with other operational factors to result in an accident. This makes such underlying operational factors harder to identify and effectively eliminate or reduce their potential negative consequences. This requires staff to remain alert to the occurrence of potential risks due to changed conditions or situations.

The nature, volume, and seriousness of such risks depends on the size of the project and its complexity, rate of planned progress, requirements, limitations, and involvement of the key participating teams (i.e., owner, designer, contractor, subcontractors, and supplier), along with the effect of the number, interrelationship, and interaction of the underlying risk factors that may contribute to the extent and severity of accident causal factors.

This may be aggravated by complexity due to the extent of the owner team's needs or involvement and the designer's and consultant's activities and their goals and capabilities. The general contractor's or construction manager's organizational goals, objectives, and experiences will also have an impact, along with field personnel's capabilities and expertise. The subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers in the supply chain can add to complexity, fragmentation, failures to deliver on promises, etc. All of this could be further complicated by situational or environmental issues such as weather, industry, economy, and factors causing barriers, uncertainty, delays, or time pressures, to name a few.

Figure depicting complexity of potential latent risk factors


Traditionally, construction project safety focuses on the workforce to reduce or eliminate accidents. This is due to the fact that causation is attributed to some deficiency on the individual worker's part. The interventions selected usually involve Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, training, safe work practices, retraining, signage or postings, physical hazard protection, personal protective equipment, and inspections. These generally reiterate the need for paying attention, using common sense, and avoiding distractions.

This article has identified many underlying risk factors that are not commonly considered and are potentially difficult to identify and, even if discovered, may seem innocuous and probably ignored. They contribute to the body of "hidden" risks that in some random combination contribute to the occurrence of incidents, accidents, or losses. This reality may make it difficult to identify the actual causation during the accident investigation, leading to its attribution to a shortcoming on the part of the person involved in the unexpected or unfortunate event or to bad luck. This then leads to the selection of somewhat ineffective interventions because the underlying cause was not properly identified. This requires a totally different approach to the management of safety.

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