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Construction Safety

Construction Risk Management: Recognizing Incompetent Workers

TJ Lyons | March 1, 2008

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Construction worker looking at plans

In my previous column, we examined the "pinch points" to use to identify incompetent workers before construction begins. Here, we turn to identifying problematic workers on the job site after construction has commenced.

In the last article, we discussed three of the five pinch points.

  1. Call a friend
  2. Pre-bid subcontractor leadership meetings
  3. Evaluation of subcontractor's project team

But what can be done to recognize and get rid of incompetent workers once work has commenced? Lots!

Pinch Point #4: On-Site Arrival

With a good bid process, the right subcontracting firm, a clear understand of the work and now clear life-trust knowledge of the people doing your work, they have arrived on your project. In the perfect world of the site superintendent, everyone arrives trained and drug tested, attends your orientation process, actually listens when you tell them what you expect for safety performance, and heads for the field to do the good work.

However, like the taxi driver whom you hope can drive, it is not until he gets into traffic that you decide to nap or pray.

As you watch this "A" team ready for their work, take the time to check on their competency as they prepare.

  1. Go over each piece of equipment for the fundamentals—gauges, guards, safety devices, condition and homemade "improvements." If the equipment is not perfect, send it back and question the competent person on how it arrived at your site in such shape. He should have had a hand in the preparation for your job. If not, ask why.
  2. Let the contractors prepare their pre-task plans (PTPs), and then review each. The depth and detail of this fundamental tool represents the quality of the work you should expect.
  3. Ask someone (other than a competent person) if they know who prepared the PTP and what was in it. There is nothing shoddier than someone who writes out a quick PTP, without schooling or involving the team, just to get it done. Should that happen, stop the work, and work it out. This is a bad start and needs to be resolved at the outset.

Figure 1: Check Equipment Carefully

Check Equipment Carefully

Pinch Point #5: Pointed Questions during the Work

In one of the best books ever written on the philosophy of safety, Exploring the Dangerous Trades, Alice Hamilton, an early pioneer, described Julia Lathrop (a coworker) and her approach to asking the right questions, not just the questions you are comfortable asking:

Julia Lathrop never roused one to a fighting pitch, but then fighting was not her method. (Nor was it mine. I have always hated conflict of any kind, but with me this led to cowardice, to shirking unpleasantness. Never with her.) She taught me a much-needed lesson, that harmony and peaceful relations with one's adversary were not in themselves of value, only if they went with a steady pushing of what one was trying to achieve.

So often, when I have succeeded in breaking down the hostility of an employer and in establishing a friendly relation with him, I have been tempted to let it go at that, to depart without risking unpleasantness. Then I have remembered Julia Lathrop and have forced myself to say the unpleasant things which had to be said.

If all the planets are in alignment and your subcontractor is off to a good start, always be a bit skeptical and check back in. Observe the ongoing work, ensure it is being performed as agreed, and then check the PTP to see that all exposures are covered. See that nothing new is apparent, and let them know you were pleased with what you saw. It is critical that all workers receive feedback on how they are doing.

Competency breeds confidence, and you can help. In the world of the competent person, never forget the opportunity you may have in educating. As Carl Metzger says, "Remember to make the good guy gooder."

This reluctance to question competency never fails to amaze. We tend to avoid conflict, yet we know the results of indifference can lead to someone getting killed. A critical time to ask pointed questions is when the work is underway. Never assume all promises are being kept. A little skepticism is healthy if it does not lead to distrust. And there is no better feeling than to ask a tough question and get the right answer. That is how competency is calibrated.

For example, confined space entries occur often on a project site. Though the standard came about around 1992, many in the field—from risk managers to field folks—are either uncomfortable with the idea or simply ignorant of the standard. In one example, a field report from a loss consultant who was inspecting a confined space (trench) noted, "Potential for gas leak in 20ft trench. Recommended last visit to test atmosphere before entry and periodically. Meter now on site, reported to be used correctly."

This was a huge opportunity to ask the right questions: Was the meter working? Was it calibrated correctly? What were the readings? In a related case, a project foreman for a large electrical contractor was once removed from a site. As the safety coordinator reviewed a confined space entry underway, he posed the question to this "competent person": "Anthony, neat meter you have there. Can I see the results of the initial testing?"

Anthony proudly showed him a neat form with all the right numbers filled in with the exception of the allowable concentration of carbon monoxide.

"Anthony, quick question, I see the readings for carbon monoxide and it looks fine, but why is the maximum not written in?" "Well, I am not sure what the maximum is."

This a perfect example of asking the right question at the right time. The work was halted, and the incompetent person replaced. But one point looms larger—those asking the tough questions need to know the answers. We'll save that for another day.

Figure 2: Check Worker Competency


These pinch points are just some examples that provide excellent gauges of the subcontractor. If you think the process is cumbersome or costly, you are wrong. Spending the time up-front to ensure you have the right people, not just good people, provides a huge return on your safety efforts. There will be no hits to the schedule, good people will not get hurt, and lastly, the client will not question your competency.

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