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Construction Safety

Construction Safety Beliefs Regarding Hazards and Risk Matter

Peter Furst | July 22, 2022

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The traditional approach to construction safety management is compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. These regulations mandate that businesses provide a safe workplace for people working for them by following the requirements set out by these standards.

This consists of a written safety program spelling out safety requirements, worker training in the standards, toolbox talks dealing with safety related to task performance, site inspections to identify and correct hazards and/or unsafe acts, and accident investigation, as well as a number of other requirements. Failure to do so opens these organizations up to the imposition of fines and other more severe consequences.

Many supervisors and managers believe that accidents are primarily caused by some shortcomings on the part of the worker. The underlying premise is based on the domino theory of accident causation proposed by H.W. Heinrich almost a century ago. Preventable injuries culminate from a series of sequential events, as represented by five dominos. The removal of any one of the dominos, especially the middle one (unsafe act), can prevent the injury.

Two major research studies' findings supported this conclusion. The first findings are by H.W. Heinrich in 1931, where he analyzed over 70,000 accident reports. He found the following.

  • 88 percent of accidents/injuries resulted from actions of employees
  • 10 percent of the accidents were traced to hazards involving the physical environment
  • 2 percent of the causes of accidents could not be ascertained

In 1966, F.E. Bird analyzed over 1.7 million accident reports from hundreds of companies and concluded the following.

  • 95 percent of injuries resulted from actions of employees
  • 5 percent of the accidents were traced to causes from the physical environment

Hence, the belief that workers' decisions or actions are the primary cause of accidents was established. As a result, construction safety focused on improvement interventions on changing the worker's actions or behaviors to reduce and eliminate accidents.

Worksite supervision guidelines generally articulate that workers are primarily responsible for their own safety and should engage in safe work practices, use good judgment, and be constantly vigilant when working in hazardous environments. These same supervisors also believe that their primary responsibility is to meet project production goals and objectives while safety is overseen by others. These beliefs, as well as a few other commonly held convictions, tend to create impediments that keep organizations from effectively reducing accidents and preventing injury on their worksites.

Belief about Hazards and Risk in Operations

Though considerable improvement has been made over the years in the safety of production systems, hazards and their associated injury risk still exist to some extent. Research has shown that the interplay between worker behavior and cognitive processes plays a significant role in dealing with hazards and associated risks of injury. Preventive measures may not always be wholly implemented or adhered to, employees may not fully engage in safe work practices, or supervision may concentrate on meeting and/or exceeding production objectives, with less attention paid to risk and safety.

It would seem that the somewhat less than effective accident and injury preventive practices and procedures may stem from inadequate communication practices regarding risk and its effective management. Understanding people's cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to perceived operational demands may highlight situational causal factors. Organizationally, in more cases than not, people's values, beliefs, and understanding cause greater attention to be given to performance (production) rather than protection (safety).

Individuals make choices regarding what types and levels of risk are acceptable as well as manageable. They also may decide to take on some levels of risk if they perceive an economic justification (stay employed, get promoted, etc.) to do so. Individuals have an impact on the types of measures they choose and utilize in order to minimize the potentially harmful effects of hazards and risks associated with the tasks they are assigned to perform. They also may decide whether to utilize in part or in whole any of the company's expected safety practices and/or procedures.

Workers ultimately evaluate their personal exposure to risk, then decide whether to protect themselves. By understanding an individual's beliefs and actions taken due to their perception of the work climate, supervision's influence, and underlying organizational culture, one can get a deeper appreciation and understanding of employee attitudes with respect to safety problems and, thus, the behavioral choices they make.

Belief and Decisions/Actions

Traditionally, the primary approach to accident prevention has been focused on training individual workers in the safety standards to give them the information and knowledge necessary to perform their work safely. Worksites are inspected to ensure engineering controls involving hazards are in place, as well as to identify and stop workers from violating safety rules or engaging in unsafe behaviors. Some safety practitioners believe that coaching or reasoning with workers will motivate them to work safely. These interventions work with varying degrees of success, but they never fully eliminate risk, nor do they significantly reduce them. They also don't really do much to diminish the associated accidents in construction production systems because they don't address the underlying worker beliefs involving risk and safety.

It is important to understand that a worker may become involved in an accident or get injured due to making an error that does not stem from their beliefs. This may result from a skill-based slip or lapse that could be due to inattention. Another possibility is that they may have a lapse in memory or recall. This may involve not recalling the proper procedures or doing something in the wrong sequence. Then there are mistakes the worker may make. This may include using the wrong tool or equipment when the proper ones are also available or using an improper technique to perform the task.

Every organizational production operation carries its own system of values and standards specific to its culture, leadership, and industry regarding certain ideas about work risk and performance. Every worker has their own set of beliefs, representations, norms, and values governing their specific hazard recognition associated risk evaluation and the determination and belief of their ability to safely perform their work in a given situation.

There are a number of reasons that are not only believed by the construction industry workforce but also include site supervision and, to some extent, management. It is the unrealistic and fatalistic belief that, by its very nature, the construction industry as a whole is rife with hazards that invariably result in workers getting injured while performing their tasks. There is also the general belief that experienced workers are quite capable of effectively dealing with those usually encountered risks of injury and performing their work safely in spite of the exposure to those hazards. Beliefs such as these affect the way management and the workforce approach safety and performance on the jobsite.

People may decide to behave or do something in a certain way for a variety of reasons. This may be due to force of habit, convenience, necessity, perception, carelessness, or ignorance, to name just a few. A new employee may consciously take some risks to show the supervisor that they are very productive so as to ensure their continued employment. An existing employee may perceive that the supervisor is under pressure to achieve a production goal and, to garner favor, may choose to rush or engage in unsafe behavior for a short period of time to increase productivity.

Workers do not have an accident or get an injury every time they engage in at-risk behavior. In fact, research has found that some workers may perform their work in an unsafe manner for months or even years without getting injured or having an accident. Workers may contribute to the accident and injury problem by primarily relying on their past experience and/or self-confidence in their ability when performing their work. Preventive measures may not always be respected or diligently utilized for the abovementioned reasons, or a worker who wants to be accepted by other crew members who as a group do not follow the company's expected safe work practices may mimic their behavior ("herd" mentality). They may also not perceive the risk or fail to assess the exposure, or they may underestimate the risk due to the fact that they have worked under similar circumstances before without experiencing an adverse effect or getting injured.

Workers may deem the project safety measures as a burden and/or an impediment to their ability to achieve production goals. They may also identify and understand the risk but assume that they are capable of effectively dealing with it. They may also feel that, to stay employed, they must meet production goals in spite of the associated risk, thereby causing them to consciously and willingly engage in at-risk behavior.

There are many reasons for workers to knowingly, unknowingly, or mistakenly perform work unsafely. Production goal achievement is a key driver of performance expectation, with less attention paid to other associated targets, goals, and/or outcomes. A belabored focus on increased production usually leads to deviation from accepted safe work practices or the enforcement of them, resulting in "standards creep." People responsible for safe performance do not have tools other than the ones traditionally available in the industry, so to deal with the emerging problems, they utilize one or two of the existing tools (training and inspections), which they try to apply more rigorously. As the famous saying goes, using the same methods but expecting different results is insanity!


The beliefs associated with the impact of risk on worker safety and the perceived benefit of risk-taking should be a factor that is assessed when considering or evaluating the motivation underlying unsafe behavior. Depending on the situation, beliefs may positively or negatively affect safety management. Beliefs regarding behavior and control are important to accident analysis and the determination of causation. By gaining insight into such beliefs and taking those into account, accidents may be analyzed more realistically, and robust preventive measures may be devised and implemented.

The organization must effectively articulate the requirement that safe work is the only acceptable way to plan and carry out the production of work on site. Site supervision must reinforce that only safe work practices are acceptable to them as well as the organization. To achieve this, the organization must evaluate its safety and production subcultures to align them both to ensure that safe production is the governing consideration when planning and executing work. Senior management must ensure that this becomes intrinsic to the organizational norms, assumptions, beliefs, and values.

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