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Construction Safety

Construction Safety Opportunities and Challenges

Peter Furst | May 11, 2018

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There are a great number of papers and articles written on what people in the safety profession should or can do to improve the practice, influence safety performance results, impact worker well-being, and contribute to the organization's public image, as well as advance their careers and garner job satisfaction, to name a few. In reviewing some of these writings as well as listening to some safety practitioners' discussions, one finds everything from useful to useless information.

Some of the proposals or suggestions are easy to implement, while others are difficult. But many of the tools or techniques discussed or proposed are not effective and, more importantly, they are based on anecdotal information or myths. It is noteworthy that many do not seem to fit easily into situations safety practitioners face in the organizations they work in.

All of these articles may be well-intentioned, but some give rather poor advice, some regurgitate old myths and wrong-headed beliefs, and some certainly are useful but may be difficult to implement. A person entering an organization is usually hired for a purpose. They have to function within the parameters of the job expectations as well as the organizational and operational practices and procedures. They also report to a boss, who has goals, needs, and an agenda. They have to meet organizational goals and myriad other objectives. They are faced with major constraints and have to succeed in their circumstance, show competence, and achieve some success before they have the opportunity to challenge the status quo and be given the opportunity to implement meaningful change that can effectively impact safety performance.


Many organizations will allege that safety at their facilities is number one or at least equal to operation. See Figure 1 below. One must admit that safety results are the outcome of the operational practices, performance goals, worksite climate, organizational culture, and leadership's actions and behavior. In all likelihood, safety practitioners are expected to improve the organization's safety performance metrics with virtually little or no control over the operational function. They are generally relegated to acting as a safety cop and a trainer of safety standards and/or company rules.

What they can achieve largely depends on their knowledge, abilities, an understanding of the company's management processes, and how they go about performing their function and meeting the organization's expectations.

Performance as Stated - Furst - May 2018

Figure 1—Performance as Stated

If they are traditionalists, which means that their knowledge is basically knowing Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, having worked in the "safety field," and performed the traditional safety function of training, inspection, and enforcement, they will have little impact on the ultimate improvement of safety results. What happens in that scenario is that safety interventions are usually based on past losses. This practice takes historical data of negative outcomes and assumes that the future is going to have similar situations and workers are going to do the same things. These safety practitioners will try to eliminate similar future situations so that those same results do not occur.

Well, we all know that the future is never going to be exactly the same as the past, as conditions change, circumstances will differ, and, because of this, the implemented solutions will not be highly effective. This effort has done little about addressing the underlying risks that are going to result in future accidents, leading to a repetition of similar interventions.

Another potential approach may involve a review of a summary of field safety violations identified during inspections. This will indicate things workers were doing in the past that did not comply with OSHA safety standards or the company's safety program. This review generally occurs at some later time, usually annually. The interventions generally end up being some form of training. The rationale is that the workers somehow did not know the applicable rules and needed to be informed of them. This may be true in some cases but definitely not in all.

Let's analyze this in some greater detail.

The Worker Did Not Know

If this knowledge is important to the worker, being able to perform the work in accordance with company requirements, then maybe the hiring function failed to identify this deficiency. The worker should not have been hired and then deployed for the safety practitioner to find their deficiency. The obvious solution is in hiring practices and not in safety!

This also highlights another organizational deficiency in supervision. Since the worker works for a supervisor, that person should have identified the knowledge deficiency of the worker and done something about it so as to ensure that the task is prosecuted in accordance with the organization's prescribed practices or expectations and not wait for the safety practitioner to find and remedy the deficiency.

The Worker Forgot

If the knowledge is basic and should have been known to one working in construction, and assuming the worker is reasonably intelligent, then it begs the question, how could that worker forget something that is obvious? In this case and the one above, if there is a knowledge deficiency on the worker's part, then training may be useful and appropriate, but this should be implemented almost immediately upon hire or when assigned to a task that is different from what the worker was engaged in before. Workers should not be allowed to function with deficiencies as this increases the risk of negative outcomes.

What should be noted is that training is routinely given time and time again when knowledge deficiency is not the underlying cause of the safety infraction. This is rather foolish and a waste of finite resources. Safety standards are not complicated nor complex, and if workers are reasonably intelligent, then they should not easily forget them. So, that again begs the question: why do safety practitioners turn to training as the solution to many of their problems? Either they do not have a better solution or cannot identify the underlying problem.

Why Was this Not Identified or Discovered before the Safety Inspection?

Workers generally report to a foreman or someone else who is in charge of the work. This person generally is on-site and oversees the work. He or she should have identified the deficiency and dealt with it as soon as possible. Waiting for the safety practitioner to visit the site and find operational deficiencies is a rather poor management practice. This speaks to an operational system and practice that is unintegrated and misaligned.

Supervision is responsible for performance and should actively manage it when involved with planning, organizing, directing, staffing, or controlling the work. See "Supervisor's Role in Employee Performance." Safety practitioners would be more effective in contributing to the improvement of safety performance if they assist the supervisor in his basic operational management by providing input and guidance in how the risk of injury may be addressed and mitigated before work even begins.

Let's analyze this at a more comprehensive level. Why did the workers do what they did?

Knowledge issues. This has been reviewed above. What is important to note is that production is the responsibility of supervision, and any deficiency that may impact production should be noted, addressed, and resolved by supervisors. Allowing deficiencies to proceed with the expectation that someone else will fix it says volumes about an operational system that is fractured and prone to increased levels of risk with the potential for waste and loss.

Capability matters. Task assignment is the responsibility of supervisors. It is the foreman who assigns the task to the worker and manages his or her performance. The supervisor should know the task's requirement and the worker's capabilities when making task assignments. If the worker is not capable, then that supervisor has created the situation that will lead to a negative outcome and has failed in his or her expected and fundamental duty to the organization.

Perception concerns. It is a fact that a worker's perception evolves from a number of work-related factors.

  • Work climate—Climate perceptions are a critical determinant of individual behavior in organizations. Several empirical studies have examined the relationship of climate perceptions and a variety of variables such as job satisfaction, performance, commitment, psychological well-being, absenteeism, and turnover, as well as dysfunctional job behaviors, such as theft, harassment, and workplace violence. The four key components of climate include individual autonomy, the degrees of structure imposed on the position, reward orientation, and consideration, empathy, and support.
  • Leader-member exchange (LMX)—This theory deals with the relationship between leaders and their followers and how this affects their overall interaction, which leads to a host of attitudinal and behavioral outcomes. LMX deals with how supervisors interact and treat subordinates, whether the relationship is supportive, empathic, respectful, fair, open, etc. This leads to the creation of the work climate and defines worker perception. See "Everyone Is Responsible for Safety: The Myth and Solution."
  • Trust—Research indicates that positive employee perception regarding trust drives positive organizational outcomes. Supervisors and employees are more likely to be in agreement regarding safety procedures when they have relationships based on mutual trust. It is also an important characteristic of high-reliability organizations where safety is a primary integral component of operations. Trust has two dimensions: consistency and credibility. Trust is built over a period of time that creates an alignment between the values of management and those of workers.
  • Management actions and prognostications—The practices of upper management are those that are observed by the employee. Its commitment toward safety is reflected in the policies, practices, and procedures of operations. To some extent, management actions and prognostications shape employee perception of the organization's attitude toward them. How safety is treated and valued by management defines the safety culture and climate. These visible forms of support from management affect employee perceptions of safety. The safety practitioner would be well advised to work with upper and middle management to affect the resulting organizational culture as well as work climate, so as to help shape the resulting workforce's perception of the importance of safety.
  • Supervisory practices—Supervisory practices are actions of direct supervisors that are observed by the employee. An improvement in these practices results in an improvement in employee perceptions of safety because their actions are more likely to directly influence and reinforce practices and they will tend to have a more direct and significant impact on the employees' attitudes and behavior. The safety practitioner would be much more effective in working with supervision than in policing the workforce.
  • Coworker interaction—Coworker, peer, and crew socialization is an ongoing, day-to-day interaction that an employee has with others on site. Socialization affects the perception of the safety culture because it indicates to the individual employee how policies, procedures, and practices are viewed and carried out by their peers and accepted by supervisors. If the individual wants to be accepted by the group, then how the others view safety and feel about its importance to management will affect the individual's thinking and actions.

Motivation considerations. It is a fact that workers' motivation results from a number of job factors as well as their interaction with the supervisor. It is also a well-known fact that the supervisor has a great deal of influence over the motivation of the workforce. Unfortunately, most construction companies do not do a good job in educating their supervisors (foremen and superintendents) in some basic leadership, management, and human-relation skills. See "Employee Engagement and Organizational Performance."

In reality, safety is never really number one, nor is it equal to the production effort in many construction organizations. See Figure 2. This is due to the way management manages the project delivery process. In the quarter century that I was in construction operations managing fieldwork, the discussion virtually always revolved around "how much work was put in place." What were the barriers to being more productive, how could the schedule be accelerated, and many more conversations in the same vein. The project is generally driven by the project schedule, so speed and production are the priority.

Production Trumps Protection - Furst - May 2018

Figure 2 – Production Trumps Protection

How Is the Project Delivery Process Managed?

Basically, the answer to this question is planning and reasonable goals and expectations.

Planning impact. The plan for performing the task is tied to the project schedule. This is created by management and used to "drive" the project to completion. Planning generally deals with how the work is going to be performed and the flow and timing of resources. Generally, this is done by the project manager or superintendent. This planning is primarily focused on production and usually does not address the risks involving potential hazards workers may face when executing the work or the possible accidents that may result while they are carrying out their assignment.

This is probably the area that the safety practitioner would be most effective in impacting the organization's safety performance results. The practitioner should be involved in the planning effort so as to assist supervision in selecting the means and methods that best address the potential risks and deals with them. This would start by addressing the possible elimination of those risks involved. Some risks may be able to be eliminated, but certainly many will not. So, the next step would involve finding ways to mitigate or diminish the potential negative outcomes. In other words, reduce or minimize the severity of the potential outcomes.

Reasonable goals and expectations. Usually, supervisors determine what need to be completed within a given time and communicate this goal to the crew. The crew members are individuals with set capabilities. If the performance expectations are greater than an individual's capabilities, and there may be a perception of serious consequences in failing to meet them. This might cause the individual to engage in counterproductive actions that may achieve the production goal but take on a greater level of risk. This may not have any visible impact in the short term but may have a substantial impact at a later time.

I have heard many a superintendent state that worker safety is handled by the safety practitioner. That speaks to an organizational disconnect. Management somehow considers safety as something unique requiring specialized oversight and something the superintendent cannot or should not handle. That is why they have a safety practitioner to deal with worker safety. These mangers have designed an operational system that has imposed more barriers to performance than necessary and added operational waste to the system. To understand this at an operational elemental level, we need to look at key metrics in construction. These are production, quality, and safety.

Production is the responsibility of the supervisor. To manage this, the supervisor plans the work, manages resources, selects the means and methods, assigns people to do the work, directs the effort of the crews, solves problems, deals with production issues, controls the overall activity, and generally gets the work done. This same effort also applies to the quality of the work. This begs the question: why is safety left to others? The risk of injury should be addressed during planning, assigning the task, managing the workforces, selecting means and methods, solving problems, etc. It makes no sense to ignore exposure risks during planning the work or selecting means and methods as the risk of injury may inadvertently be incorporated into the project and then leaving it for the safety practitioner to discover and correct at a much later time.

Fundamentally, workers can perform the work in one way and meet productivity goals, or they can do it in a different way and not achieve the goal. They can perform the work in one way and achieve the quality standards, or they can do it in a different way and fail to achieve the quality standards. So, too, they can perform the work in one way and not get hurt, or they can perform it in a different way and get hurt. Productivity, quality, and safety are a function of how the worker performs the work. The underlying risk, if managed properly, enables the worker to be successful. If it is not, the worker may fail to achieve the goal in any or all of the organizational metrics.

The risk associated with failing to achieve production is managed by proper planning, effective expediting, procuring a competent supply chain, efficient marshaling of resources, rapid problem-solving, robust execution, and proactively dealing with disruptions. This begs the question: why don't safety practitioners try to become proactive and engage in assisting the planning and execution of the work rather than utilizing the ineffective method traditionally used in safety?

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