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Construction Safety

Correction Conversations Can Improve Construction Safety

TJ Lyons | September 14, 2012

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Businessman pointing out something to construction worker

I thought I knew everything until I tried to fold a fitted sheet. The result was horrid, and yet I was reluctant to ask my wife whether there was a clever way to do it. Although I looked perfectly competent to fold a fitted sheet, I was not. I was simply untrained and trying to succeed.

This column will focus on the need to ensure that those we ask to do construction job site safety inspections are qualified to do so. Of course, they need to be able to observe problems, to see what's required. But that ability to identify issues must be coupled with the skills safety auditors need to motivate people they don't know—a very tough task indeed.

A former employer used a software package for completing work site inspections to help focus and predict where to look for problems. One day I was reviewing a safety manager's inspections and discovered that he never commented on whether equipment had a roll-over protective system (ROPS). The checklist prompt was "ROPS provided?" At first, I thought that maybe he missed that one. Then I thought maybe he didn't know what ROPS was, and that confirmed something I had been thinking for a long time. Often, those in the field we count on for searching out hazards are unable to recognize them.

Two things are closely related to a successful inspection program at your firm. The first is frequent and effective inspections, for they will drive down incidents by driving out unsafe conditions and acts. The second is the need to motivate those who can make things safer. I refer to this as "Working with the Workers," something I learned early in my career. On one project, the condition of power cords was horrid. After inspecting dozens, it was obvious that I was not making progress, so I asked that, every Friday, each worker look at the cords they work with, and if the cords were no good, toss them out. However, I did not give any tips on how to perform the inspection—run your hand along the cord (unplugged), look for cuts, and read the stamp on the conductor to determine whether it is heavy duty. By neglecting to do so, I was not "working with the workers."

Some Tips on Working with the Workers

Never wear jeans when inspecting a site. Ties will not help. When you look at two guys chatting and one has jeans and the other khakis, there is a natural inclination to see the fellow with the chinos leading the conversation. For anyone to listen to you, you must not only know a bit more but also appear to have some semblance of authority. That is why three cops in uniform can control the crowd at a Justin Bieber concert. I visited one project where the safety coordinator was wearing jeans and a Megadeath concert T-shirt. His ability to garner any respect from the workers in the building was shot before he opened his mouth.

It's How You Say It

A recent conversation struck home. Someone lamented that whenever the safety inspector came by to chat, the workers would listen for the formula speech, "Great, clean worksite and well lit, too … but…." In our efforts to be nice when making observations, we can trip up with delivery.

Here's a hint. Say you see a stairway, and no one noticed that the handrails were missing. Climb to the top and ask the superintendent to join you. Standing at the top, looking down, say, "There's something here you need to consider. What if you trip on the first step? What are you going to grab?" No more words are needed, but recommend installing a set of rails down the center so the rails are not in the way when the stairwell walls are painted. Promise to send along the information on a cheap insert that other superintendents have used that can easily be installed and removed. You highlighted a concern, and it will be corrected because the supervisor now recognizes the hazard, how it could result in injury, and how his peers already recognize and take care of the problem.

Figure 1: Unprotected Stairwell and Temporary Protection

Unprotected Stairwell and Temporary Protection

You Will Always Be Tested

Start a conversation with your goal: "My job is to keep you guys out of trouble" to blunt the first volley. Consider an example. During a site audit, a unique way of protecting rebar was discovered. You see this clumsy approach a few times a year, and it speaks to minimal concern on the contractor's side, tied closely to increasing his or her profit.

Figure 2: Inadequate Impalement Protection

Inadequate Impalement Protection

We discussed this with the superintendent, who disagreed that this was inadequate and made the "Just 'cause you ain't seen it before don't mean it's wrong" argument. My reply was simple: "So, that's your answer?" He was testing. I went over, pushed down on the rebar, and the wire slid. I explained that rebar covers need to actually protect you and are based on dropping a 250-pound weight from 10 feet above the rebar. That got his interest, so I added a past case where someone once fell on poorly protected rebar just like his and how badly that person was injured as a result. Proper rebar caps were installed the next day. Check out an OSHA interpretation letter on rebar caps.

Make It Interesting and Workers Will Listen

Always try to start the "Correction Conversation" with a crew from the same trade. Explaining the concern to one person is nice, but a group—powerful. Often, what you know, they don't, but more importantly, they tend to listen if what you say is interesting. We call that conversation, and there is no better tool.

An example will illustrate the point. During a recent inspection, I spotted some metal-halide (MH) bulbs/fixtures in a pile with a group of electricians alongside. So, I picked one up from the heap and started to unscrew the bulb. Without any prompting, one of the workers came over, and I started a Correction Conversation.

A few years ago, a bunch of parents were watching their kids play basketball in Seattle. One of the kids hit an overhead light with the ball. It had a bulb like this one, and an hour or so later, 15 people had to go to the emergency room, suffering from burned corneas.

By then, his friends had come over, interested in what we were doing and discussing. I explained how some types of MH bulbs have a shield to protect you from UV light, and sometimes that shield fails, but the light still blazes away, burning the eyes of anyone nearby. Another 2007 example occurred in Oregon.

I then went over the types of bulbs that should be used with a tip. "O"-type bulbs are okay, and "S" bulbs are satisfactory, but "R" bulbs are just plain wrong. R-type bulbs are the one of concern. As I spoke, I tried to spot the marking on the bulb describing its type. It was an R type. So, I handed it to one of the nearest workers and asked whether he could make out the type. He replied, "That's an R!" with just a hint of discovery. I then showed them how to see whether the filter is broken (turn the light off and on, and it will not relight). Later that day, I sent a nice summary put together by the Department of Buildings in New York City so they could use it at their next toolbox talk. See the U.S. Food and Drug Administration report.

Figure 3: Metal-Halide Fixture

Metal-Halide Fixture

Sometimes the small, interesting facts can attract the attention of those in the trades. Use that advantage to spark conversations, and then you can talk about some of the topics you truly need to address, for you have established trust.

Some hints on the Correction Conversation.

  • Try to make it personal. "Seriously, kneeling on the floor for the day is going to turn your knees into jelly in a few years. Try to work on a table or something."
  • Tie the activity or condition to pain. "So, they think this night watchman dropped his flashlight, and when he went to pick it up, the rebar went right through his eye as he bent down. That's where they found him in the morning."
  • Make comparisons. "Well, yes, the cable clamps might work, but the fist-grips kind are actually the ones that should be used. See these here … those are the right ones … they look like two fists gripping like this."
  • Shift the blame (we all appreciate that). "Not sure who set this up, but those cable clamps are on upside down. They won't hold much that way. Just flip them over and torque them again."
  • Tie the correction to a tip. "Riggers have an old saying, 'Never saddle a dead horse.' See, this part of the cable-clip is the saddle; this is the dead end of the cable. Never put the saddle on the dead end of a line."
  • Connect the correction to something they can share. Take the time to pass along any additional information you can. Keep it simple, and whenever you can, use a graphic. If the concern is not having an eyewash station near a concrete pour, send a photo of a worker, focusing on what his eye looks like after a concrete burn, for them to post, such as this safety alert.
  • Share a story. "I can beat that!" This phrase continues conversation in bars across the world and often marks one's headstone. Relate a story you have heard or something you witnessed and then stop talking! Someone else will share something he or she has seen. One-upmanship is a skill we all enjoy, and it keeps a good Correction Conversation alive.


In closing, the days of the safety guy cutting a cord must be stopped. That is pure power and enjoyed only by the unskilled inspector. An effective one will take a poor cord and inspect it with the workers. The simple act of trying to read that tiny print and asking for help from the worker ("Hey, can you read this?") will tie the conversation to the corrections. It's important to move from telling people what is wrong to showing them what is right.

  • Take the time to train your safety inspectors in both what to look for and how to explain those hazards to the workers—work with the workers.
  • At every opportunity, walk projects with your inspectors and supervisors so they can see the hazard you fear, understand how it can hurt them, and make suggestions on how to eliminate the hazard on their site.
  • Your inspector isn't always an expert, but he or she can still make a positive impact in correcting and teaching the workers about hazards and thus prevent recurrence.
  • Work with your inspectors so they can have those effective Correction Conversations with the trade workers and be recognized as someone whose task is to keep good people out of trouble.

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