Expert Commentary

Debunking the 13 Myths of Construction Safety

Following the current "wisdom" can create mischief in action. Dr. Ron Prichard takes a look at many items of safety folklore that are masquerading as fact.


Construction Safety
May 2002

Be wary of hanging onto mental models for action just because they are popular.

―William L. Livingston

For the past few decades, safety has become a mantra, something that everyone supports and few are willing to scrutinize or criticize. However, following the advice of conventional wisdom only leads to a knowledge deficit—a growing gap between is believed to be true and what is actually is true in real application. Information reliability is the crucial element in decision-making.

This knowledge deficit is not restricted to the field of construction safety. The entire field of safety is laboring under many pieces of folklore masquerading as fact. A real gap in understanding has emerged, creating a barrier to the development of good information. Fortunately, the existence of many myths and misconceptions within the safety field is now beginning to attract attention.

This article provides a list of general safety myths. These commonly held beliefs about construction safety result in misconceptions that drive improper actions. Following the current "wisdom" can create mischief in action; an exercise in accelerated error. The reality, once expressed, becomes self-evident. As Dr. Rudolf Starkermann once said to me, "When you get to the top of the mountain and look down, the best path to the top becomes obvious." Below, then, are some paths that, while they look fine on the surface, can prove to be quagmires.

Myth 1: Safety Is Achievable

It is simply not possible to totally escape risk. Risks can be transferred or ignored, but they cannot be evaded. Risks involve the dynamic of the future, for which no certainty can exist. Even if you use the National Safety Council (NSC) definition of "safety" (the control of recognized hazards to attain an acceptable level of risk), it is still a nearly impossible proposition to achieve safety.

What is acceptable to one person is not to another, and this difference is not trivial. Even if you confine the determination of acceptability to the same person, what is acceptable one day in one situation might become completely unacceptable later. The even larger issue of how to address unrecognized hazards creates still more difficulty since many things are not recognized as hazards until after they manifest themselves. Clearly, safety is not achievable by any stretch of the imagination.

However, many companies have achieved zero accidents; it is a routine accomplishment throughout the United States. The record of the Construction Industry Safety Excellence Awards have shown that both owners and contractors can complete projects without any accidents through a combination of effort, attention, the proper actions, and even a bit of good luck. Thus, while safety itself is not achievable, having nothing bad occur and having no accidents are possible.

Myth 2: Safety Is a "Thing" or an Activity

The myth is that you go forth and do safety. In realty, safety is a result, an outcome of actions. Safety is what you get if things are done properly and events go as planned. Even for movie stunts, the definition of a task executed as intended is that it looks real and is safely done. Accidents happen because things occur that prevent the task from proceeding as intended.

Keeping the task on course as intended, even with disturbances, assures a safe task. Productivity, quality, and safety have always gone hand in hand. Preemption consists in designing systems to control the effects of disturbance to the intended process. Problems arise from attempting to deal with safety as a "thing" or an activity, for which responsibility is assigned to some party.

Myth 3: Safety Is Best Dealt with Separately, as Its Own Function

Separating safety as a separate function severs connections with the operating systems delivering results. With no connection to the process as a whole, safety options appear to be selected in an impulsive, random, and uncoordinated manner.

When safety is set up in its own department in an organization, personnel—consciously or unconsciously—transfer responsibility for safety to the department or individual with the title. Safety is seen as someone else's job. This separation creates a barrier, particularly for the flow of information, which only adds to the obstacles to be surmounted.

Myth 4: OSHA Compliance Generates Safety

Compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) ensures one thing: compliance with OSHA. If no accidents result, count your good fortune. Safety directors and insurance company representatives can cite insurance statistics showing that OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP or "STAR" ) sites in compliance with OSHA with average or worse-than-average injury rates.

OSHA has developed an extensive series of rules for situations, which are supposed to be linked to the prevention of accidents. However, no rulebook can ever cover every situation, a reality that even OSHA recognizes. Through the catch-all clause known as the "General Duty," OSHA essentially states that if a situation arises with hazards you recognize but which is not covered by a rule, you have the obligation to fix the problem as though a rule existed.

Myth 5: Those Construction Firms That Do Not Include Safety Have Lower Bids

Those who work safely have higher productivity, less worker turnover, and less waste. Thus, the contractor who produces the best safety results should have the best bid, since it has numerous competitive cost advantages. The safer contractor will have lower overhead costs, insurance costs, labor costs, and also superior management methods and work practices. Additionally, contractors with bad safety records are going to be recognized as dangerous by the workers, resulting in higher labor turnover. Turnover adds to the costs of the unsafe contractor, through increased costs for training, increased production costs due to lower skill levels of his labor force, or increased accidents. Research has shown that newer workers have a higher rate of accidents on the job. Where there is no process to gauge the full value of the strength of a contractor's process at project inception, the final tally will prove that it would have been cheaper to hire the safer contractor at the beginning.

Myth 6: Safety Programs Will Solve the Problem

Simply creating a safety program only results in possession of a program, not a solution. Having a process designed to deliver safety as an outcome, and managing the effort required to produce it, is significantly different than just having a safety program. It is entirely possible, and it occurs with too high a frequency, that construction firms have a safety program but not a safe record. OSHA requires a program, and is moving toward a mandate for the specific composition and organization of those programs. This action is driven by the mistaken assumption that mandatory components will somehow automatically deliver the desired results.

The idea came from the realization that those contractors who have good safety records also have good safety programs, as though they are directly, causally linked. Many consultants and organizations are willing to assist contractors in meeting this requirement. However, too often a program is developed simply to insure that some legal requirement is met. Thus, it is developed entirely separate (the same problem noted above) from the other business practices of the firm. The result: generally a large binder (or binders) with multiple chapters dealing with a variety of subjects sits on the shelf and gathers dust. The requirement is satisfied, but safety results do not improve.

Myth 7: Auditing and Site Inspections Deliver Safety

Auditing and inspections can provide an indication of what kinds of problems are occurring on the construction site and where they are happening. The effort of inspecting does nothing to change the reason for the problems discovered. It does not even provide information as to the root cause of the problem. An inspection, by itself, simply identifies that a deviation from intended results has occurred. Thus, an inspection program, by itself, delivers only reports of failure or nonconformance to desired results.

The same holds true for safety. Safety is an outcome, the result of processes and actions. Auditing and inspections can help improve the system, by highlighting weaknesses in and deviations from the existing process, but they add value only if the information they generate becomes a trigger for action and are acted upon. All too often, the inspections are conducted, the results tabulated, and then things go on the same as before. Nothing changed. This creates the illusion that things should somehow be functioning properly.

Myth 8: OSHA Statistics Measure Safety Performance

OSHA statistics measure non-safety. All OSHA measurements are based on the failure of the process; fatalities, lost workday, and recordable injuries, and the number of days lost per lost workday injury. Safety, under the OSHA statistics approach, is measured by the occurrence of events, known as mishaps or near misses.

What safety statistics currently measure is the occurrence of what you want to avoid -- the negative results or the rate of failure. These results, showing at what frequency and with what level of severity injuries are occurring, are really measuring non-safety. Since the negative thing did happen, it manifested itself on the job site, leaving a trace to be measured. Thus, "safety" statistics really measure non-safety.

Myth 9: Incentive Programs Produce Lasting Behavioral Changes and Improved Performance

Incentive programs are toxic waste for any social system. Over a period of time, they come to be seen as entitlements. At best, the connection with the intended behavior and the reward gets lost. At worst, it drives reporting of injuries underground, completely defeating the purpose. This myth is extremely popular as the "carrot" approach to motivating desired behavior. [Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).]

The idea behind incentive programs is that if people can receive special awards for safe behavior, that is what will be delivered. These programs are usually recognized by the presence of tangibles, such as belt buckles, hats, jackets, coolers, and other giveaways. This trinket approach to safety has a substantial constituency and is the source of much advertising dollars for industry publications. When things start to go bad, an incentive program is always the first thing chosen to try to affect change.

Incentive programs, at best, can affect moderate positive changes in behavior over the short run. If left in place for an extended time, the level of awards has to be increased to get the same effect. The connection between behavior and reward is gradually lost, reducing the effectiveness of any reward program. Some efforts to overcome the negative aspects are to make it a "group thing," whereby the incentive is given to all, but only if the entire group succeeds. If a reward becomes sufficiently significant, the primary incentive to is conceal negative behavior.

Why do companies persist in maintaining incentive programs proven to undermine morale, productivity, and the stated objectives? I have concluded that giving things away makes management feel good, look benevolent, and helps to strengthen a sense of power.

Myth 10: Disciplinary Programs Are the Key to Enforcement and Results

Getting rid of undesirable behavior does not automatically produce desired behavior. The only credible enforcement mechanism is individual ethics. Disciplinary programs can help promote desired behavior by punishing undesired behavior, but cannot be relied on as the sole remedy.

The same problem that exists with incentives exists for punishments. If the punishment is not administered sufficiently close to the negative behavior, the connection between behavior and punishment is lost and it becomes a demotivator. The emphasis on this approach often shows up on office walls in the familiar sign, "The floggings will continue until morale improves." Yet, history has repeatedly demonstrated that no amount of coercion is sufficient to gain more than a temporary modification of behavior.

It is simply not possible for everyone to have a supervisor to ensure that the rules are being implemented constantly. There must be reliance placed on the individual worker to do the right thing. This means that selection, hiring, training, and the compensation programs play as crucial a role in promoting desired behavior as the disciplining of those who commit infractions of the rules. Discipline therefore is simply another part of a coherent, complete system.

Myth 11: The Solution Lies in Finding Some New Technological "Fix"

No complex problem is ever resolved by the introduction of a new technology, particularly if the underlying social system remains undisturbed. On the other hand, adding a new technology without sufficient consideration of how it fits into the existing system can exacerbate an existing problem rather that solve it. By introducing more complexity without expanding the capacity of the system to manage it, a new technology can overwhelm an existing system, and create social problems among those using it.

For example, consider falls. Many new technologies exist, including the use of harnesses, shock-absorbing lanyards, retractable connecting cable reels, and a variety of other ingenious fall prevention mechanisms now on the market. Still, falls remain the leading cause of fatalities in construction. [Charles R. Culver and Jim Scott, "OSHA Examines Construction Fatalities," Safety +.]

Myth 12: Construction Is Too Complex and Dynamic

In reality, we know what causes accidents, and we know what needs to be done to effect change. We know how to solve problems. We know how to deal with complexity. We know how to develop controls and systems to deal with dynamic situations. We have access to advanced technology, enhanced information, and increasing knowledge about sociology and group dynamics.

The record also shows that achieving zero accidents is the result of a well-planned and coordinated effort. The problem is that none of these things is easy to implement. It takes a commitment to make change, money to make the changes, and a redistribution of power to those with responsibility to perform the task. The process is not simple (although many of the actions individually are) mainly because it involves removing the power of the prerogative of management.

Myth 13: Safety Associations Are Really Interested in Solving the Problem

There is an unacknowledged codependency between the associations that serve safety professionals and the problem of safety. As long as safety results remain stable and within an acceptable range, there is no general outcry for a solution, and the need for the safety profession remains. This is not meant as an indictment of the profession for doing what all professions do—advancing the interests of those within the profession. Just open any professional magazine and look at the editorials and member information. It's quickly apparent whose interests are being promoted, and rightfully so.

Conclusion

The construction safety industry is a multi-billion dollar per year business. However, it can be argued that it's not even a recognized profession. No governing body has responsibility for the field. No university majors in the subject are offered. No professional journal exists as a forum for the debate of ideas. The key construction safety words and terms have not been precisely defined nor standardized.

These all represent major weaknesses, and result in a void of good, reliable knowledge available to those trying to produce results in the field. The absence of so many critical elements clearly explains the failure of industrywide solutions to emerge as well as the prevalence of the 13 myths examined above.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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