Skip to Content
Construction Safety

Determining a Construction Site's Character by Listening

TJ Lyons | February 28, 2020

On This Page
Group of construction workers of different ages

My last column was based on how to walk a project and get a feel for its safety character. Not safety "culture" but the feel of the site. Many of the larger construction firms claim effective safety cultures, but when you look and listen closely, it's just doing business as usual.

I have found that disappointing in my own career. My favorite example is when markets take a downturn and unbillable safety staff is targeted for layoffs. Those regressive firms retreat to the second definition of "safety first" to thin their ranks. But that is another column.

The trigger for these two columns is based on a recent site walk in Manassas, Virginia. Hoffman Construction is putting together a building and their efforts toward caring for their workforce are simply remarkable. Kudos are owed before I go on.

Construction Worker Taking a Picture - You are looking at the person responsible for your safety

Following are some simple tips on gathering true feedback from those actually doing the work and those overseeing it. There are two tiers of any service business. Tom Freihofer of Friehoffer Baking in Albany, New York, said it best: "There are two types of workers in my company. Those who make the cookies and those that help those that make the cookies."

In the United States, a common business practice is to find an insurance provider for your project, negotiate a price for coverage, and perhaps agree to get together at the next renewal. The more progressive firms will ask that insurer stop by to take a look at their project. A "tell" when looking at any firm is their reluctance to embrace those that help protect them. Some firms would rather their insurer, not unlike like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), keep their distance.

That is our first barrier to success on a project. Insurance risk managers and safety consultants are a walking lesson learned. They have seen how other contractors make mistakes and dug in their pockets and yours … to pay for those errors. Ask them to visit. If there is fear in what they may find, that's opportunity. If someone in your group is reluctant, that's their character. If they have been working for that contractor for several years, that's the character of the company.

Let's Walk a Site—but Do Your Homework First

If you are a risk manager, experienced or not, you will learn about a site's character on your first call to schedule the visit. If the site is expecting your call, then operations had done their job. It's a good tip that communication between the corporate folks and the site is effective.

When scheduling a site walk, always work through the firm's risk manager, project executive, or project manager. These latter two run the work and are responsible for the success or failure of their project. One or both are who you want to walk with. Their answers and their tone will provide the insight you are looking for. Is safety a concern of theirs? You will understand later in this column that often, it is not.

Once you have arranged for an hour or so to walk the project, do some homework before you arrive.

  • Run a Google search for "accidents, incidents, claims, environmental, fatality, and injury." You need to understand the history of the site (former Brownfield?) and any risk-related suits or occurrences.
  • Go to and choose Establishment Search and run the OSHA history of the general contractor and each of their subcontractors. The amount of inspection is not as important as OSHA inspections where violations were applied. That indicates the severity of what they found. Often the record will show the visit was based on an occurrence (serious fall) or worker complaint. You need to know this before arriving. If the previous accident conditions are something you see again, that's an indicator of that site's culture.

Before you park, as you near the site, take a look around.

  • The neighborhood—good or bad?
  • Graffiti?
  • Indications of something buried below … like a subway stop?
  • Overhead power lines?
  • An adjacent construction site?
  • Is there a train track nearby or a school?
Child standing behind an orange fence in front of a construction site

Next, drive the closest streets surrounding the physical site.

  • Does the contractor have a manned gate?
  • Is the name of the owner of construction project (and the firm building it) prominently posted? Often general contractors are reluctant to identify their firm at the site, usually based on conflicts with organized labor or their reluctance to see their name on the fence when the ambulance and press is parked outside.
  • Is the fence intact or torn? What you see is a reflection on the care and control of that site.
  • Now look at the entire site. This "once over" will give you an idea of that site's character.
Two images construction site with fence and construction trash

When you have arrived, after introductions and before walking the site, let the project manager know you "want to get a better picture of safety planning" and let him or her explain some of the fundamentals. Following are things to tactfully ask, things to look at, and things to listen for.

  • Get a feel for how the budget was put together and how much time was allocated to safety. Full- or part-time? Or is that answer unclear?
  • Ask how often orientations are done, how they are done, and how long do they last? Anything less than an hour should be of concern.
    • Ask the project manager (PM) to see what tools are used for the orientation. Is it a well-torn handout that's just passed around and workers sign that they read it? Whether they can read or read English matters. That's a common problem and rarely discussed.
    • Are there tools around that they will use? Examples of gloves and fall protection gear they use. If not, orientation is on the weak side.
    • Ask who is doing the orientations. If that's the responsibility of "safety," that's okay, but if the project engineer is doing them or workers sit and enjoy a video, that's not the right approach.
    • Carefully ask if your host stops in during orientations to discuss his or her hopes for project safety. That answer is your best gauge of their feeling of responsibility of their project.
  • Ask when they have weekly safety meetings with all the workers. Often, the site managers will defer that to the safety staff to lead. Nothing is more damaging when safety is seen as something special but addressed by others. Charlie Moorecraft is famous for his thoughts on safety managers: "Imagine someone that's thinking that someone else is responsible for your safety!"

As you walk the construction site, a great manager will not only find the time to walk with you but ask what you think. They will want you to compare their site against their peers. A great PM is a proud one. As they take you on your tour, do the following.

  • Ask these managers when the last time they sent a note to someone for doing something great or at least recognized someone in front of the crews. That is care and engages a team.
  • Get the feel for how your host logs their inspections. Or don't they? If he or she proudly claims that dozens are done every week, let them know that's terrific. Then ask if they know what those inspections contained. It's not how many inspections are done, it's what is found on the inspections.
  • What is the most common unsafe thing they find? How do they address something they see that's wrong? Now is the time to listen. If they start with how they dress the person down, that's important. If they speak with the worker and have a simple "correcting conversation," that goes a long way toward a great project.
  • If the project manager palms you off to walk with the super or safety rep, just make a note of that. He may be very busy and trusts his subordinates or simply doesn't care.
  • When you are done with your walk and say your goodbyes, listen for the PM to ask, "Anything of concern I can help get corrected?" This is one of my key interchanges. If they are not interested in what you found, well, that's why we listen.

As you wrap up your visit, take the time to give them some praise. Don't overlook the things that are being done well. If personal protection equipment use is not a concern, tell them. If it's one of the cleanest sites you have seen in a while, ask them, "What are you doing that works so well?" This gives them a chance to show some pride. Let them talk. That's how you build trust.


I watch and listen for three things when visiting any site. Each provides me the information I need to form my risk opinion. Doing my homework, that initial visit, and those conversations will color how I look at the job until it's done.

  • How the project manager reacts to a risk visit is the most important character indicator you will discover. I have been on a project where the site manager has scolded his safety staff for reaching out to the insurer for advice. When safety staff goes off-site for safety training, they are not allowed to charge that time to the project. That same team racked up a nice amount of daily safety inspections. Near the top of the list was the office site engineer—who did not even have a badge to get into the building. Of the most serious near misses for the year, both occurred on that one site.
  • The PM that gets in front of new workers to show them what he or she is looking for is a champion. Nothing speaks louder than those at the top asking for the help of others. These are the same people that know the name of those working for them and a little bit about their families. His or her engagement sets the character of that site.
  • The true test of you, as a risk manager and how your value is recognized by the site, will be provided when the project manager asks, "When can you come back?"

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.