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Construction Safety

Ensuring a Safe Construction Work Site

Peter Furst | October 19, 2018

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Traditionally, construction oversight in the field is generally done by walking around and checking to see how the work is progressing. So, construction safety follows a similar methodology. The person responsible for managing project safety inspects the work site for any physical conditions that may be hazardous.

The safety inspector pays particular attention to the areas where workers are engaged in their task to ensure that they are performing the work safely. The inspection is focused on ensuring that the work area, as well as the workforce, are compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety standards.   

Traditional Approach to Dealing with Work Site Safety

One of the primary methods that safety management is addressed on a construction work site is for the safety practitioner to walk the job looking for physical hazards as well as workers who are performing their work in a way that is deemed to be unsafe. The safety practitioner, if acting as the "safety cop," will ask that the physical hazard is addressed (corrected) and will also inform the workers of their unsafe behavior that needs to be changed.

The safety practitioner also has the option of "writing the worker up." The safety practitioner can approach this in a friendlier posture by discussing the hazardous issue and the concern that the worker may get injured if they continue working in what is deemed as being unsafe. The safety practitioner may make a suggestion as to how the worker could go about performing the work in a safer manner. This puts the interaction in a coaching mode with the intent of getting the worker's cooperation and compliance.

Though the reaction of the worker is going to be different in the various scenarios above, the ultimate expected outcome in all cases is to have the worker change their behavior from what it is at that point in time to an improved one going forward. This exchange will in all likelihood fail to achieve its intended outcome over the long haul for a large number of reasons endemic to the worker's knowledge, capability, perception, or motivation or the task demand as well as the design, physical conditions, worker's perception of the work climate, and the worker's relationship with the supervisor (foreman or superintendent). Also, there are the worker's operational practices and goals (performance or production expectations), as well as organizational policies, expectations, and/or politics, etc.  

Besides the inspection function that may highlight that some workers are working in an unsafe manner, traditionally some form of annual analysis of loss records also may be used to indicate unsafe work practices. This aggregation of worker unsafe behavior generally results in the organization's safety function providing some form of training to all the organization's workforce. It is training provided based on the findings of symptoms of the work process rather than a determination of the worker's knowledge, capability, perceptions, understandings, and/or motivation, as well as a thorough analysis of underlying causation factors.

Sources of Safety Discrepancies

So far, the discussion has been on what many organizations do to manage their workforce's safety performance by trying to affect a change in their work practices and/or behavior. But that approach is looking at only one aspect of the work process at the operational level. Fundamentally, construction firms build something, which constitutes their output. To create the output, they obviously need workers. But they also need systems (e.g., tools, equipment, planning, procedures, processes, controls, technology, etc.) with which to enable the workers to accomplish the output (see Figure 1).

Fundamental Operational Elements - Furst - October 2018

Operations is where the organizational output is created. The organization also has systems as well as people. The people at the organizational level are the managers, while the people in operations are primarily the workforce. The systems include a large variety of elements.

At the organizational level, they need a location out of which to work, tools, and equipment, as well as technology. The organization needs a structure, defined policies, procedures, and practices, as well as managers. The workers work in the operations section, which also needs systems. These include pretty much similar system elements as the organization except they are focused on producing the output. The organization also needs a marketing function as well as expertise in effectively managing, planning, organizing, leading, staffing, directing, and controlling to ensure the organization operates efficiently as well as effectively.  

From this discussion, we can appreciate that the risk of underperforming or failing to meet goals and objectives lies in both the systems as well as the people (see Figure 2). Systems invariably have subsystems. The system risks may come from misalignment within the subsystems. The subsystems' structures, processes, outputs, and outcomes may not be integrated. The interface between the subsystems with other subsystems may be out of sync. Over time, the environment may change, and so the system as designed may produce output that is inconsistent with the designed intent, thereby producing discrepancies (e.g., losses, incidents, failures, etc.).

The workforce also may contribute to the operational risk. This could be the result of a number of things. The more common ones are lacking experience, having poor work habits, not paying attention to what they are doing while working, deficiencies in capability, and lack of information or knowledge. Workforce risk might also stem from peer pressure, the relationship between the worker and the supervisor, mismatch between the worker's capability and the task demand, the work climate, or the employee's perception of the organization, to name a few. People have to utilize the systems in order to produce the output. The people-system interface might also contribute to the operational risk.

Operational Discrepancy Sources - Furst - October 2018

Both the people as well as the systems contribute to the operational (risk) discrepancies and so must be evaluated to identify the risks that produce defects in the following.

  • Output—constitutes the fitness of the product or service for its intended use, or the value it provides to the user.
  • Outcomes—if performed efficiently, effectively, and appropriately, then the project will be completed on time and within budget and at the acceptable level of quality, as well as safely, with little or no incident or worker injuries.

This article looks at the potential risks involved in the work process that may potentially lead to negative outcomes. These may result from the following.

  • Physical environment
  • Worker factors
    • Capability
    • Knowledge
    • Perception
    • Motivation
  • Operational systems
    • Design
    • Alignment
    • System-people interface
  • Organizational systems
    • Design
    • Integration
    • Effect on people

These can be addressed at either the worker or the system level. The worker discrepancies are easier to identify than those driven by the systems, but invariably both have to function at an optimal level. If the organization's focus is primarily in changing the worker's behavior, then the inspection and training practice typically performed is still an ineffective means of accomplishing that.

Dealing with Workforce Safety Discrepancies

To effectively deal with the risks faced by the workforce in performing their tasks as well as the way that they do perform their task, a process has to be designed to ensure that this is as risk-free as possible. This generally involves performing a comprehensive risk assessment of the work (see Figure 3) as well as defining the work's key task functions (KTF) involved in performing the work and then using those defined activities to train those workers who are not utilizing them when perfuming the work. This same list of activities should be used in performing inspection rather than the OSHA standards, which are virtually focused conditions rather than a task activity or focused work process and, therefore, ineffective in managing behavior.

Comprehensive Progressive Project Risk Assessment - Furst - October 2018

By performing a risk assessment before commencing work, the project staff identifies all of the risks they are aware of and plans the work process to address them. As subcontractors are added to the project, the known risks and the trades work plans are reviewed to devise a more comprehensive project safety work plan. The review is revisited before the actual commencement of the trades work to ensure all risks are identified and addressed in the work plan. Before the start of the day's work activity, an assessment is conducted to ensure that conditions have not changed, and the work plan is still effective in performing the work safely.

The next step is to review the work and tasks of the project to determine if any worker is exposed to any of the identified risks. If there is such an exposure, then supervision must modify processes or practices to ensure that the task can be performed safely. This information must be provided to the crew and its foreman so that they are aware of the residual risk and the safe method of performing the work.

To appreciate the reason for the traditional approach, to managing site work and its safe execution, we need to look at two major studies of accident causation. One done by Herbert William Heinrich in the 1920s and another done by Frank E. Byrd in the 1970s.

  • Mr. Heinrich looked at over 75,000 accident reports and found about 10 percent stemmed from conditions, while 88 percent resulted from worker's actions or behaviors.
  • Mr. Byrd studied over a million accidents and determined that only 5 percent were attributable to conditions, while 95 percent resulted from worker's actions or behaviors.

Since OSHA inspections are driven by standards compliance that primarily is focused on conditions, this seems to direct more attention to conditions than actions where the greater body of risk exists. This would indicate that the organization must devise a process for safe work execution (SWE). This entails carefully analyzing work activities to identify the KTF, then assessing the appropriate (risk-free) means of performing them in a much better method of identifying and managing job-site risks.

To illustrate this, consider the use of ladders, which is common in construction. The extension ladder is used to go from one level to another. It is set up once at a given location and used multiple times while in that location. If set up properly, then it should not create significant risk. The ensuring that this is done properly is the responsibility of supervision, and the installation needs to be checked as soon as possible. The greater potential risk of injury is in the use of the ladder. The only way to safely climb a ladder is to use the three-point contact (one leg and two hands or two legs and one hand, in contact with the ladder at all times). So, one of the KTFs in climbing ladders is to use the three-point contact at all times.

But, every time someone climbs the ladder and carries by hand something (tools) with them, they are violating one of the primary KTF of safe use of ladders. So every time a worker carries something while climbing the ladder, they are doing so at increased risk because one hand is engaged in carrying something, negating the continuous three-point contact requirement. This is even more important with step ladders, as they tend to become work platforms and generally require carrying tools or something else virtually every time one climbs a step ladder. Carrying something increases the likelihood of getting injured while climbing a ladder.

Importance of Supervision in Safety Management

The other thing to consider is that virtually everything required to be done on a construction work site is or should be known to supervision before a worker engages in it. This is because supervisors have access to the plans, are aware of the operational goals, and are the ones who plan and oversee the execution of the work. A thorough risk assessment must be done at this point in time to identify the risks involved in executing the work and, therefore, plan the execution of the work in such a way that either the risks are eliminated, or their outcome is controlled or modified to an acceptable level. Any remaining residual risk must be discussed with the workforce so that they are aware of it and know how to effectively deal with it while engaged in performing their tasks.

After having done the risk assessment and identified the safest way to do that work, the workforce must be informed of this. The next step is to review the KTFs with the workforce so as to ensure that everyone knows the best and safest way to perform the work. Having done that, supervisors must observe the workers while engaged in prosecuting the work to ensure it is being performed properly in accordance with the KTF inspection checklist.

The next step in this process involves operant (worker) conditioning. Conditioning is a type of learning that links some sort of stimulus or trigger to a human behavior or response. In operant conditioning, the consequences that come after a behavior contribute to either changing, extinguishing, or sustaining the operator's behavior.

  • Extinguishing consequences make the stimulus that is driving the existing behavior undesirable to the actor. This diminishes and eventually extinguishes the undesirable behavior.
  • Changing (modifying) consequences are stimuli that cause the actor to start or continue to engage in a behavior that is different from the one they were engaged in before. This generally starts with some form of constructive feedback that informs the actor that their present behavior is not acceptable, and a different behavior is suggested to replace the undesirable one.
  • Sustaining consequences are stimuli that reinforce the engagement in the desirable behavior and cause the actor to continue acting in the preferred fashion.

There are different forms of consequences: feedback, tangible things, and those stemming from the work process, to name a few. Each type of consequence has its use or applicability.

  • Feedback can take many forms, such as verbal, written, graphic, etc. It can be delivered by different people, such as peers, supervision, others in management, etc. It can be positive or negative. Feedback is the most versatile form of consequence.
  • Tangible things include money or rewards, gifts, prizes, things, etc. They can involve activities such as luncheons, get-togethers, public recognition, privileges such as seating locations, parking spaces, etc.
  • Work process consequences come from the work itself. Performing the work in the prescribed way may make it easier, take less time, or require less effort. Devising the task in such a way that it can only be done in one way results in it being error proof. The beauty of work process consequences is that it is provided to the worker automatically every time they engage in the behavior, and it also demands less feedback from the supervisor, thereby freeing them up to do other management functions.

The next element of the SWE process is to provide the workers with feedback on how they are doing. If any of the workers are found to be performing the work in an at-risk way, then those workers must be given constructive or corrective feedback. The intent of this feedback is to encourage workers to change their present behavior to one that is appropriate and safe. This feedback is provided to the worker in a sufficient quantity for as long as it is necessary in order to affect a change in their behavior to the accepted method.

Another deficient area in traditional safety management involves focusing almost exclusively on dealing with workers who are engaged in unsafe behavior. Feedback can be used to change the behavior of workers, but it can also help sustain the desired behavior after the change has occurred. Feedback affects workers in the following ways.

  • Increases or sustains behavior
    • The worker gets what they want.
    • The worker avoids receiving what they don't want.
  • Extinguishes behavior
    • The worker gets what they don't want.
    • The worker does not get what they expect to receive or want.

Workers may revert to their "old habits" of working unsafely due to changes in work conditions or any number of other factors. This is when "appreciative" or reinforcing feedback comes into play. This involves periodically recognizing the worker for continuing to perform their work in the expected fashion. This feedback helps to motivate the worker to continue working in the prescribed manner and so sustains the "safe" behavior over time.  

There are other factors regarding consequences that are important to the effectiveness of the SWE program. It is important to provide far more positive consequences than negative ones. Everyone must believe that they have an equal opportunity to receive consequences so that there is a fairness element to it. The following are other factors regarding consequences.

  • It can be positive or negative.
  • It can be given immediately or sometime in the future.
  • The receipt of the consequence can be certain or uncertain.
  • The consequence should be meaningful rather than trivial.

It is important to note that for maximum effectiveness, the consequence needs to be positive and given as soon as possible after the behavior is observed. The people who may receive the consequence must be certain that they will receive the consequence regarding their behavior and that it will be meaningful rather than trivial.


To improve the safety of the work site, the organization must engage in a process that will create as risk-free a work environment as possible, as well as causing the workforce to perform their work in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. As far as safe work is concerned, this requires devising a program and process that will lead to the desired outcome. This necessitates conducting a thorough risk assessment of the work prior to the commencement of field operations.

Given the site conditions, every task involved in the project must be evaluated for the safest and "best" way to prosecute them. This evaluation will generate the key task function for every task on the project. The workforce should be informed of these findings and asked to perform their work accordingly. These KTFs should then be used to inspect the work to ensure that the workforce is actually performing as expected.

To ensure that the work is being done as safely as possible, supervision must engage in "conditioning" the workforce to perform the work as expected. This involves providing the different types of consequences in which to drive the appropriate behavior. This might involve the extinguishing of inappropriate behaviors, providing guidance through constructive feedback as to what the appropriate behavior should be. And then to ensure that the worker continues to engage in the suggested behavior, supervision ought to provide appreciative or reinforcing feedback.

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