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Construction Safety

Impact of Organizational Systems on Construction Safety Performance

Peter Furst | February 5, 2021

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In traditional safety management, when the performance results are not in line with expectations, the focus turns to the workforce as the area to implement changes.

The organization then resorts to the typical traditional interventions known as the three Es: engineering (physical controls like handrails, signage, or personal protective equipment (PPE), education (this really amounts to training, which involves going over the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety standards, and/or the company safety program or work rules), and enforcement (generally, an inspection of the worksite for physical hazards or looking for unsafe actions by the workforce).

Some form of this general approach has been practiced as a result of the enactment of workers compensation laws by various states. The National Safety Council, founded in 1913 as an advocate for safety, introduced the three Es mentioned above. Since the industry's efforts in curbing worker injuries were less than stellar, the government enacted the OSHA standards in 1970, giving the government the ability to levy penalties for violation of the safety standards. Despite over a century of safety management intervention and practices by organizations, hundreds of workers still die, and hundreds of thousands more are injured at work.

Safety Management Practices

These basic safety practices are still being utilized in trying to stop or reduce accidents and injuries from happening for a number of reasons. Every time an organization implements some form of an intervention process or practice, it invariably achieves some level of improvement. Generally, the resulting improvements dissipate over time, and performance reverts to past practices with their resulting outcomes. In spite of this reality, these practices are still being used by many construction companies to manage safety performance with an eye to controlling accidents and reducing injuries as well as their associated costs. 

There are a multitude of reasons for this, many of which are endemic to the traditional practice of safety, the industry, and the general approach to problem-solving. The OSHA standards almost exclusively deal with controlling the physical conditions associated with the work performed on the worksite. So, the organization strives to bring the worksite into compliance by telling their workers of these standards and the applicable project work rules. They then engage in inspections to ensure that the workers are following the standards or rules. And, when a worker is found to be out of compliance, some form of training is utilized and/or sanctions are implemented. The thrust of this approach is to somehow "change" the worker's behavior.

The underlying thinking is that workers are the primary factor in controlling safety on the job. Workers should work "safely" as part of their obligation to the organization and to themselves. The basis for this thinking is that workers have complete control of how they go about doing their tasks. This is rather myopic thinking. It is true that to some extent, workers can, and should, perform their work in a "safe" manner. But there are a multitude of factors that may come into play that hijack this simplistic reasoning.

This is not a highly effective approach to addressing safety performance problems. The result is and has been that things improve in the short term but are not sustainable and outcomes revert to the "old" results and the process repeats itself. One would think that after doing the same thing, or similar things, a few times and not getting any substantial long-term improvement, it would dawn on these folks that it is not a very productive approach to dealing with their problems. This then should lead to an effort to find and use different means or methods with which to improve the workforce's actions, resulting in improved safety outcomes.

Alternative Methods

So, we need to start with an elemental view of operations. The construction company's undertaking is designed to produce a product in the case of the contractor and a service in the case of the construction manager. These organizations have systems (tools, equipment, policies, procedures, practices, etc.) with which to produce the output and have people (workers) who use the systems and activate the process so as to produce the output. It is a fact that, generally, workers have little overall control of any of this because management controls most of the functions involved. This has a profound effect on how the worker goes about performing their work.

Management does the planning, directs the process, coordinates the activities, selects the means and methods, sets the production targets, picks the workers, assigns the task, provides the tools, oversees the effort, deals with problems, provides solutions, etc. To some degree, every one of these factors has some inherent risk if they are not effectively integrated and not properly aligned in order to enhance operation and enable performance. The systems' shortcomings could hinder efficient and effective outcomes and/or result in a worker getting injured during the performance of their task.

It is during the planning stage that management has the best chance of identifying these risks that drive the performance discrepancies or worker injuries. By addressing and eliminating the system problems, the organization may potentially either eliminate the possible incident or ensure that, should an incident occur, the negative outcome is minimized to a tolerable level. Given this perspective, it would seem that this area is rife with improvement opportunities that are more effective and efficient in identifying sources of potential worker injures, taking the burden off the worker for dealing with this, thereby freeing up the worker to concentrate on being more productive. But, before getting to system improvement, we need to address some worker factors.

Worker Factors

There are two areas that need to be addressed: the workforce itself and the management of the workforce. The workforce factor has three subsets: the workers' physical, mental, and emotional capabilities. The physical capabilities involve such things as strength, dexterity, stamina, and skill. The mental capability is probably more critical and includes knowledge, understanding, intelligence, inquisitiveness, and mental processes. This is where emotions can play an important role in affecting perception, needs, wants, and expectations. These factors are in one way or another influenced by supervision and management processes.

There are a few management factors or practices involving the workforce that needs to be addressed to ensure that the organizational as well as operational systems will enable them to function at their level best. Management must ensure that the "right" worker is hired. To achieve this, it is necessary to have some form of job description that sets out the criteria for the worker's capability. If there are any deficiencies, these have to be communicated to their assigned supervisors so that they may provide the appropriate training, coaching, and oversight to bring the worker up to the organizational minimum baseline of competence.

Injuries can occur due to risks that may exist in the work environment. These risks should be identified during the planning stages of the work, and something should be done about eliminating them. If that is not possible, then thought should be given to reducing the adverse effect of those risks in the event of an incident. The workers must be alerted to the residual risks, and they should be provided with the appropriate information, tools, training, or know-how to effectively deal with the risks. PPE should not be the primary solution to this potential problem!

When it comes to task assignment, supervision must give thought to aligning the task demand with workers' capabilities. Fundamentally, this means assigning the "right" worker to the "right" task. Minor discrepancies should be addressed before the start of the work by bringing those deficiencies up to standard through discussion, modeling the behavior, and following up by some observation and coaching to ensure that the worker is able to perform the work safely as well as effectively. If the discrepancies are significant, then that worker should not be assigned to that task.

A major responsibility of management is to error-proof the systems and the work prior to task assignment to enable the workers to effectively and efficiently perform their assigned tasks. This includes such things as appropriate planning of the work, giving clear directions as well as providing appropriate feedback, ensuring that the appropriate resources are available, and eliminating the associated risk or reducing the adverse outcomes of those risks that cannot be eliminated. It is also important to provide appropriate information and to timely communicate it.

To foster worker competence, supervision should provide appropriate coaching as necessary. To perform this effectively, supervision needs to get to "know" their workers. This could involve empathic listening. Management could also strive to make the work interesting to foster involvement. A key driver of worker satisfaction with the work involves the work climate, which leadership has significant control over.

System Management

The organizational systems should be designed in such a way so as to ensure that the "right" person is placed in the "right" position (or assigned to the "right" task) and doing the "right" thing at the "right" time, as well as all of the time. This requires that all of the organizational systems such as policies, processes, procedures, and practices are aligned and integrated in such a way that the development of discrepancies are eliminated and workers are enabled to perform their work effectively as well as efficiently. This involves the functional elements of management: planning, organizing, directing, coordinating, actuating, staffing, controlling, executing, etc. This also entails elements such as policies, procedures, processes, and practices.

Policy is an organizational statement of intent that guides actions toward those that are most likely to achieve the desired outcome. Policy guides decisions and achieves salient and rational outcomes. Policy can foster both subjective and objective decision-making. Senior management usually engages in subjective decisions that must be based on the relative merits of a number of factors and, as a result, are often hard to test objectively. In contrast, policies that are operational in nature assist in objective decision-making and can be objectively tested.

Processes devised by organizations are a collection of related structured activities or tasks by people or equipment that in a specific sequence produce a service or product. Processes may be structured and repeatable or unstructured and variable. Business or operational processes may be visualized as flowcharts or a matrix purporting a sequence of activities with related rules or decision points based on process data. The benefits of utilizing business or operational processes foster customer satisfaction and improve agility to deal with change, operational efficiency, and the breakdown of barriers to the unimpeded flow of information.

Procedures—also known as standard operating procedure—are a set of step-by-step instructions compiled by an organization to help employees carry out complex routines, tasks, or operations. Embodied in procedures may be such things as checklists, work methods, protocols, code of conduct, or rules of engagement. The intent of procedures is to achieve efficiency, quality output, and uniformity of performance, while reducing discrepancies, errors, and failure to comply with the organizational intent, industry practices, or regulations.

Practices are the accepted means and methods employed by the organization to accomplish its business goals and/or operational objectives. Practice management encompasses multiple topics, including governance, financial aspects, staff management, ancillary service development, information technology, and marketing, to name a few. It is the accepted way for employees to behave and/or interact with others within or with those outside of the organization. Generally, organizations create accepted best practices as a guideline for employees to improve their work practices.

Management must ensure that all of the organizational systems are integrated so that they function optimally and are driving operations toward a unified goal. The systems must also function in such a way that they enable the workers to perform the work efficiently as well as effectively. They must also ensure that the operations are aligned with the business objectives to ensure cost-effectiveness as well as foster customer satisfaction.


In safety, there are tremendous opportunities to improve safety outcomes if organizations pursue a balanced approach to managing the business. They must ensure that they hire the "right" people, ensure they are placed in the "right" positions or assigned to the "right" tasks, provide them with the "right" resources, match their capabilities to the task demands, empower and encourage them, provide them with relevant feedback, and recognize them for their efforts and results. But, more importantly, pursue a systematic approach to integrate systems, align practices, harmonize procedures, coordinate processes, and reconcile policies so as to encourage and enable people to perform their work. Management needs to articulate a compelling vision; propose a robust strategy; promote a receptive, supportive, and empowering work environment; and foster and encourage safe work practices while recognizing and rewarding excellence in performance.

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