Expert Commentary

The Impact of a Positive Work Environment on Construction Safety

A while back, I had the occasion to visit a large construction project where the owner had implemented an owner-controlled insurance program. I met with the broker's full-time site safety representative, who was working with the general contractor/construction manager's (GC/CM) site safety coordinator, as a team, to create a positive "safety" work environment.


Construction Safety
September 2019

They proposed to the owner to utilize a project safety control system, which they said would reduce the potential for accidents and losses. They were going to implement all the traditional safety interventions along with the following specific additional elements.

  • The safety team (broker's site representative and the GC's site safety coordinator) were going to make daily site tours to identify safety violations. To make this an effective process, they intended to conduct their tours at different times of the day so that workers would not be able to anticipate the visit. Upon identifying any major infractions, they intended to meet with the project superintendent shortly thereafter to discuss the issues and have him take immediate action to remedy the situation in question.
  • A member of the safety team was going to attend the weekly site subcontractor's coordination meetings and report on the site safety violations found during the previous week. They intended to discuss the circumstances around major infractions and get commitments from the foremen of the various subcontractors to ensure such a possible situation would not arise in the future.
  • Accidents were going to be investigated thoroughly and reported on at the weekly coordination meetings. They intended to meet with the subcontractor's foreman whose worker was involved to ensure that the circumstances were thoroughly reviewed so that steps could be taken to ensure it never happened again.
  • If the issue was serious enough, someone from the GC/CM's management would be invited to attend this meeting as well. They were planning to have an all-site stand-down after a major accident and conduct a safety meeting in conjunction with that stand-down.
  • They were going to hold orientation meetings for all newly hired workers to stress the importance of safety. New hires were going to be given a special sticker to apply to their hardhats so that everyone would know they were new to the site and, therefore, be on the lookout so as to offer them assistance and guidance as needed. The sticker would be removed after 30 days.
  • They were going to require everyone to wear hardhats, work boots, long-sleeve shirts, safety glasses, safety vests, and work gloves. Anyone working on site caught without some of the required personal protection equipment (PPE) would be given replacements, and the respective contractor would be charged a penalty, based on a schedule, which would be distributed to all subcontractors prior to the start of work. This requirement was to apply to all people who had any reason to walk onto the jobsite as well. Therefore, anyone coming onto the site had to report to the job trailer, sign in, and be issued the required PPE before accessing the worksite. The equipment would be returned upon leaving. Visitors would also be accompanied by one of the project personnel.
  • The broker's representative was going to issue a monthly safety performance report with a frequency and severity rate indicating that month's results, as well as include a graph of the monthly historic project loss results along with the statistics from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics for comparisons. The intent was to make the owner as well as the general contractor and any subcontractor working on site aware of the "state of project safety." This report was also going to be reviewed at the following subcontractor's meeting so that all foremen would be made aware of the project's safety results. They expected this to highlight safety performance and keep everybody's attention focused on safety.
  • The safety team was going to hold monthly lunchtime talks dealing with some relevant safety topic at a predetermined area. All workers were going to be required to bring their lunches there so as to avail themselves of this information. All foremen would be required to attend and submit a list of their attendees to the safety team. These meetings were also going to feature (recognize) any subcontractor, foreman, or worker who had initiated some form of effective safety process or practices that were deemed noteworthy so that others on site could learn about it. They were considering providing lunch on a quarterly basis.

This approach is a rigorous application of the traditional safety management practice with what seemed to be additional reporting of the state of worksite safety. I am sure that this approach would have garnered some positive results, albeit somewhat short of expectations. All one has to do is look at the findings of a study conducted at the Western Electric Plant in Cicero Illinois back in the 1920s. This study suggested that the novelty of being research subjects as well as the increased attention from superiors could lead to temporary increases in worker productivity, or in this case, what might amount to safer actions in response to their awareness of being observed or studied. The review of this study became known as the "Hawthorne Effect."

Safe Work Execution

To improve operational performance as well as safety outcomes, the organization must find an innovative approach to achieving this goal. An effective way to get significant improvement in worker safety is to look at the issue holistically. Devise a process for safe work execution. This requires a thorough and careful analysis of the risks associated with the operational plan as well as the anticipated means and methods selected for use. This also entails carefully analyzing work activities to identify the key task functions (KTF). (See my article, "Ensuring a Safe Construction Work Site" [October 2018].)

Make Proper Task Assignments

Evaluate the task’s demand, then select a worker whose capabilities, knowledge, and experience are aligned with that task’s requirements. Provide any required information, training, tools, and/or equipment so as to enable the worker’s success.

Improve the physical conditions under which the workforce will be working; remove as much of the risks associated with the work environment as well as the planned work practices as practical, work on reducing the impact of risks that could not be eliminated so as to reduce their potential negative outcomes, focus on ensuring that the workers are aware of the KTF, then, using the KTF as the inspection checklist, ensure that work proceeds utilizing the KTF and sustaining it over the long haul. Supervision must apply operant conditioning to effectively manage work behavior. This is another salient factor that motivates employees in the work environment or climate.

The Effect of the Work Environment on Performance

Studies have been conducted in investigating the process by which an employee's perception of the organizational environment (work climate) is shaped and how this relates to job involvement, task effort, and work performance.  

Influence of Work Environment on Performance
Influence of Work Environment on Performance - Furst - September 2019

Unleashing the power of human potential in the workplace through the creation of an involving and motivating organizational work environment has been acclaimed as a key source of an organization's competitive advantage in business. It is a researched fact that when employees perceive the potential for satisfying their psychological needs in the workplace, they invariably engage themselves more completely and invest greater time and effort in the organization's work, which results in superior performance. In a way, this creates the linkage and alignment of the employees' goals with that of the organization.

Influence of an Engaging Work Environment on Quality of Performance
Influence of an Engaging Work Environment on Quality of Performance - Furst - September 2019

The organizational climate and, more particularly, the work climate refer to how an employee perceives, interprets, and "feels" about the overall ambiance of the workplace. This generally involves the employee believing that the organizational processes are designed to create outcomes that are in line with those of the employee. And, secondly, the employee's relationship with peers—the supervisor, in particular, and management, in general—are supportive of their goals and objectives. The employee's perception of the climate translates into a psychological and emotional state of safety for self-expression and open contribution, with the expectation of fair treatment and respect.

Climate (Work Environment) Factors Influencing Motivation and Behavior
Climate (Work Environment) Factors Influencing Motivation and Behavior - Furst - September 2019

Some of the elements of climate that are more likely to be characteristic of the emotional sense of safety include the extent to which the following occurs.

  • Management and supervision are perceived to be open, flexible, and supportive. A supportive management style allows subordinates to try and possibly fail without fear of reprisals. The employees feel that they have some modicum of control over their work and the means and methods available to them to use in accomplishing it. Employees feel empowered to experiment with new, innovative methods of achieving their goals or apply creativity solution to problems or barriers encountered while engaged in their work. In contrast, inflexible management or rigid control over work methods is likely to signal that management has little confidence in employees' abilities to carry out job duties without intense and vigilant supervision. This would go a long way in creating an oppressive work climate, demotivating the employee, and extinguishing engagement and involvement on the employee's part.
  • Organizational roles are clearly defined, and expectations are reasonable and established jointly. Supportive management style allows subordinates to try and fail without fear of reprisals. It also gives them control over their work and the methods they use to accomplish it. Employees can experiment with new methods of achieving their goals and bring their creativity to bear on work problems they confront. In contrast, rigid and inflexible management control over work methods is likely to signal that management has little trust in employees or confidence in their abilities to carry out job duties without close supervision. The control, freedom of choice, and sense of security engendered by supportive management are likely to enhance motivation and induce greater job involvement.
  • Employees feel free to express their true feelings, express their opinions, and/or offer suggestions without fear of ridicule or negative consequences. Supervisors encourage and welcome workers voicing their opinions and sharing their concerns.

Each of these proposed indicators of perceived psychological safety gives the employee a sense of being respected and valued for who they are and what they contribute to the job. The control, freedom of choice, and sense of security engendered by supportive management are likely to enhance motivation and induce greater job involvement.

The organizational and work climate is a cognitive representation of how the employees perceive and interpret the organization's culture, values, leadership, vision, management, strategy, systems, politics, nature of the work, performance expectations, relationship with the supervisor, and how these align with their personal beliefs, values, and expectations. The closer the features of the job are to the employee's desire for growth, respect, interesting work, autonomy, fair treatment, etc., the more positive the employee's emotional response. This then translates into satisfaction, which shapes and drives the employee's motivation, involvement, and performance, as well as contribution to the organization.

It is important to study work climate factors because it is the employees' perceptions of the value and desirability of the climate that drives attitudinal, motivational, and behavioral responses. The relationship between leaders and followers is known as leader-member exchange. It is a researched fact that leaders exert a lot of influence on how the follower perceives the organizational as well as work climate. It is also a fact that how the leaders interact and treat direct reports colors the relationship between them. This response varies somewhat due to each individual's expectations and personality. So, in a way, the supervisor must have a good understanding of each employee in order to manage the group effectively. The management style of the supervisor, as well as the personality of the follower, tend to affect the quality of the leader-member exchange.

Conclusion

The results from many research studies provide strong empirical support for the proposed theory that the work climate impacts many positive outcomes in the work environment. The study demonstrates that a general organizational climate can influence perceptions of a work climate, which makes employees feel safe to get involved and participate fully in their work through their effects on knowledge and motivation. These findings provide valuable guidance for researchers and practitioners trying to identify the mechanisms by which they can improve employee engagement (safe work behavior) in the workplace.

Many studies have shown that the work climate and job involvement influence employees' tendencies to exert greater effort for longer periods of time. It is also possible that the same climate factors, as well as job involvement, might also correlate positively to working more efficiently and effectively. Being more creative involves solving problems, working around barriers, and becoming a productive team player. A review of work climate research has demonstrated important linkages relating work climate to job satisfaction, resulting in superior performance.


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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