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Construction Safety

Importance of Trust in Construction Relationships

Peter Furst | July 23, 2021

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Some of the fundamental underpinnings of society involve trust. Trust is one of the key ingredients that is required for effective and successful interaction among people, groups, and organizations. To successfully manage business operations, you need some level of control. To accomplish this, you have to be able to communicate clearly as well as effectively. But for the message to resonate with the people involved, there needs to be trust.

Even though trust is key to relationships, it is not well understood, and in many business settings, it is even mismanaged. Trust becomes really important in challenging times or crisis situations.

There is a large body of research supporting the fact that leaders, supervisors, and managers can have a profound impact on the way individual employees feel about their organization. This feeling can positively or negatively impact individual perception and involvement, as well as performance. Underlying every successful interaction on a construction worksite is some level of trust.

To effectively work with construction tradesmen and their supervisors, it is important to establish some level of trust. This is doubly true of safety personnel who have virtually no positional power with which to get compliance. They have to have referent or expert power accompanied by a level of trust to be able to achieve their objectives.

Dimensions of Trust

Trust is foundational to every business exchange and virtually drives just about all consumer actions. Given this reality, one finds that trust is not defined or interpreted the same way by everyone. It seems that people generally build trust by intuition in all aspects of their lives. This may be sufficient in many cases, but the inherent ambiguity results in missed opportunities to leverage it with employees, partners, and customers.

A search of the literature indicates that researchers have not come to a total agreement on the elements that elucidate trust; a mixture of some of the following elements is commonly found to describe its meaning. These are competence, consistency, communication and openness, character and integrity, compassion and benevolence, and commitment and fairness, as well as credibility and reliability. Researchers' interpretations of these elements are described below.

  • Competence is the element most often mentioned that elucidates trust. It is characterized by a level of knowledge and skill, as well as how these are utilized by employees to make decisions. It is also intrinsic to the effectiveness of leadership and management.
  • Consistency is mentioned next in importance to form a basis for trust because of its emphasis on reliable actions or the behavior of a leader, managers, and supervisors, as well as its significance in their communications. Consistent actions congruent with communication diminishes the vulnerability of employees, increasing their levels of trust.
  • Communication and openness are important not only as elements of trust but they enable and reinforce the other elements. These portend not only openness but also relevance, timeliness, accurateness, and usefulness of information, thereby broadening and strengthening the importance of the relationship.
  • Character and integrity of the supervisor or management in general forge the trust the employee has of them and the organization as a whole.
  • Compassion and benevolence may be defined to include concern for the other's needs, well-being, sensitive engagement, respect, and taking the interests and aspirations of others into account. There needs to exist a general sincerity of caring, empathy, and tolerance that accepts mistakes as learning opportunities with some freedom of choice in practices and procedures as part of learning.
  • Commitment and fairness are elements that reinforce the perception employees have of management.
  • Credibility and reliability of the actions and statement of management are also mentioned as elements that build trust. Other words that have been used include honesty, moral character, fairness, etc. This element reinforces consistency when the values of the employee are in line with the values of the supervisor.

The Trust-Control Interrelationship

Scholars are generally in agreement that trust is a frame of mind manifested in behavior toward others. Trust is generally based on the belief that the trusted person (trustee) will behave in a certain way and that action will result in the (truster's) expected outcome. Control, on the other hand, is a process that manages and directs employee behavior toward desired goals or objectives. Control generally has two approaches: formal and informal in nature. The formal one focuses on policies, procedures, and processes, as well as positional power to elicit the desired behavior on the part of the organization's employees. It also tends to be the prevailing method garnering compliance. The informal one focuses on the organizational attributes, such as assumptions, norms, values, beliefs, culture, and rituals, to name a few.

For organizations to function effectively as well as efficiently, management must be able to have control over the employee's behavior to achieve their goals and objectives. Research has found that trust and control have a complementary relationship and are important to governance. Trust assists in fostering control, and control administered with empathy reinforces trust. This relationship helps align expectations, enhances interactions, enables performance, and enables operational excellence. Besides internal organizational benefits, it also has a beneficial impact on relationships with others outside the organization.

Traditional Issues with Construction Safety Management

In many construction organizations, the superintendent or foreman is responsible for production and quality, and the safety practitioner is responsible for worker safety. Many of these safety practitioners manage safety by following the three "Es." For those of you who may not know this, the concept was proposed by the National Safety Council approximately a century ago. The three Es involve the following.

  • Engineering generally includes all of the physical protective interventions such as handrails, floor opening covers, perimeter protection, fall protection, stopping slips and falls, and ensuring that the workforce uses the proper personal protective equipment and performs the work in a safe manner.
  • Education (training) focuses on increasing workers' understanding of safe practices. This may primarily cover the contents of the safety program or regurgitation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. Many organizations may repeat the same safety training year after year and expect improved outcomes.
  • Enforcement (inspections) results in the person responsible for safety walking the job, looking for unsafe conditions or acts. Upon identifying such a situation, the safety practitioner then talks to the (offending) person and tries to get them to correct the condition or activity.

The use of the three Es may have some usefulness in assisting in the management of safety, but the results are not effective in creating a safe work environment. This is supported by the fact that, after a century of use, construction workers still get injured and killed on construction sites.

Safety and Trust in the Workplace: A Literature Review

Many researchers have found that, for one reason or another, employees do not trust their immediate supervisors. Some found that about half believe that their supervisor cheats or lies to them, and almost three-quarters do not trust them. Obviously, these numbers reflect the situation in only some organizations, but it may point to the possibility that some level of distrust exists in many more. Since researchers have found that trust directly or indirectly impacts safety outcomes, it should encourage every organization to determine its level on their worksites and then work toward improving it.

Another important finding is that the worksite's climate affects workers' perception of the relevance of safety outcomes in relation to other metrics such as production, productivity, and quality. This perception greatly influences the project's safety climate. It is also a fact that most workers believe that production trumps both quality and safety, which influences their decision-making and, as a result, their ultimate behavior. This highlights the challenge management faces in effectively changing this hidden driver of their safety and loss picture.

Another consequential factor is that trust and the safety climate play a significant role in a worker's job satisfaction. This is important as it affects the worker's attitude as well as behavior, which has a strong correlation to the accidents, injuries, and losses that organizations experience. It is notable that the work climate also affects production, productivity, and quality, and these tend to have a greater negative impact on the business. This highlights the fact that supervisors and managers on the construction worksite, who are responsible for production, need to gain a greater understanding of trust to have better control of worker performance in all operational areas.

Furst - Workers Decision-Making Chart

Traditional Project Management

Many construction firms have a management structure that makes one person responsible for production and quality and another person responsible for worker safety. Projects are driven by the schedule, and progress is measured by the amount of work put in place, which can be assessed almost immediately. Safety performance is mostly measured by accidents and their associated cost: after-the-fact measures. The planning, organizing, directing, and controlling is conducted by the people managing the operations. They are in a better position to assess and manage the risks associated with safety. They also have the positional power to affect worker behavior, where the safety manager does not.

There is beginning to be a greater emphasis on how the approach of the management of human resources can impact safety in the workplace. One of the key factors is trust, as discussed above. Another is the safety climate, which impacts, shapes, and reinforces the employee's perception of the job, the worksite, and the organization in general. The immediate supervisor plays a significant role in shaping the perception of each and every one of their direct reports by how they interact and treat them. This includes communication, both verbal and nonverbal, and the quality, timeliness, and utility of the information, as well as the necessary resources and time required in relation to performing the task. Another significant factor is their general treatment compared to that of others. The safety climate or work environment reflects the following.

  • The employee's perception of the relative importance of safety within the organization
  • The emphasis the immediate supervisor places on safety
  • The employee's values and inherent expectations

It is a fact that trust impacts the safety climate, which influences the employee's job-related decision-making, ultimately driving the accident, injury, and loss statistics, which impact the organization's reputation, competitiveness, and bottom line. This takes on greater importance in the construction industry for a number of reasons.

  • As an industry, construction has more accidents, injuries, and losses per worker than many other industries—reflecting possible greater inherent risk.
  • Construction is primarily managed by the schedule that, to some degree, influences decision-making associated with the speed and volume of production—reflecting pressure on possibly greater risk-taking.
  • Typically, most construction workers have temporary "at-will" jobs. So, there may be a perception among tradesmen that high productivity may ensure longer employment—potentially encouraging some level of greater risk-taking.

There are many more possible reasons for greater risk-taking and the possible negative outcomes in the construction industry. It is possible that project owners may be contributing to increased risk-taking by virtue of some terms included in contracts that they require a construction manager and/or general contractors to sign. Some of these contracts place a great emphasis on on-time project completion. Some even have penalty clauses for failing to accomplish this. Some even go so far as adding financial incentives for not only achieving the end date but for beating it by some weeks or even months. This falls under the purview of senior management, who then should structure and staff the job in accordance with the potential increased risk.

Safety and Trust in Construction

The discussion above highlights the importance of trust in worker decision-making and behavior. All the elements mentioned above are important to construction worksite safety and affect the work (climate) environment. An efficacious positive safety climate is defined by effective, engaged leaders who care about their direct reports' safety and well-being. This is actualized by the credibility of all parties: managers, supervisors, and employees, who in concert drive the superior outcomes. All of this is enhanced and enabled by timely, effective, and relevant communication.

This highlights the fact that the immediate supervisor is in the critical and ideal position to effectively oversee as well as manage jobsite safety. This person has the management responsibility of the planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling the jobsite and its activities; effectively communicating; addressing and managing risk; and has the positional power to pursue the leadership as well as management of the worksite.

The safety manager, on the other hand, lacks many of the abovementioned attributes and, therefore, is in a less authoritative position to independently control workforce compliance to manage safety outcomes. The lack of some of the above attributes also weakens control as well as trust factors necessary to robustly actuate a positive work climate. The safety manager is in a unique position to provide input to site supervision and management in the planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling of operations; identification and management of the risks associated with the selection and implementation of means and methods; ensuring that the task assignments are compatible with the worker's capabilities and knowledge; and providing feedback on the state of the field activities through random inspections. The safety manager can also reinforce supervision's effectiveness during field inspections and behavior observation.

Furst - Positive Operational Outcomes Chart


Based on the discussion above, it should be obvious that communication in the work environment impacts the workforce's perception. Trust and control are also important factors in workforce decision-making, which manifests itself in behavior that is appropriate and efficacious. The integration of the construction safety manager's knowledge and expertise in risk and safety management to support and enhance the project staff's operational oversight will positively and significantly affect performance outcomes.

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