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Construction Safety

Integrating Construction Production, Quality, and Safety

Peter Furst | July 28, 2023

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Construction site

The reality of construction safety is that the industry tends to have more injuries and fatalities than many others. The prevailing wisdom attributes this to construction being a high hazard occupation. This type of thinking may foster a mindset in both the workforce as well as management that to some extent accidents and injuries were inevitable on construction worksites. To address this, social activism led to the enactment of worker compensation laws by different states over a number of years, starting around the beginning of the last century. To bring some uniformity to this patchwork approach, the federal government passed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety regulations and standards in 1970.

The OSHA regulations require the employer to provide a safe workplace, train the workforce on the standards, inspect the worksite for hazards, and maintain records. There are reporting obligations, and the company may be subject to fines if the OSHA inspector finds any violations while inspecting the worksite. There also are workers compensation obligations as well as requirements and costs associated with the insurance policy. All of this necessitated special knowledge to provide appropriate oversight and effectively manage safe work practices, thereby requiring a designated person (safety practitioner) to manage and be responsible for workplace safety.

On a construction project, the safety practitioner does not have any operational responsibility. This responsibility rests with the foreman or superintendent. In other words, the safety practitioner does not plan, organize, direct, staff, or control the production work. Usually, the safety practitioner is responsible to ensure that the workers involved in the work do so in a way that does not injure them. As a result of the above, many organizations structure the management of the project planning and execution separate from that of the project safety.

Senior management assignment flowchart

Construction Safety Responsibility

Given this, the safety practitioner periodically visits worksites, observes workers engaged in their work, and decides if they are at risk of getting injured or not. If they determine that the worker may get injured as they are performing their work, they then are supposed to intervene and explain what the exposure is and how to proceed doing the work safely. They also have to walk the worksite to see if any physical hazard exists and ask that these be corrected so that no one potentially can get injured if they happen to somehow get within that area and be exposed to the hazard.

Another major part of the safety practitioner's responsibilities is to provide training to the workforce so that they are aware of the potential exposures and have a good working knowledge of the related safe work practices that they are supposed to follow when engaged in their assigned tasks. As part of the safety responsibility, they are also required to investigate accidents and study loss and inspection data to formulate interventions to deal with any potential future worker exposures. They may also need to provide retraining to the workforce to bring attention to deviations from safe work practices.

The general contractor's safety manager's responsibility for safe work involves the whole project. But the reality is that in a major number of job-sites, much of the work is performed by subcontractors, and in some cases, subcontractors perform all of the work. So, those workers doing the work are in the employ of other organizations that have contracts to perform specific portions of the work. These workers must primarily adhere to their employer's requirements to stay employed. This necessitates the project safety manager to address the issue with the worker foreman to secure safe performance.

However, this may create a problem for the project safety manager when interacting with these workers in regard to how they engage in doing their work. This is especially true when there is an urgency to get work done faster or to produce more work in a fixed time frame. Since construction as an industry is generally faced with greater uncertainty, variability, and dependent on the promises of various organizations in the supply chain, they tend to have more situations where they are subject to pressures to catch up or make up time for the shortcomings of others. This puts pressure on the subcontractor's supervision, who then directs their workforce to speed up to make up for lost time.

The increased pressure to produce more in less time invariably stresses the capability of the workforce. Some workers may have the required physical capability to safely meet the challenge and produce more work safely; others may find ways to devise modification to their practices and as a result increase their output. Invariably, there is going to be a number of workers who do not have the physical reserve or mental acuity to safely increase their production and will then revert to taking shortcuts and diverge from known practices, engaging in risky behavior in order to meet production goals. This invariably increases the risk of making an error, which in some cases will lead to an accident and possibly an injury.

This sets up the classic conflict of creating the production versus protection of the situation that is faced by workers on many construction worksites. The situation creates a problem for both the workforce, the partner organization employing them, and the general contractor when the unfortunate accident or loss occurs. The problem is that during an OSHA inspection, if safety violations are encountered, the inspector may cite both the subcontractor as well as the general contractor companies. If an accident occurs, then the resulting delays will defeat the intended purpose. So, in a way, the project operations created a problem for themselves as well as for safety.

Construction Safety Challenges

The general practice of most construction companies is to have the foreman or superintendent responsible for operations (putting work in place) and the safety practitioner responsible for worker safety. Each organization selects its means and methods, assigns tasks, sets production goals, coordinates activities, adjusts practices, devises processes, fine-tunes procedures, oversees efforts, and solves problems. All of these have inherent risk.

Some of these risks directly impact the physical flow of the work, while others impact the action of the workers. Since supervision is responsible for production and quality, they will primarily focus on managing those risk but may be less likely to exert the same level of attention to worker risks as those that are the responsibility of safety.

Operations Created Risks

  • Work climate
  • Job factors
    • Planning
    • Organizing
    • Directing
    • Access & flow
  • Equipment/tools provided
  • Task design
  • Task demand
  • Task assignment
  • Production goals
  • Information provided
  • Oversight & control
  • Etc.

Worker Associated Risks

  • Capability
  • Knowledge
  • Habits
  • Performance
  • Behavior
  • Perception
  • Engagement
  • Attention
  • Focus
  • Etc.

So, the result of this is that workers may be assigned tasks with potentially inherent risks that they are expected to deal with as they engage in performing the work and meeting production expectations. And the safety practitioner, who is not involved in any of these activities enumerated above, has little or no positional power, and generally visits the site periodically, is expected to identify existing hazards or unsafe work practices and convince those workers to perform their tasks differently. There are some inherent problems with this bifurcation of management and responsibility.

Depending on the situation, the hazard or risk may be difficult to eliminate or reduce. More importantly, the worker may perceive that the suggested way to perform the task by the safety manager may make it more difficult and more time-consuming, impacting their ability to meet production expectations, so more than likely they will revert to their way of doing things after the safety practitioner moves on.

Production/quality/safety Venn diagram

Dealing with Construction Safety Reality

Obviously, the best solution is to get the organizations to agree to change the safety manager's job description. To be truly effective, the safety manager must be involved as a member of the operational team in all the preconstruction as well as with construction activities the operational staff engages in. This involves providing input to the planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and possibly controlling activities. This is where the potential workforce risks associated with the means and methods of the tasks can be identified, assessed, and appropriately dealt with. The goal is to eliminate or reduce the negative impact of as many of the identified risks as possible. Those that cannot be eliminated must be modified or the means and methods changed to diminish their adverse effect. A list of the residual risk should be made and discussed with anyone assigned to those tasks so as to enable them to perform the work safely.

Such a drastic change will rarely happen in total, but some elements of it may. So, the next best option is for safety to try to sit in on any of the preconstruction activities and provide feedback to the staff on the risks that could be modified or addressed in some manner. The next improvement step involves creating a good working relationship with all the subcontractor foremen or superintendents so they may deal with safety issues more effectively.

To effectively engage with subcontractor superintendents, foremen, or workers, the safety manager must have good communication skills. For more detail, please see some of my past articles.

For communication to be effective, active listening skills are crucial to understanding the concerns and emotions of others. Most people fall into the habit of thinking of a response to what others are in the process of saying instead of actively listening. Emotionally intelligent people avoid falling into that trap. They realize that they need to not only understand the content of what others are saying but also pick up the emotion behind the words spoken. Another important element is the tone of the message, which may give greater insight. In acknowledging this, the other person feels that they are being heard. Emotionally intelligent people hear, actively listen, and project empathy and, by doing so, are able to connect with others on a deeper level

In business, generally anything dealing with emotion is frowned upon because it conjures up pictures of people yelling at each other, storming out of meetings, or generally losing their tempers. These situations may cause disruptions, slow things down, create barriers, foster hostility, and be counterproductive. But emotion, if properly managed, can serve a constructive and positive outcome. It is a matter of perspective, and emotions that are properly managed can be an asset. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey proposes the principle of empathic communication: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." This principle is crucial to effective interpersonal relationships.


Safety is an outcome; it is the byproduct of the activities that employees are engaged in as they go about performing their assigned tasks. The sources of the risk of injury reside in the way the task is planned; the processes, means, and methods are organized; the materials, tools, and equipment provided; the amount of time allotted for carrying out the task; the quality of supervision; or how the tasks are designed, as well as the matching of the task demand to the worker's capabilities (i.e., experience, knowledge, and motivation). As a result, production, quality, and safety are managed holistically.

All of this is under the control of management and supervision. So, it is they who should perform all of this with risk and safety in mind. They have the ability to identify the risk associated with the various aspects of the task and the opportunity to eliminate those potential risks or diminish their adverse effect by modifying or adjusting the various involved factors before the worker gets involved in the task. They also can exert control by ensuring that workers do, in fact, perform their work in a safe manner.

So, to more effectively manage the risk of injury, operational management must involve the safety manager as an integral part of the operational team to devise a holistic approach to overall operations. This should reduce the times when production falls behind the planned work progress. And, should production fall behind schedule, the safety manager should be able to devise interventions that take risk into account and still achieve an effective and realistic recovery plan and process.

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