Expert Commentary

The Management of Construction Safety

To effectively manage the business, a construction firm must manage the work-in-place costs effectively, efficiently, and per the contract document requirements. This means their processes, practices, and procedures have to be integrated and efficient, and their management innovative, supportive, and effective.


Construction Safety
April 2020

It also helps to have a workforce that is experienced, empowered, and engaged. They also have to be able to measure, evaluate, and improve on production, productivity, quality, and risk, as well as safety, to be financially successful.

Construction Operations

In reality, many contracting firms treat the management of operations as unique and separate or poorly integrated with that of risk and safety management. The people in operations who are responsible for putting the work in place—superintendents, foremen, and others—are primarily held accountable for meeting production goals and related objectives. The safety manager is responsible to ensure that the workforce performs the work without having an accident and, more importantly, avoids getting injured.

The underlying premises or rationale for this bifurcation are varied. Below are a few that are commonly encountered.

  • The people responsible for putting the work-in-place are too busy planning, organizing, directing, managing, and controlling operations to be burdened with watching and managing the workforce for safety issues and infractions.
  • Safety is governed by a set of unique standards promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and forms the basis of the organization's safety program, which is overseen by the safety manager. This aspect of work should be controlled by that manager.
  • Safely working falls under the purview and control of individual workers and, therefore, is their responsibility.
  • Safety involves common sense, and construction workers should naturally be able to perform their work in a safe manner.

Underlying the day-to-day practice of safety management is a generally accepted set of "best practices" that have evolved over time through trial and error, anecdotal information, and as unsubstantiated beliefs that many people in the practice of safety as well as others take for granted. In a construction company, due to the premises mentioned above, all levels of management and supervision responsible for production look to the safety manager to effectively deal with the risk of accidents and control or eliminate injures from the day-to-day operations.

The safety managers tasked with the management of worksite safety use their understanding, beliefs, knowledge, and experience to shape and implement safety policies, practices, and procedures. Disseminating relevant information, providing training, conducting inspections, identifying unacceptable conditions and/or behaviors, imparting direction, and giving guidance to the workforce are all done to ensure overall safe operations.

Segregating the management of safety from operations sets the stage for two fundamental problems. Since safety and operations are not integrated nor structurally aligned, invariably risk is introduced into the construction process, which functionally cannot be effectively addressed or managed because of this reality. Nor can accidents and injuries be effectively controlled or eliminated by the use of generally accepted "best practices" that have evolved over time through trial and error, anecdotal information, and unproven and unsubstantiated beliefs that become accepted practices in the management of worksite safety.

Safety "Best" Practices?

I have been involved in design and construction for over 50 years and have simultaneously been engaged in consulting for almost 30 years to a large number of firms (e.g., architects, engineers, construction managers, general contractors, subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers) operating in the design and construction industry by assisting them in devising systems, practices, and procedures that improved their business and operational outcomes. I have also made presentations to company owners and senior management, middle management, and supervisors, as well as the workforce. I have also spoken at a large number of international, national, and regional conferences on the subject of operational excellence as well as risk and safety management. I have also made many presentations at various safety chapter and associations, as well as construction firms.

I provide this information to illustrate that this has exposed me to a very large number of people who were in both construction operations and safety, many of whom were in decision-making positions. This also exposed me to some of the myths and wrongheaded beliefs practiced by various organizations, both by people responsible for operations as well as those responsible for safety.

The safety manager may tell the workforce that by working safely, every employee will contribute to making the work environment safer for their crew, or that by working safely, the employees, their families, and the organization wins. Encouraging workers not to take risks is generally not a very effective approach to solving the problem. The safety manager would more than likely get better results if they find out why the worker is performing the task in the way they are and not by taking the "rah, rah, rah" approach. Or better yet, the safety manager can work with supervision during planning the work and the assignment of workers to assist in eliminating risk or reducing their possible negatives outcomes. This is much more effective than allowing the risk to be incorporated into the work and then trying to find it and eliminate it.

The worker's risk-taking may be caused by a force of habit, which would make a behavioral approach more effective in dealing with that problem. If it is a knowledge issue, then some form of mentorship, coaching, training, or modeling may be the solution. The worker should be enabled to perform their work safely, which means minimizing the risk of injury during the planning of the work. This then puts the focus on identifying the risks involved in supervision, which should be assisted by the safety manager in the mitigation of the risks involved. It is supervision that assigns the task, and they should make sure that the worker they pick is fully capable and knowledgeable, as well as has the appropriate information tools and resources to be able to perform the work effectively and safely.

The construction safety manager may befriend the workers, ask about their families, and chitchat a bit before bringing up the issues with how they are doing their work unsafely, avoiding criticism and blame. This "best buddy" approach of the safety manager ignores the fact that, in industry, there is an inherent rift between safety and production. The production supervisor is primarily evaluated on meeting or exceeding the production goal, which means that he or she expects good performance, may encourage speed, and may even accept shortcuts or a deviation from safety and/or quality to get the desired rapid results. In such situations, generally, "production trumps protection." If the worker perceives that the production goal is important to the supervisor, and he or she thinks that the suggested work method by the safety manager will, in fact, slow him or her down, then the choice will in all likelihood be to perform the work as suggested by the safety practitioner and revert back to the previous way of doing the work after he or she leaves so as to be productive and to ensure that he or she continues to stay employed.

Virtually all construction firms have safety programs that spell out the safe way of performing work. And yet, it is not uncommon to find workers perform their work in an "unsafe" or less than acceptable manner. I discussed this phenomenon in an article that was published in August 2014, "Normalization of Performance Deviations," in which I cover the "how" and the "why" of organization's experiencing the devolution of standards, expectations, practices, etc., from what is required to what ends up being accepted. Management must be vigilant and focused in order to identify such progressive incremental erosion of their standards, leading to inferior performance and practices, as well as outcomes.

Safety and Operations

The practice of safety is rife with myths and wrongheaded beliefs. These myths and beliefs have become accepted and are utilized to a large extent. As a result, many improvement strategies that are deployed based on such thinking tend to have less-than-stellar results, and some even end up being of little value and a waste of resources, since little or no value is created for the organization. Much of the solution to achieving safe performance resides in the operations function of the firm. The safety effort should be used in supporting the operation's risk management. Safety can also provide confirmation that the operations are, in fact, successful through an analysis of the resulting activities of the workforce.

It is important to understand that safety is not a condition. Safety is an outcome, the result of doing a task or one's job in such a way that the worker does not get injured or experience a loss. So, in reality, it is dependent on the risks that are inherent in the work and a function of how the work is performed. From an operations perspective, a worker can perform their work in one way and end up productive and meet their production goal, or they can do it in another way and be less productive. They can perform that same work in such a way as to achieve the expected level of quality, or they can do it differently with the work, ending up with poor quality. And, they can perform the work in one way and avoid getting injured, or they can go about doing the work in a different way and, as a result, suffer an injury.

This debunks the premise that safety is somehow different from other operational aspects of construction. Virtually every construction company has a safety program, but they do not have production, efficiency, performance, or effectiveness programs. Some do not even have a quality program. Operational staff plans, organizes, directs, and manages the work in such a way as to enable the worker to accomplish their work-in-place goals and to ensure the work is performed so as to meet or exceed the project's targets and expectations. And yet, safety is managed differently.

Management of operations includes a number of functions that are interrelated and codependent. This generally includes planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling, to name a few.

  • Planning involves deciding in advance what the most appropriate course of actions ought to be to achieve predetermined goals and/or objectives. Planning involves the following.
    • Decision-making and problem-solving
    • Optimizing utilization of resources that are both human and nonhuman
    • Effectively managing risk
    • Avoiding performance barriers by eliminating uncertainty, inefficiency, and waste
    • Anticipating potential problems and having prepared possible interventions and/or solutions that can be applied quickly and effectively
  • Organizing is the process of integrating financial, human, and physical resources to develop effective, efficient, and productive relationships to facilitate the accomplishment of organizational goals. Organizing involves the following.
    • Creating a structure with position descriptions and interrelationships
    • Defining responsibility, authority, accountability, and delegation
    • Identifying, defining, classifying, and grouping activities
    • Ensuring that the proper required tools, equipment, and resources are available before work starts
    • Ensuring that assigned work matches up with the worker capabilities
    • Ensuring that the production goals are achievable given the physical conditions and limitations
  • Directing actuates the organizational methods, practices, and procedures so as to function efficiently and effectively to achieve the organizational purpose. Direction is a function of management dealing with supervising, coaching, influencing, mentoring, and counseling subordinates to enable them to achieve both personal and organizational goals. Directing involves the following.
    • Oversight
    • Decision-making and solutions
    • Communication
    • Motivation
    • Support and guidance
  • Staffing means manning the organizational structure as well as keeping it manned. Staffing involves the following.
    • Proper recruitment and effective selection
    • Placing the right person in the right position or task
    • Training and development
    • Appraisal and remuneration
    • Recognition and rewards
  • Controlling ensures performance is in line with organizational expectations. It involves the determination and measurement of accomplishment against performance standards. Controlling also determines the rate of progress toward the achievement of goals and identifying deviations and correcting them in order to ensure system effectiveness. Controlling involves the following.
    • Creation of performance achievable standards
    • Collection and evaluation of performance data
    • Correction of any deviations to ensure achievement
    • Removal of barriers

Conclusion

Safety is an outcome; it is the byproduct of the activity an employee is 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 are provided; the amount of time allotted for carrying out the task; the quality of supervision; and the matching of the task demand to the worker's capabilities.

All of this is under the control of management and supervision. So, it is they who should perform all 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 a consultant to supervision during the planning, organizing, and staffing of the project prior to commencement of the work rather than expecting the workforce and the safety manager to find the inherent risks, work around them, and do this without slowing down production.


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.

Like This Article?

IRMI Update

Dive into thought-provoking industry commentary every other week, including links to free articles from industry experts. Discover practical risk management tips, insight on important case law and be the first to receive important news regarding IRMI products and events.

Learn More