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Construction Safety

Organizational Performance and Employee Reliability

Peter Furst | October 14, 2016

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Statistics indicate that construction worker injuries cost contractors millions of dollars in direct costs and many times more in indirect costs. To address this waste of resources, diminished productive time, and loss of revenue, most contractors engage in interventions that include writing or rewriting safety programs.

They may implement new policies and procedures, conduct training and retraining, engage in focused inspections, hold meetings, post signage, provide incentives, use discipline, and/or fire people. These are the traditional interventions that have been tried for decades with less than stellar results, and yet they are still utilized by many construction firms as a means for improving safety performance. The question is, if they have not worked well before, why should they work any better at some later point in time?

There are other proposed approaches to improving safety outcomes, such as safety leadership, safety culture improvement, behavior management, etc. These should have positive outcomes, but in many cases produce less than stellar results as well. The reason for this may be that the application of the implementation may be misdirected. The general underlying intent is to change people's (worker's) actions (behaviors) while they are engaged in performing their work by using these tools or techniques. Management tries to convince people to behave differently, become involved in the work process, actively care, and take ownership of their actions. They try to create an improved performance by coaching and influencing workers to attain the next level of performance.

So, why are these interventions not highly effective or sustainable? There are many great reasons for this with some stemming from myths and misconceptions or erroneous foundational thinking. Some improvement barriers come from the organizational culture and climate, leadership's actions and expectations, operational planning and goals, or management of resources and information, to name a few. Other impediments come from the task itself, some originate with the worker, while others come from the environment. But, fundamentally, most of the improvement barriers come from the management systems, practices, and procedures that exist in the organization and its operational function. So, it would seem that a logical place to start is to try to assess the "way things are actually being done," and how they ought to have been done differently, to truly understand why outcomes and results are the way they actually are!

Generally, most organizations go about trying to improve their safety outcomes or results by doing more of the same, albeit more rigorously. That is, doing more training, more inspections, or devising more rules and writing more procedures. This indicates a general lack of understanding of how to structurally change systems so as to improve results. Others try to implement some "higher level" solution without understanding the organization's readiness for it. That is like trying to teach calculus to an average 10-year-old or expecting an average 4-year-old to lift a 94-pound sack of cement. These folks are just not ready or not capable of doing what is expected of them!

Construction Operations

Most organizations have existing means and methods, practices and procedures, and tools and techniques to do what it is they do. These functions are effective to some extent and accomplish producing the output, but they also produce the undesirable side effects (e.g., inefficiencies, poor quality, errors, waste, incidents, injuries, and losses). To some extent, these "systems" either have built-in barriers or develop impediments to a flawless performance. Finding and eliminating some of these barriers or changing them to improve performance is key. Some of the interventions require a minor change while others may require a major change. Some are going to be easier and less disruptive to implement than others. To achieve this, we have to truly understand the underlying drivers of the system discrepancies.

Over the years, we have undoubtedly heard statements such as these from people responsible for construction field operations: I am too busy running work and have no time for babysitting workers, some of the workers just don't have any common sense, I have a schedule to meet, working safely is a personal responsibility of workers, and the list goes on. Underlying such statements is the fact that, when it comes to safety, usually it is the worker who is deemed to be the weak link, and supervisors do not have a good grasp of what they can and should do to more effectively manage the process.

Another reason for poor performance results can be attributed to field management's failure to plan the work effectively and visualize the potential barriers to a safe and efficient performance. Construction projects are dynamic and have a lot of variability, with conditions constantly subject to change. Planning is a necessary management and operational tool and is a key factor in contracting; this includes planning manpower, material, and equipment. Performance is a process, just like any other in the construction business, that needs robust oversight to be actively managed. 

The worker may contribute to the problem by having "bad habits" or some other deficiency that can only be identified by watching the worker perform the task. If this is not done, then that worker in all likelihood will eventually be involved in some form of incident. The company, to do this effectively across the organization, should define "good work practices" or the "critical element of the task," which the supervisor can then use as a standard against which to measure a worker's behavior while engaged in performing the task. But, more importantly, the supervisor can use these task's functions to provide feedback to the worker.

The most powerful tool in risk management is elimination. People are going to make mistakes, which is a proven fact. So, expecting experience to keep a worker from getting injured is wrong-headed thinking! Work (the task) should be reviewed before the worker is assigned to it so as to either eliminate or diminish the risk or to reduce the potential negative outcome. This should be done before providing training. Therefore, an analysis of the task design can help reduce risk and, as a result, diminish the burden on the worker to keep focused on hazards while working and for field management not to have to watch the worker and remind them to pay attention.

We have to accept the fact that people are going to make mistakes. It is a researched and proven fact that errors are made irrespective of years of experience, level of motivation, dedication, age, knowledge, etc. This kind of thinking will direct management and supervision to critically review tasks and assess the inherent risk and try to error proof it as much as possible. This approach will effectively reduce the risk the worker is going to have to deal with and as a result will diminish the potential for an injury if and when an error is made. 

Another benefit of this kind of approach is to find risks of injury that cannot be completely eliminated and then try to diminish the resulting negative outcome if and when a worker makes an error. The result of this effort is not only to reduce the severity of the outcome, which means the worker may sustain a minor rather than a serious injury, but also to improve morale and productivity, as well as to reduce costs.

There are two important benefits gained from such an endeavor. First, it will make the process more efficient by removing barriers to performance. This will not only make it easier for the worker to accomplish the task (improve output) but will shorten the time needed to do it, thereby increasing productivity. This approach will also free up supervision from the need to "police" the workers to ensuring they are complying with safety rules so that they can engage in doing what they ought to be doing, which is planning, organizing, and managing the project.

It is not a common practice in construction to critically look at the task to assess its demand and match it to a worker's capabilities. So, if the demand exceeds the worker's capabilities, the worker will invariably come up with "workarounds" that are going to increase the risk of injury! These unplanned "workarounds" may also have an adverse effect on productivity and quality and may increase the level of risk not only for the worker but possibly for those working in the area.

There is also task assignment considerations, some of which, if practiced at even a low level of sophistication, will diminish some of the risk associated with the work and, more importantly, increase operational effectiveness. Supervisors ought to be familiar with each worker's capabilities and should try to match that to the task's requirements. Some tasks require physical strength, others require dexterity, some require problem-solving, others require innovation, some require stamina, others require perseverance, etc. The closer the match, the more likely a positive outcome will be.

Other task-related considerations involve job enlargement. This basically provides the employee with greater responsibility for doing things associated with the task. These may include activities that precede the task or those that follow it. Job enlargement provides the employee with more responsibility, signaling confidence in the worker's ability. It may make the task more challenging or interesting and so increase the potential of job satisfaction, which is an important factor in increasing commitment and involvement.

Job enrichment is a management concept that involves redesigning jobs so that they are more challenging to the employee and to some extent reduce repetitive work. The concept is based on a 1968 Harvard Business Review article by psychologist Frederick Herzberg titled "One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?" Job enrichment gives employees a chance to stay in their current roles but experience a greater depth of responsibility through enhanced tasks. This brings to mind that interesting work reduces boredom, and inattentiveness to some extent, and job satisfaction fosters attentiveness, which may contribute to "safer" outcomes.

To keep repetitive work from eventually becoming boring, the supervisor may try job rotation. Usually, there are many tasks that the employee will have the competence to perform. So, moving the worker around from task to task may reduce the potential for boredom and reduce the risk of an incident occurring. This approach, if done judiciously, can provide employees with opportunities to experience new tasks and learn new skills within the company. Through job rotation, employees move from their typical day-to-day tasks to a somewhat different role or a whole new role. This must be done in a way that does not create situations where workers are subjected to increased risks due to the changes.

The supervisor must plan the work and set realistic objectives so as to enable workers to successfully accomplish their assignments. The supervisor must also be aware of changes and impediments that invariably develop on the job and quickly intervene to support and empower the worker. The supervisor, to address the satisfaction aspect of the work, must get to know the individual members of his crew and determine if and when a job change is applicable so as to reduce boredom and increase job satisfaction.


The organization, to achieve outstanding performances, needs its people behaving in such a manner so as to enable its accomplishments. This applies to all levels within the organization. In construction, generally, the only behavior that is scrutinized is the worker's. The workers can control their actions and behavior to some extent. But, this is only one aspect of achieving outstanding results. If we look at the project delivery process, it is management that controls just about everything on the project. Management to some extent also controls the workers through hiring practices, task assignments, oversight, training and education, recognition, and incentives, to name a few.

Management controls the time, the speed, shift duration, the place the worker works, productivity goals, crew size, equipment, tools, etc. The worker really has two fundamental choices: to work or not to work for that company. And, since the workers have to earn a living, they will generally do what management wants them to do or what they perceive management wants. This may sometimes include cutting corners because speed may be perceived as more important than quality or safety. Another aspect of this scenario is that if a worker willfully or unintentionally engages in unacceptable work practices, then it is the responsibility of the supervisor to intervene and stop it. Therefore, the first-line manager (supervisor) plays a key role in ensuring that the workplace practices are such that superior performance can be achieved.

Management must manage performance to meet the organization's goals and objectives. Managers need to establish objectives and create standards and targets to manage performance. Employees must clearly know the organization's expectations and must be empowered and enabled to achieve the goal. Workers and all levels of management must have clearly established expectations and must be held accountable for them. Of course, it is understood that the organization must provide the resources, knowledge, information, tools and equipment, planning, coordination, and control to facilitate performance. It is management's overarching responsibility to enable the workers so that they are able to perform the work effectively and efficiently, as well as safely.

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