Expert Commentary

Safety Myths and Wrongheaded Beliefs Prevalent in the Construction Industry

Ideally, the management of safety is undertaken with its full integration into the company's operations, in complete alignment with all the organizational systems, and supported by highly trained and knowledgeable specialists. In reality, the management of safety is treated separately from other organizational functions and is based on what is considered "best practices."


Construction Safety
May 2013

Much of this collection of best practices grew out of trial and error, anecdotal information, unsubstantiated data, uncorroborated assumptions, and expedient solutions. Over time, these beliefs have come to be accepted into the fabric of our "safety" culture and therefore taken for granted.

Culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns, which includes beliefs, assumptions, values, and norms. Some of the assumptions in safety are accepted without being verified, making them myths. The thing about myths is that they are an integral part of culture and therefore very difficult to change or remove.

What Is Safety?

There are a multitude of myths and wrongheaded beliefs in the safety arena. These myths are repeated often and are accepted as prevailing wisdom. As a result, some improvement strategies deployed are less than effective, and to some extent, safety is managed inefficiently. Even the word itself creates issues. In Webster's Dictionary, safety is listed as a noun and defined as "the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss." Many safety associations hold with similar definitions.

Safety is not a thing that can be stored or displayed or an activity in and of itself. Safety is an outcome (a byproduct) of an activity engaged in by a person performing his or her daily work. How one goes about performing the tasks can result in that person being safe from or sustaining an injury.

Another issue with safety is the thinking that somehow it is different from other aspects of the business or its operations. Virtually all construction firms (except small mom-and-pop type businesses) have safety programs, but generally, none of them has production, efficiency, or quality programs. There are no toolbox talks, posters, signage, or training for production, efficiency, or quality. Generally, site personnel manage these as part of their job. And yet, when it comes to safety, organizations go about managing it differently. Achieving safe outcomes requires planning, organizing, staffing, controlling, and managing just like any other aspect of the business or its operations.

Measuring Safety

The concept that Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) statistics measure safety performance is another of the myths that has little basis in fact. What the frequency and severity rates reflect is the degree to which the organization's safety practices have failed. These are results measures and provide little in terms of why things have gone wrong and how to remedy them in "real time."

In the last decade of the last century, the concept of the "balanced scorecard" was introduced to more efficiently and effectively manage organizational performance. It is a fact that metrics drive organizational behavior. So, to manage safety more realistically, we have to add a few other perspectives to the traditional severity and frequency measures to create a more robust mechanism with which to holistically drive performance excellence.

Safety has traditionally focused on negative outcomes (accidents and losses) and rarely on what actually are their underlying systems drivers. In safety, we spend a considerable amount of time and effort on how to prevent unsafe functioning but almost nothing on how to bring about and, more importantly, sustain safe functioning. By its very nature, construction has a lot of uncertainty and variability in the project delivery process. For safety to function effectively, it has to have flexibility and agility as well as have mechanisms to enable it to succeed under varying conditions.

Safety Myths

Following are common safety myths and reasons why they fail in reality.

Safety Programs Ensure Job Site/Worker Safety and Meet Legal Obligations

This generally results in a large binder (or binders) with multiple sections dealing with a variety of subjects (typically regurgitating the OSHA standards), which in many cases ends up sitting on a shelf gathering dust. Some of the legal requirements are satisfied, but safety results are hardly achieved. Programs are written guidelines and not much else. First, the program has to be designed to address the operational risks unique to that organization and to function harmoniously and effectively within the prevailing organizational systems. For the program to deliver safe operations, it has to be implemented and actively managed.

Safety Is Common Sense

That safety is common sense is another one of the myths. The individual making that statement assumes that everyone thinks and feels the same way. That is pure nonsense! What one person perceives as "risky," another may think of as quite safe. Some people skydive, others bungee jump, some race automobiles, others rock climb. Many people would never dream of doing any of those things under any circumstances. Others may view what may seem exciting to some people as total insanity. Taking risk is a very personal matter. It is based on one's appetite for risk, personal life experience, belief in one's capability, and/or one's ability to identify and assess exposure. To effectively manage risk, the organization must clearly define what is acceptable and what is not and then actively manage it.

OSHA Compliance Creates Safe Work Environments

Another myth is that compliance with the OSHA standards will result in the creation of a safe work environment. That is really not true in all cases. All one has to do is look at falls from heights and how they are dealt with in the standards. For many construction trades, OSHA requires fall protection when the fall exposure exceeds 6 feet. That includes dry wall installers, painters, electricians, plumbers, etc. The trigger for scaffold erectors is 10 feet. For metal deck installers, carpenters working on purlins, etc., the trigger is 15 feet, and roofers can be exposed to a fall up to 20 feet. Connectors (iron workers) need fall protection when they are exposed to a fall greater than 30 feet. Just what underlying scientific logic justifies this?

Simple physics will tell you that the kinetic energy resulting from a fall increases with distance. The laws of physics do not make allowance for different trades; gravity treats them all equally! An iron worker falling from 29 feet is bound to be badly injured unless that person can somehow fly. So, since buying workers compensation insurance is required, as a business, it just does not make much sense to allow workers to be exposed to falls; should they occur, such falls virtually guarantee serious life-changing injuries and potentially have serious financial consequences.

Incentive Programs Cause Workers To Work Safely

This is another one of the myths that seems to have many proponents. The awards given by these programs are generally based on not having a recordable incident, which creates a number of problems. One is the potential for underreporting of accidents. But, of greater concern is the fact that a worker can do nothing differently from before the program's inception but, because he or she has not had a recordable injury, get a reward. Workers may engage in at-risk behavior or not follow safe work practices and, due to good luck, not have a recordable incident and thus earn a reward. In these cases, workers are rewarded for being lucky and nothing else. Such systems do not do much to foster safe behavior, and, more importantly, they do not provide management with information that will assist them in identifying unsafe behavior or deploying appropriate interventions that result in changing existing practices.

Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) Fosters and Sustains Safe Behavior

This myth ignores the role of management's and management systems' influence on the choices workers make or their behavior. It also assumes that the worker has total control over the work environment. In organizations where there is misalignment in systems, practices, and procedures, workers may be put into situations where they have to make a choice between staying employed and doing something that has some level of risk attached. In such cases, the worker will more than likely engage in an at-risk behavior to keep his or her job. So for BBS to work effectively, there needs to be an assessment of systems and management's influence on the choices the workers make that may be contrary to behavioral program expectations.

Progressive Punishment Ensures Safety Compliance

Punishing a worker for noncompliance does not necessarily improve that worker's or other workers' behavior. The best that punishment accomplishes is achieving temporary compliance. Policing is an inefficient mechanism for achieving compliance or ensuring desirable behavior. For policing to work, it has to be virtually continuous, the consequences immediate, certain, and robust. This fact makes it inefficient and impractical. Punishment should be an option of last resort. The most effective way to achieve compliance or promote desired behavior is for it to be self-directed by the worker, which means by way of intrinsic motivation.

Firing Noncomplying Workers Solves Safety Problems

It only removes the offending worker, and not much else is gained from that action long term. This approach is like trying to cure the disease by treating the symptom. The only way to truly resolve this problem is to find the operational or organizational system or procedure that allowed or facilitated the offending worker to engage in the unacceptable behavior and change it. Otherwise, the underlying system will cause the next worker to do what the fired worker did and be the next candidate for dismissal.

Safety Training Is a Leading Safety Indicator

Safety training in fact leads nowhere in particular! The training sign-in sheet provides proof of the number of people who attended and not much else. The underlying assumption is that if workers are given the appropriate training, they will use this to work safely. For training to be effective, an evaluation has to be made as to what knowledge, if any, a particular worker is deficient in. Then there needs to be an assessment of what the content of the training material ought to be, selection of the method of presentation, a confirmation of the understanding of the material, and a verification that the information was relevant to the work being done and that the trainees are utilizing the information and using it effectively in their work practices.

Workers Need Refresher Training To Keep the Focus on Safe Work Practices

This is another one of the myths that seems to have support from both safety practitioners and management. If we think about this one rationally, it is hard to accept that a reasonably intelligent person forgets the few salient points that relate to the subject of the refresher training. Ladder use is an example. There are only a half dozen or so elements to remember to accomplish proper ladder setup. Assuming that the workforce is reasonably intelligent, how is it possible that they would forget these few salient points? So, the reason for improper ladder setup might be something other than knowledge deficiency. Therefore, much of refresher training is an ineffective use of finite resources and does not address the underlying problem.

Inspections and Audits Will Uncover Most Hazards and Risks of Injury

Inspections are usually snapshots of conditions or situations and are not comprehensive representation of the ongoing operations or activities. Inspections tend to cover a small fraction of the time during which work activity is occurring at the location. Another shortcoming of inspections may be that they are not thorough. By their very nature, site inspections are focused on identifying hazardous physical conditions. Operational, management, and organizational systems may create a multitude of risks that are not readily apparent during a physical walk around. These latent risks are immune to traditional interventions.

Conclusion

These are but a few of the myths and wrongheaded beliefs that abound in the safety management practices of many of the organizations within the construction industry. Everyone in the organization is a stakeholder in safety, from the owners to the managers to the workers. So, it is in everyone's best interests to achieve a safe work environment. But, achieving this is difficult because myths that are part of the shared belief system lead to unrealistic safety management policies, practices, attitudes, and expectations.

A paradigm shift is required. We need to critically evaluate our systems, practices, and procedures with unwavering candor, face the brutal truth, and have the fortitude to challenge the status quo and decisively act. Once we have replaced the myths with more reasonable and sustainable assumptions, we open up avenues for structural changes in the way safety is managed. The picture is not all bleak, as many companies are working diligently to create proactive safety cultures. This in and of itself is not sufficient, for they must understand that safety is a subculture of the organizational culture. So what is critical is the need to align safety with operations, unify systems, and treat safety as a part of the integrated whole.


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