Expert Commentary

Safety Practitioner's Interaction with Construction Crews

An organization's employees are its most important asset. The employee's performance, behavior, and attitude impact the organization's success or failure. Fundamentally, at the operations level, there are three key elements: the product or service the organization produces, the systems it has with which to produce them, and the employees it engages to "run" the systems to produce the output.


Construction Safety
January 2020

So, there are only two fundamental sources of risk, which may occur either in the systems or with the people. Since systems, if properly designed, function as intended, it is the people who have to be handled in such a way so as to function efficiently and effectively, as well as to potentially perform at their very optimum level.

At the construction project level, the person responsible and the one who manages things is the superintendent. At the task level, the foreman is in charge of the crew and manages their performance. These folks, respectively, are effectively the "managers" and, therefore, have positional power to plan, organize, lead, staff, direct, and control the work. That means they have the authority and/or power to delegate and assign tasks, praise or criticize, promote or demote, or hire or fire when dealing with the people working for them on the project.

The safety practitioner does not plan, organize, lead, staff, direct, and control the production of the work. That is the responsibility of others. The safety practitioner has to ensure that the workers are working safely when performing the work to which they are assigned. So, in discovering a physical issue (concern), they may ask the workers to correct it. If they encounter an unsafe act or behavior, they may ask the worker to change the way they go about performing the task. Safety management usually does not have positional power.

Sources of Organizational Power

Businesses are run by people. To run it efficiently and effectively, there is a need for specialization, structure, and a chain of command. The people in the chain have the power to "run" things. There are different kinds of power available to executives, managers, and supervisors, which enables them to successfully "run" things. There are five basic types of organizational power (see "Sources of Organizational Power"). People in management have the option of using them singly or in combination, which results in varying degrees of effectiveness.

SOURCES OF ORGANIZATIONAL POWER
Diagram - five power arrows pointing toward Human Performance Management with Employee Reaction and Response arrow pointing away

Legitimate Power

This exists when someone reporting to another person does what he or she is asked to do by them because they believe that this person has the authority to do so due to their position in the organization. This is a function of a clearly established chain of command within the organizational structure. This can also be referred to as positional power.

Reward Power

This exists when a superior in the organization has the authority to give his or her subordinates something they would like or appreciate receiving such as a raise or promotion. Supervisors know that many employees are motivated by some form of recognition, praise, or reward, causing them to exert greater effort, increase their output, or work longer hours when performing their assigned tasks.

Coercive Power

This exists when a person in the position of authority threatens a subordinate with something that will be perceived as punishment if they do not do what they are asked or expected to do. This could include taking something that is valued away or giving something that is perceived in a negative light by the employee. This could be used when there is some form of emergency or the employee is chronically underperforming.

Referent Power

This exists when an employee respects or admires their supervisor. Supervisors gain referent power by virtue of the fact that subordinates have received some form of assistance from them that eased their workload or resulted in a successful outcome. This could also occur if the subordinate believes that the supervisor could be helpful to them in their job or career at some future point in time. Superiors who treat employees fairly, trust them, give them more responsibility, support them, give them opportunities, etc., will create a climate where subordinates will go out of their way to perform at their level best.

Expert Power

This exists when people respect, value, or follow those who have or are perceived to have some form of expertise or specialization. This could be a peer or anyone in the organization who has an expertise that would be helpful to the other. This will place them in a position of respect, and their opinion or assistance will be sought after.

Safety Management as Practiced

In almost all cases, safety practitioners do not have positional power because they are not responsible for production, which is the responsibility of the superintendent or foreman. The safety practitioner is responsible for worker safety. In construction, production invariably is the key to the contractor's contractual obligation. This places the importance of safety secondary to the fundamental goal of the project. So, how do they go about carrying out their responsibility and which one of these power sources do they utilize in doing so? Traditionally, the safety practitioner engages in one of four basic ways of carrying out their responsibility.

Inspector

Traditionally, the safety practitioner visits the worksite on some timed or random basis, looking for physical hazards to which the workforce may be exposed. He or she may ask the involved worker(s) to correct this, or he or she may speak with the superintendent or foreman and ask them to intervene and resolve the issue. The other aspect of the inspection may involve looking for at-risk behavior on the worker's part. When finding such an activity, they may stop the person(s) and talk to them about what or how they are exposed and what the potential consequences may be.

The conversations may vary depending on how they approach this. They may threaten the worker with possible negative consequences or try to explain to them the potential injury outcome, or they may try to point out that should they get injured, it may possibly create a financial problem for their families, etc. The ultimate goal of this exchange is to try to change the workforce's behavior. They may then offer some information on the safety standards or the content of the organization's safety program. The safety practitioner may also inform the superintendent or foreman of such an event as well. The worker may comply while the safety practitioner is present and revert to the previous method after he or she leaves.

Trainer

The other way the safety practitioner tries to implement change is through training. The training can occur when the safety practitioner engages individual workers, as discussed above, or may arrive at the need for training from a review of site-inspection findings or loss-data analysis

This may identify common safety infractions, and the whole workforce is exposed to a group or classroom-style training for the more common infractions. This assumes that the worker does not know, or has forgotten, the safety rules or standards and, therefore, ends up being exposed to some form of hazard that may lead to an adverse outcome.

Unless an analysis is made that points to a knowledge deficiency on the part of the workforce as the cause of the problem, training may not be the solution to the problem. The safety practitioner would be more strategic if they identify why the workers were doing what they were doing, which was exposing them to potential injury; that will identify the true underlying cause. This would then result in a more effective solution to the problem.

Enforcer (Cop)

In many of the smaller and less-sophisticated construction organizations, the persons responsible for safety performance act as a cop. They try to catch people doing something that is considered unsafe, and they "write them up." Those are the organizations that utilize the three-strike rule. The first offense results in a citation, the second infraction results in a number of days off without pay, and the third violation may result in dismissal. The safety practitioner may write up the offending worker, but it is the supervisor who may send the worker home or fire them.

That approach, though seemingly effective, has been found to be of limited value to the organization. Since there is usually more than one job site and a lot of workers, the safety practitioner cannot see every worker all the time, and so it's impossible to catch all safety infractions. Policing also creates a climate that fosters the creation of responses that also have a negative impact on the relationships and interaction of the people.

Assessor/Reporter

In all likelihood, the safety practitioner is also required to report to management on the state of safety in general and possibly on specific worksites. To do this, they probably submit reports verbally or in writing. They investigate accidents and report on them. In all likelihood, they liaise with the insurer or broker to arrive at an annual plan for improving the organization's safety results going forward. 

A thing to consider is that some of these terms are sometimes used interchangeably when, in fact, there are subtle differences in their meaning, their application, and the ultimate benefit to the workforce as well as the organization. Each one of these methods provides the safety information in different ways to the workforce and is, therefore, received by the employees differently. In choosing one or more of these methods of providing safety information, the safety practitioner impacts the ultimate outcome of the effort. The chart below indicates how the safety practitioner interacts with the workforce and could do so with others, thereby garnering significantly better results.

Ideal Safety Management Practice

So, in carrying out their responsibilities, safety practitioners may utilize different approaches in dealing with the workforce, jobsite supervision, and management. They may choose to function as a reporter and consultant to management, as an inspector, reporter, and adviser to supervision, and as an observer, trainer, coach, mentor, or counselor when interacting with the workforce (see "A Possible Approach to Managing Safety Performance"). This is dependent on a number of factors that are unique to each organization, its staff as well as its partners, the makeup of the workforce, and, more importantly, the personality of the safety practitioner.

A POSSIBLE APPROACH TO MANAGING SAFETY PERFORMANCE
Diagram - Possible Approach to Managing Safety Performance using management and supervision with positive and negative outcomes

Interfacing with the Workforce

Observer

How the safety practitioner interacts with the workforce after observing their actions affects how the workforce responds to the input provided. They may perceive this as negative (cop), neutral, or positive. The purpose of observation is to determine if the workforce is performing its work in a way that is consistent with safe work practices. Should the safety practitioner determine that there are workers performing their work in an unsafe manner, he or she needs to bring it to the worker's attention.

But in doing so, the safety practitioner must determine why the worker is performing the work in a certain manner. The driver of the behavior is important to identify before offering methods for doing that particular task "safely." There could be a number of reasons for the behavior. The worker has been tasked by the supervisor to perform the task in a fixed time frame, which is not enough, and the worker has resorted to a shortcut that he or she understands may not be strictly safe. Also, the workers' fear of failure to meet the goal may jeopardize their job, or the worker was given the wrong information, an inappropriate tool or equipment, the job is undermanned, or the physical condition dictates how the task must be performed, to name a few. The solution to this may be ineffective supervisory planning, poor risk assessment, ineffective organizations, etc.

Another important factor to ferret out is how this particular worker has performed similar tasks in the past. This may identify a lack of knowledge, inexperience, insufficiency of appropriate information, inadequacy of skill, physically incapable, bad habits, etc. This highlights a deficiency in the worker to meet the task demand, or supervisors do not know this particular employee's worker habits, which may be incompatible with that specific task. Basically, supervision failed to match worker capability to task demand and so made an inappropriate task assignment.

Supervisors must give instruction and provide direction to the workforce. This ensures that the worker is capable of performing the work in accordance with the task requirements. They try to develop the employee's skills, see to it that the task is done efficiently, and ensure that the employee is held accountable for the quality of the performance. This establishes ties to motivate the employee, builds trust, garners loyalty, fosters involvement, and ensures that the task is performed efficiently and effectively, as well as safely. This points to the fact that safety generally ought to be the responsibility of the supervisor, where positional power resides. The ideal place for safety practitioners is in a consultant's role, involved in providing risk assessment guidance at preconstruction, at the job setup, and during construction.

Trainer

The trainer tries to provide information and well as instruction that relates to the need of the task or organizational objectives. It generally entails providing data but may involve some discussion for clarification. The attendee's learning depends on the trainer's training abilities. Training is often sporadic and may not have an immediate link to task activities. If it is provided to a large group, there is often the risk of it being generic and aimed at the average of the group. 

The primary purpose of training is to provide information to employees who have gaps in their safety knowledge, are not utilizing the information instinctively, or may have somehow forgotten it. The advantage of such training is that it makes employees more effective in performing their work due to the fact that risk is minimized. But, the important consideration is that these are the states in effect and not that the worker has consciously decided to ignore safety considerations due to production goal-attainment issues.

For training to be efficient, it must fill gaps in the employee's knowledge. For the training to be effective, it has to be presented in such a way that employees understand it and utilize it in their daily work activities. The training should be such that it develops the employee's long-term career goal, which will promote greater job satisfaction. A more satisfied employee is likely to stay longer, be more productive, and care about the organization's well-being.

Coach

A coach helps develop specific skills of an employee. Coaching is and should be impartial when assisting in the improvement of work behavior. The coach tries to direct a person toward the preferred end-result. The person's endeavor is then assessed by the coach, who then provides advice on what is working and what is not, as well as giving additional guidance for improvement of what is not working and perfecting what is. 

One of the more productive ways to improve an employee's performance is coaching. This could be an effective part of the day-to-day interaction between a technical expert and the employee who wants to do a good job and be successful at it. One of the ways coaching is effective is in the way feedback is given. Constructive feedback must be given in such a way that the employee perceives that it is meant to not only improve their performance but to ensure their success. Positive feedback lets the employee know when they are effective contributors. By providing positive feedback, the safety practitioner lets the employee know the actions he or she would like to reinforce so that they will readily repeat them.

Mentor

The mentoring process involves giving and receiving information and providing direction as well as evaluating options. Effective mentoring involves a willingness of the mentor to share his or her experience and knowledge with the employee being mentored and should be based on that person's perceived challenges and needs. Good mentoring develops a strong and potentially lasting relationship between both parties. The mentor can act as a sounding board for the person being mentored so as to understand concerns and help with clarification, as well as provide options in overcoming barriers. The mentor has a deep personal interest, is personally involved, and is a friend who cares about the person being mentored. The mentor focuses on the employee's long-term growth, development, and success.

The benefits of mentoring are well-known. It gives less-experienced employees valuable feedback, insight, and support while passing down values, wisdom, and institutional knowledge. Organizations that are engaged and support mentoring programs, as well as the participating employees, benefit from improved performance, across the board engagement, and overall success. In general, employees want to feel that they are valued by the organization they work for and that their success is as important to the organization as to themselves.

Counselor

The counseling process is about providing a sounding board for an employee, giving them a safe place to talk about issues that may trouble or challenge them, and allowing counselors to help them find their own workable solutions to problems or to possibly develop better ways to manage issues or concerns. It is not so much about giving advice but about providing a nonjudgmental, empathic means to allow an employee to find a way forward that best meets their needs.

Conclusions

Each of the five proposed methods of interacting with the workforce results in a different working relationship that the safety practitioner is able to create. Which one of these roles the safety practitioner chooses to use or in what combination will have an effect on the results they achieve in their ability to effectively manage the safety of the worksite. The interpersonal skills of the safety practitioner will determine the effectiveness of the intervention as well as its influence on the individual worker. The safety practitioner's influence is proportionate to the perceived value they can bring to the relationship.


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