Expert Commentary

Ten Elements of Safety Excellence: An Integrated Organizational Approach to Construction Safety

Construction companies face many risks in their operations. These risks and their resulting losses can involve property, income, liability, and/or injury to employees. Risk management and safety professionals assist organizations in the management of these risks. Risk management professionals usually defer to the safety department to manage the safety process focusing on worker injury prevention. The most effective risk management technique is to eliminate the risks from the operations. If elimination is not possible, then minimizing the adverse effect of the risk is pursued.


Construction Safety
December 2011

General contractors try to eliminate such risks from their operations by subcontracting; this is referred to as risk transfer. But risk transfer only applies to organizations that do not themselves perform any of the work. So, those general contractors, subcontractors, and fabricators that perform work must manage such risks effectively.

History of Construction Safety

The construction industry started to take safety management seriously after the passage of workers compensation (WC) legislation, first enacted by Wisconsin in 1911, with the rest of the states following thereafter. Prior to that, organizations had no responsibility for occupational injuries suffered by workers. WC rating takes the type of work (class code) in which the worker is engaged and uses the employer's loss experience to modify the insurance rate charged. Employers that manage their safety process effectively and have fewer worker injuries than the industry average pay a lower premium than the established base rate. Due to this element in the program, over time employers have endeavored to positively affect their safety process and so manage the organization's cost of risk.

Between the passage of WC laws and the late 1960s, the effort to improve safety was driven by organizations interested in reducing their cost of doing business. Due to changes in society's outlook on occupational injuries, it was generally believed that businesses were not doing enough to reduce accidents. In 1970, the federal government enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). These standards obligate certain employers to have a safety process with which to implement the requirements of the standards. These include writing a safety program (for illness and injury prevention) and effectively managing it. Most safety programs are about the prevention of injury and/or illness to the organization's employees and involve a regurgitation of the safety standards as promulgated by the jurisdiction in which the organization resides. In an effort to make their programs more effective, some firms have added elements dealing with substance abuse, driving for the company, work practices, incentives and punishment, wellness, etc.

The Three Es

The content of such programs can be categorized in three fundamental areas, represented by the three Es: engineering controls, education (training), and enforcement (inspection). The three Es reportedly were a simplification of American industrial safety pioneer Herbert William Heinrich's 10 axioms for safety management written in the late 1920s. One can safely draw the conclusion that the OSHA standards also fall into these very same basic areas. The standards focus on hazards in the workplace with means of providing physical controls to protect workers. The education element requires employers to train their employees in the requirements of the standards and the use of protective equipment. The enforcement elements deal with site inspections to ensure that conditions reflect the requirements of the standards and that the workers are complying with them. It is interesting to note that it has been almost a century since the construction industry has been trying to control workplace injuries, and OSHA has been in effect for 4 decades, yet occupational injuries still occur despite all the effort to prevent them.

The bulk of this effort is directed to controlling the hazards workers may be exposed to in the physical environment. H.W. Heinrich conducted a research project and reviewed thousands of accident reports for causation. His findings indicated that 2 percent of the accidents had indeterminate causes ("acts of God"). Ten percent of the accidents were traced to causes from the physical environment, and 88 percent resulted from actions (unsafe acts) by the employees. Frank E. Bird Jr. validated this finding in the late 1960s in a much larger study, which attributed 5 percent of accident causes to the physical environment and 95 percent to unsafe acts by workers. So, it would seem that safety programs, which generally focus on the physical aspects of the work site, are not structured to address the area where most of the risk resides.

Construction Industry's Approach to Safety

At a recent national safety conference, researchers from the University of Tennessee reported on a study they conducted involving a large group of contractors. These contractors reported that approximately 6–7 percent of the estimated total cost of construction went into insurance premiums, related safety expenses, and injury costs. These same contractors reported a 1.5 percent profit from their operations. The conclusion they drew was that contractors could greatly improve their profits by more effectively managing their safety process and controlling the related costs. This is also borne out by owner controlled insurance program or contractor controlled insurance program results as reported by a number of brokers and insurance companies. They report dramatic reduction in injury rates and substantial reductions in the cost of risk. One may also divine that reduced injury rates translate into better planned operations with greater operational efficiencies, which would further improve productivity and profits.

In reviewing the industry's approach to safety, it seems that organizations are still engaged in the traditional initiatives, with more of the same—only done more rigorously. This effort generally includes writing or rewriting elements of the safety program, reviewing past losses, and implementing priority programs to address specific losses from the past. It also includes providing training or retraining to the employees, focused inspection to correct field conditions, finding noncomplying workers and "writing them up," giving incentives for no recordable injuries over a set period of time, or writing procedures of how to deal with hazardous operations or conditions, to name a few. Unfortunately these interventions are not highly effective as contractors still have workers getting injured on their work sites. As these efforts have not proven effective in dramatically reducing injury rates, then it stands to reason that construction companies need to try innovative approaches to reduce their safety results so as to improve their competitive advantage as well as positively impact their bottom line results.

Another significant element of the cost of risk vis-à-vis the construction industry improvement rate is that the increase in medical care costs is dramatically outpacing it. So, even though companies are improving on or doing somewhat better than the industry rate, they are actually "falling behind," and their ineffective safety management processes further erode their profits. The construction industry was forced to go from a no-safety-process posture before the enactment of various WC laws to what can be termed as traditional safety, where these organizations try to comply with federal safety standards. This safety focus could have also been triggered by some major loss event with significant financial impact. To transition to safety performance that produces optimal results, the organization must go through a radical organizational change related to its vision, systems, strategy, and operations. Since the contractor controls safety, and there are significant and ample opportunities to improve it, then, given the economic and business environment of today, effectively managing safety not only improves the bottom line but also may be a matter of survival!

Reassessing Construction Safety Management

Given this economic reality, it may be prudent to reassess the way business and safety are managed to find a more effective way to execute as well as engage management and employees in achieving stellar results. In fact, since the mid-1990s, most organizations have restructured the way they manage their organizations. Before the advent of the Balanced Scorecard strategic performance management framework, organizations were managed from one perspective—by financial metrics alone. But due to dramatic changes in the economy, globalization, etc., Fortune 1,000 companies now manage their businesses using organizational scorecards with multiple perspectives. It is no surprise that safety would greatly benefit from such an innovation in measurement, because the existing metrics are historical and not of much use in day-to-day management.

The thinking behind this change in business and management approach was triggered by organizations' need to focus on their customers' demands and expectations, align business and operational process to respond to them, learn from their interactions and experience, as well as devise innovative solutions in improvement efforts to achieve desired financial results. This revolutionary approach has improved companies' agility, response to changing situations, and strategy deployment, as well as made them more efficient, competitive, and profitable. Construction safety management needs just such a dramatic overhaul.

Some of the deficiencies in the traditional safety programs and management processes are that they focused on one perspective: historical data analysis of past losses and accident investigation reports for improvement strategy deployment. Another problem is the fact that this assessment is done annually, and so this information is not highly useful in effectively managing day-to-day operations and improvement in "real time." The primary focus is on the worker rather than all the stakeholders in the organization and the operational process. Little attention is given to why workers do what they do, while interventions are driven by engineering controls or training solutions. These have proven to be less than effective in creating a zero-harm work environment.

Contractors have process metrics to drive their operations and a defined process to control them. At the end of each day, the foremen or superintendents have a pretty good idea of whether they are on target to make their production goals and are therefore able to address any shortfalls in "real time." They also control the flow of resources (personnel, material, and money) at formal meetings, with the involved parties documenting the discussion and agreements. This is not the case with safety, where the metrics may be informal "snapshot" job walks and/or annual reviews of loss statistics. Historical data and information may be useful to get an overall picture of the effectiveness of the company's effort, but it is of little use in managing daily operations, which is what is needed at the job site.

Any organization produces a product or service, has internal systems with which to achieve this, and has people to operate and manage the systems to produce the output. The sources of risk are in either the systems or the people. The operational function resides within the larger organizational entity. The organization also has systems and people. The systems include staffing, accounting, marketing, legal, hiring resources, performance evaluation, salaries, benefits, etc., to name a few. And the people involved include the manager and executives.

In construction, the output is the completed structure. The operational systems include scheduling, estimating, procuring, expediting, cost control, as well as the plant, equipment, and tools. The people are the producers (workers). What is important to note is that the workers are the ones exposed to work site hazards and the ones who potentially get injured. They have to function within the operations systems, which are devised and managed by supervisors as well as management.

Workers work because they have to. The worker is selected, hired, and assigned work by managers. Management must ensure that workers meet the company's work expectations. If they do not, then it is management's responsibility to either provide guidance, coaching, or training as necessary or take some other appropriate action to rectify the situation. To keep their jobs, workers have to function within the operations and meet required objectives, at designated speeds to meet production goals, using provided tools, in designated locations, in assigned crews, etc. They have little control over any of this except their own actions. So, if keeping their jobs means meeting or exceeding management's expectations, they will do so. And if this entails taking risks, then in all likelihood, workers will choose to do that as well.

Since management controls virtually everything on-site, managers are responsible for doing the necessary planning, assessing and anticipating potential risks, responding to changed conditions rapidly, and effectively coordinating the work to minimize worker exposure to dangerous conditions and risks. To achieve a zero-harm work environment, then, there needs to be an alignment of vision with capabilities, an integration of systems and goals, a synthesis of expectations and motivation. Things have to align horizontally as well as vertically. The strategy and metrics have to be realistic and achievable. Organizational resources and personnel capabilities have to be carefully assessed for strengths and weaknesses.

The lack of safety performances is a symptom of a failure in the organization's management system! So a paradigm shift is in order. Organizations need to look at safety holistically as an integral part of the organization's policies, procedures, and practices, and not as an independent function. If the organization is serious about keeping its employees injury free, then it needs to look at not only the employee but also the physical environment, the human dynamics, the systems, as well as the organizational culture, climate, and leadership. All of these in one way or another influence the decisions employees make, which sometimes lead to an incident, injury, or loss. More recent thinking espouses that, ultimately, the greatest drivers of incidents, injuries, and losses are the systems, leadership, climate, and culture of the organization. And this brings us to the 10 elements of the safety excellence framework.

Note: See "The 10 Elements Framework" in January 2012.


*This article was presented at various national conferences, to management and employees at various organizations, as well as to students at the University of California at Berkeley. The paper has a risk management and injury prevention focus; however, the basic framework (with some changes) is applicable to any form of human performance reliability and management.


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