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Construction Safety

The Construction Safety Test

TJ Lyons | March 24, 2016

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Two construction workers studying paperwork

A colleague of mine had the opportunity to work for a large manufacturer. His "welcome kit" included a hardhat, a safety vest, safety glasses, and a glossy book describing his company's history. It was a big company, so it was a big book. Since he was joining their safety department, he looked for the safety section to get a feel for the firm, but there wasn't one. Schedule and profit sharing, yes, but no section on safety. That was his test.

Can planning and working safely be in your company's blood? Yes, and it's worth taking a moment to see how you, your firm, or your operation rank. Below, I roughed out a test that will work for companies of all sizes—from a large firm to a team of six in Africa constructing a refinery.

You may not score well on all points, but you will get a feel for what more you can do. I work for the greatest firm in the country, Gilbane Construction. When we say "Gilbane cares," we mean it. You see that in the field, in how we work, and in how we talk. That's the test. Ask yourself, are we a perfect firm firing on every cylinder? Most of the time. Do we make mistakes? Sure. I made one last week, and that was a hard lesson to carry forward. We had a great system, and I did not monitor it closely enough—my lesson learned.

After I had penned this article, the Gilbane director of safety, Tony O'Dea, reviewed it and pointed me to a wonderful paper developed by the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Titled Safety Culture and Climate in Construction: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice, it's the result of a brainstorming session with some of the best safety folks across the United States on what makes a great safety culture. It's a solid tool to look at your firm and where you might "rank" based on those with real experience. The report was compiled by a mix of contractors, contractor associations, organized labor, and insurers, and when you read it, you will love it.

That said, I did cringe at using their use of word "dysfunctional" to describe a firm's "culture." Many smaller and less-sophisticated firms simply do not know how the more successful firms operate. That is our gift to share. An example of how to use the data is shown below. Read the report, for it will validate for many what you may have suspected for years.

What happens after an accident? Is the feedback loop being closed?
After an accident, the focus is on the employee, and they are often fired. The priority is to limit damage and get back to production. Line management is annoyed by 'stupid' accidents. After an accident, reports are not passed up the line if it can be avoided. Warning letters are sent by management. Workforce reports their own accidents but maintain distance with contractor incidents. Management goes ballistic when they hear of an accident—"What does this do to our statistics?" Management is disappointed but asks about the well-being of those involved. Investigation focuses on underlying causes, and the results are fed back to the supervisory level. Top management is seen among the people involved directly after an accident. They show personal interest in individuals and the investigation process. Employees take accidents to others personally.
Matt Gillen, Dr. Linda M. Goldenhar, Steve Hecker, and Scott Schneider, Safety Culture and Climate in Construction: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice (2014, pg. 48.) A

My Example of a Great Test

In the most important moment of my career, I found myself walking a government site with one of the best safety professionals in the United States. He was working for the client. As we walked this complex project with my site safety manager (Dan), the expert commented, "So Dan, do you think all accidents are avoidable?" Dan replied, "Do you mean all incidents? Even the little things, like stitches?" The expert replied, "Well … kind of," and we continued on our walk. The next morning, I was told to report to the site, relieve Dan from duty, and take his place for the rest of the project. That was one of the greatest tests I have ever witnessed.

I have put together my own tests that you may be able to use to explore your operation—a litmus test for safety flowing in your firm—but first, I want to include a few of my thoughts.

A Test of Our US Safety Culture?

In the United States, we have a long way to go before we accept that all accidents are preventable and before we stop recognizing just one loss—catastrophic loss. Following are recent examples of poor judgment in US construction. I'm not naming names; I'm just providing examples. A quick Google search will confirm such events.

Last month, an alert was sent on a troubling trend (fatalities) on US-funded government projects. The article included the following statement. "Unfortunately, there have been multiple fatal mishaps which mar the injury record." Perhaps a list of those who died and the families who were left to struggle would be more powerful than lamenting the effect on data. That fails my personal test on caring.

The second example is a situation where LEED certification was awarded to a building despite the fact that workers died erecting it. When someone is killed creating our palaces, we should name that palace in his or her name, not present a trophy. That is my test. I am shaking my head at this practice, and I hope to change it in my lifetime.

In a recent investigation where a worker fell through a skylight to  his death, the state investigation recommended, "If the employer had policies and procedures that would have prevented the victim from servicing the air conditioner, this incident would have been prevented." 1 I called the investigator and suggested that they install a skylight you cannot fall through. This group failed my test—elimination of the hazard is the first solution.

My last test is from a recent report on an accident. The US government agency  overseeing the investigation stated in a letter to that contractor, "…we are not instructing, guiding, or directing you in any way and that you are entirely responsible for compliance with contract health and safety requirements." Until everyone helps keep everyone safe, we will struggle as a nation.

Test Your Organization

Each of the following is based on my experience or feedback, or was collected from some of the great people I know in the construction field. Everyone's "test" has a story behind it.

Operational Responsibility

One of my best friends tells this story. After a bad fall, a conference call was arranged to review the investigation steps. His vice president of safety remarked, "I thought we had safety on that job," suggesting the fall should have been avoided because they had a safety person there. That fails the operational responsibility test.

Data Collection

Many firms collect inspection data, and it is typically their only approach to safety. So here is a quick way to get a feel for whether safety is part of your company's culture.

  • Do you focus and track who is not doing inspections to route them out for punishment?
  • Is there a minimum "safety score" expected for sites to meet?
  • As a manager, have you ever thanked anyone for doing a safety inspection?
  • Do operational staff members (executives or project managers) routinely do safety inspections when they visit a site or when stationed on a project?
  • Have you specifically documented and discussed a project manager's safety focus or lack of focus during his or her appraisal?
  • Do you collect data and get a feel for common trends but continue to track the same data you already understand?
  • At least once a year, does anyone in your firm routinely publish what the inspection data is saying?
  • Do you ever thank the safety managers who produce those summaries?
  • Does your firm publicly (internally) recognize those who are doing great inspections?
  • Does anyone in the firm look at the quality of the inspection data? Do you have someone in the ranks racking up 800–1,000 daily safety observations without one unsafe thing found?

Is Safety Truly Part of Your Firm's DNA?

  • Is safety mentioned in your company history? Here is a sample from my company's front page ( Check yours.

    We provide global integrated construction and facility management services. Our clients entrust us to deliver safe, quality projects that stand the test of time with over 140 years of building relationships, communities and families.

  • Is there a button on your webpage titled "Safety," or can the safety section be found within one click?
  • Have you sent a letter (not an email) proudly commending a subcontractor on their great safety performance within the last quarter?
  • Have you adopted the "safety first" mantra in tough times, meaning that safety managers and their salaries are the first to go?
  • As a project nears completion, do you pull out your full-time safety officer early to keep your margins in line?
  • When a project is being bid-out, does anyone ask, "Do we need safety on this one?"

When there is a retreat for those at the top level of the firm to plan for next year,

  • Is your safety director invited?
  • Is safety an item of discussion (look at your agenda)?
  • Is your safety or claims team called prior to the meeting for a summary of open claims and incident trends for top-level review?

When the meeting is complete and the following year plan is published,

  • Does it include a safety focus?
  • Is the plan forwarded to the safety and claims groups for their planning?

Testing Safety in the Field

  • If safety-toed boots are required on your site, do 100 percent of your people wear them?
  • Does your staff wear conventional prescription glasses rather than safety glasses?
  • Have you told your site superintendents they have done anything well within the last month?
  • Have you ever thanked a superintendent for doing a safety inspection?
  • When doing appraisals, is there a focus on safety that is discussed during their appraisal, or is it just a box to check?
  • Does the site safety team take the blame in an incident, or do you hear, "I thought we had safety on that project"?
  • Does your superintendent function as both quality control officer and safety officer?

If you are hoping to find a method to "score" your organization, you will not find one. Often, conversation is more important than measurement. As W. Edwards Deming said, " Three percent of the problems have figures, 97 percent of the problems do not. " (Check out the Expert Commentary articles on Dr. Deming by John Pryor, under Continuous Performance Improvement. The first article in the series is Deming Disciples—Our Industry's Real Leaders?)


Similar to raising children, we test as we go. When one obstacle, such as potty training, is accomplished (test passed), you then need to focus on another set of risks confronting those same children, such as eating too fast and choking (watch them eat), driving a car (driver's test), and coaching them on how to raise their children to use a potty-chair. Sounds a bit like the quality circle or continuous improvement, doesn't it?

To understand if you have a solid safety structure in your firm, you need to test it and then look at the answers you got wrong. Safety cannot be special; it must be routine.

When you look up the history of our Naval Submarine Fleet, safety was one of the prime motivations to the design, construction, and operation of the boats. Hyman Rickover, who developed the program, was one of the pioneers in safe design, quality, and efficiency. He was both loved and hated for his blunt approach to most everything (and people), but he went out with each new submarine for the first dive. That's a leader, and that was his test.

Construction Worker on a Ladder 2016

Photo by TJ Lyons

During the mid to late 1950s, Admiral Rickover revealed the source of his obsession with safety in a personal conversation with a fellow Navy captain. "I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That's my fundamental rule." 2

Sometimes, when looking at someone working in an unsafe manner, I think, "would I want my son to work like that?" The answer is my test. Of the things have I have learned in my career, the most important is that long-lasting change is incremental. Safety is routine in the nuclear Navy systems, like quality and planning. That kind of care for people is critical to a just culture. Acknowledge and embrace that.

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.


2 Lisle A. Rose, Power at Sea: A Violent Peace, 1946–2006 (2006), pg. 55.