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Construction Safety

The Ten Elements Framework

Peter Furst | January 1, 2012

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Construction workers in a group with all hands In

Ten Elements of Safety Excellence explained the risk associated with worker injuries, how it is managed, and ways to improve the process. This article discusses the framework itself—the tools, management techniques, and innovative strategies to reduce construction accidents.

Assuming that our vision at the organization is a zero-harm work environment, the elements of the construction safety excellence framework should make it possible to achieve this. The framework has three fundamental areas: technical, management, and innovative strategies.

Technical Tools

This area contains three elements:

  • Safety program
  • Risk management and preoperational planning
  • Resource management

1. Safety Program

This first element of the safety excellence framework involves creating an effective safety program with all the necessary aspects required to achieve safe work. The program should have sound engineering practices, state-of-the-art education and training, as well as oversight, audits, and inspections to ensure that policies, procedures, and expectations are effectively being carried out. Supervision must also ensure that workers understand the organizational vision for a zero-harm work environment as well as performance expectations and that they adhere to them 100 percent of the time.

The safety program should also include processes and procedures that are easy to implement, modify as required, and sustain over time. For the program to function effectively and add value to the organization, supervision must execute in a way that ensures positive outcomes. Most companies' safety programs meet and/or exceed the Occupational Safety and Health Act's minimum requirements, but they generally fall short in the execution area. This is the challenge of production trumping protection. Senior management must ensure that organizational mechanisms support and sustain the zero-harm vision with processes, procedures, and resources.

2. Risk Management and Preoperational Planning

The second element of the safety excellence framework has two major categories: risk management and preoperational planning. Both are critical to creating a zero-harm work environment. This is by far the most important element in the technical area. The identification, assessment, and management of risk as well as effective tactical, logistical, and task planning of the operations are critical to ensuring a zero-harm operation. Planning operations is a contractor strength, and the task is critical to a contractor's ability to function successfully. To achieve this, they have scheduling and planning tools as well as control mechanisms to ensure that their plans are effective and responsive to changing conditions. They regularly review, evaluate, and change plans as required to ensure that the project remains on track to completion. But when it comes to safety, none of these great tools is utilized to ensure that a safe work environment is established and maintained.

Most projects do not have a risk matrix or log. Risk is usually not formally discussed or addressed in the planning process—or in the operational plan, for that matter, when it comes to worker safety. It is generally assumed and expected that the worker is responsible for working safely. (This thinking ignores many of the potential risk factors in the operation.) Yes, it is the worker's responsibility to use good judgment and follow good work practices, but what if the worker is deficient in this area? Will the organization suffer operationally, production-wise, and/or financially from the worker's poor judgment? Would it not seem prudent for the organization to have defined procedures to ensure that this is not left solely to the worker's discretion and have procedures to ensure that work practices are managed effectively and proactively?

The organization should have a risk management procedure comparable to the planning process. The project should be evaluated for inherent risk at project inception (bid time). This effort should evaluate the project's inherent risks so that these may be addressed in the operational plan, estimating, pricing, and the bid itself. After securing the job, just as most construction firms produce a master schedule, the firm should create a master risk matrix or log. This becomes the basis for the project's risk management process for the duration of the project. This document must be regularly reviewed, updated, and modified to take into account project changes, which are certain to occur. Since most contractors do not have a formal exposure risk management process, some risks go unidentified and eventually cause an unanticipated undesirable outcome. These are sometimes labeled "freak accidents" and are generally accepted as something about which nothing can be done.

Contractors are good at planning their operations and have a process as well as procedures to maintain it over time to address project changes and needs. This plan usually does not take safety into account. If you look at any project schedule, there is no reference to safety activities or safety requirements as a function of the tasks or operation. Safety resides in a separate silo!

Safety is a product of human performance. Just as project "speed" can impact production, excessive speed can adversely impact quality and reduce the time needed to address planning and coordination. Understaffing may affect the quality of planning, communication, problem solving, and other functions of management as well. Both excessive speed and understaffing will have an adverse effect on safety! So it stands to reason that the planning function should take risk and safety into account.

Typically, safety planning uses the job safety analysis (or some variation of this tool) to assess operational risk for planning purposes. This tool was created in the 1930s. It is a good tool but somewhat antiquated and should be upgraded to take innovations in "new" safety thinking into account. Safety planning should be integrated into the operational plan and be reviewed, modified, and updated along with the project schedule and operational plan.

3. Resource Management

The third element of the safety excellence framework within technical tools is effective resource management. Essentially, this element ensures that all the resources required to achieve a zero-harm work environment are available and utilized to properly execute and maintain the program. This means that the organization must provide the financial resources, opportunities, tools, equipment, training, and time required to educate and protect its employees. It also means providing supervision and job management with the appropriate resources and information as well. The organization must strive to put the "right" people in the "right" position at the "right" time.

Management Techniques

The management aspect of the construction safety excellence framework includes:

  • Performance management
  • Performance metrics
  • Systems improvement, alignment, and integration

4. Performance Management

The fourth element of the safety excellence framework is performance management. This element must be carefully aligned with the fifth and sixth elements. Safety outcomes are the result of human performance. Since humans work within the organization's systems and are subject to the organization's performance metrics, if we expect to achieve zero injuries, we need to manage the organizational systems more effectively. There are four basic elements to fostering high performance:

  1. A compelling vision
  2. A well-defined and communicated strategy
  3. Alignment of business technology and process architecture, with vertical and horizontal integration (If something does not add value, it is modified or eliminated.)
  4. Active management of a number of key performance indicators and measures that are tied to the organizational strategy scorecard as well as goals and key success factors

There are three basic business strategic focuses: a cost focus, a product focus, and a customer (stakeholder) focus. In construction, we certainly are focused on the budget (cost focus), and we have to satisfy the owner (customer focus) and work with a number of other businesses and agencies to deliver the completed project. The finished structure (product focus) has to meet quality expectations for acceptance and final payment. How the company chooses to go about accomplishing these goals creates the mechanisms that cause workers to make decisions, which may lead to adverse and unanticipated outcomes.

On an operational level, this includes such things as goal setting, performance measurement, and procedure development to establish accountability, which affects all the employees. Businesses usually handle this in their job descriptions and annual performance evaluation process. This generally is not applied to the first-line supervisor (lead men and foremen) level and almost never to any employee for safety performance. To achieve a zero-harm work environment, human performance must be managed robustly and intelligently.

Job descriptions need to incorporate safety. Listing them in the safety program reinforces the "silo mentality." Then, objective-setting sessions between the employee and his or her immediate supervisor need to be held. This is rather important as it sets expectations and defines what "good" looks like. It also can create an opportunity to provide feedback on performance both formally and informally and should be done multiple times to influence performance.

To achieve a zero-harm environment, performance has to be managed to that end. To accomplish this, the organization's systems (sixth element) have to be devised to foster superior performance, and to improve and sustain it, the metric system (fifth element) has to be aligned with the performance goals, expectations, processes, practices, and procedures. Project supervision must also ensure that the workforce is knowledgeable and capable. The task design and demand need to align with the zero-harm vision. The task assignment takes the worker's capability into account.

5. Performance Metrics

The fifth element of the safety excellence framework within management techniques is performance metrics. To manage human performance, the organization needs data and information as well as a system with which to accomplish this. This area deals with how and what aspects of performance should be measured to attain appropriate information to effectively manage outcomes. Metrics should provide actionable information. Typically, most safety measures are historical. These may be useful to get a sense of how the organization has performed historically but are not of much use in managing safety in "real time."

Effective measurement has to be predictive as well as prescriptive in nature if it is to provide information for managing performance. Measurement is difficult because it is not an exact science. There are no hard-and-fast rules of how to go about it. To make things more complicated, it is difficult to predict the impact on individual behavior, the interactions and interrelationships between existing diverse variables, and the new ones introduced by the new metrics. This is because people are involved, and their actions are inherently unpredictable. Another thing that contributes to the complexity is that important factors are often hard to measure consistently and objectively. To effectively measure these factors, variability and uncertainty must be designed out of the system.

The scorecard also serves to bring together into one report several important but seemingly diverse aspects of the business, such as the external and internal focus. Any organizational scorecard will influence the thinking of senior managers and force them to consider all the important operational measures holistically. It also allows them to see whether improvement in one area is gained at the expense of another. "Even the best objectives may be achieved badly." Another important aspect of the organizational scorecard is that it creates a platform for alignment within the organization. This is important to strategy deployment and guarding against suboptimization. Organizational metrics have to be aligned with the organizational vision and the scorecard.

6. System Design, Alignment, and Integration

The sixth element of the safety excellence framework within management techniques is system design, alignment, and integration. This is an important element as people have to function within systems. Thus, if the systems are not well designed, they will create a barrier to performance. Systems tend to "erode" over time. In other words, due to incremental change, the systems may be modified and so become misaligned with other systems or organizational goals.

External factors can also impact the systems and "push" them out of alignment. Organizations may create new systems for a number of reasons. Not making sure that new systems are in sync with existing systems can create impediments to performance. Senior management creates the systems in which the employees have to function. If a system does not have a robust process to assess potential inconsistencies, there is a good chance that the intended change is going to create some unanticipated outcomes.

In reality, systems that are not well aligned create environments where employees are faced with conflicting rules, expectations, or goals and have to make choices between which ones to meet and which ones to ignore. This is the classical protection versus productions tension. There are a couple of realties in play here: Workers work because they need to work, and they rarely get hurt when they take shortcuts. If the evolving situation places workers in the position where they have to choose between cutting corners and missing a production goal, they are going to come down on the production side to the detriment of protection.

It is imperative that systems be very carefully and diligently designed. The interfaces between systems have to be studied for inconsistencies and barriers. The impact of systems on people also has to be very carefully addressed. Every time systems are modified, plans are changed, processes are altered, procedures are transformed, expectations are revised, information differs, goals are switched, practices are swapped, and strategy is redone. In other words, the risk picture changes. People assess the "new" reality, which leads to actions that may not be in line with the organization's expectations.

Innovative Strategies

The innovative strategies aspect of the construction safety excellence framework includes human dynamics, specifically:

  • Behavioral interventions
  • Innovation, growth, and learning
  • Leadership
  • Culture

7. Behavioral Interventions

The seventh element of the safety excellence framework deals with behavioral interventions. This element looks at the behaviors of individuals and tries to identify their underlying drivers, both intrinsic and extrinsic. This takes a much broader view of behavior and applies it to all employees, from the worker to senior staff. It also addresses the interactions of individuals with other people and their reactions to organizational systems, culture, climate, and management's actions.

During the 1980s and 1990s, behavior-based safety was a popular approach to safety performance improvement. Unfortunately, this, as in many other safety interventions, had a narrow focus. It was aimed at the individual worker. The underlying assumption was that, by providing feedback, one can change a person's behavior. This is true in some respects and can work if the workers have total control over their work, unaffected by external (system) stimuli.

The reality is that workers have to function within the organization's systems. This means that they have to produce at the expected level, meet production goals and organizational and supervisory expectations, follow formal and informal practices, act in an "acceptable" manner, understand internal politics, and "fit in" with the organization. The systems may influence workers' perceptions of their organization's expectations and so drive them to make choices that are not expected, anticipated, or desired.

8. Innovation, Growth, and Learning

The eighth element of the safety excellence framework within innovative strategies is about innovation, growth, and learning, which are important because of the nature of modern business. Just about the only constant in business today is that change is inevitable, and change is occurring at faster and faster rates. So, organizations have to understand their competitive environment, understand customer (stakeholder) needs and wants, and be early adopters and change leaders. Innovation should be encouraged and rewarded. The idea is to create a synergistic environment that fosters innovative thinking.

Growth involves increased knowledge and understanding by the employees, thereby enabling them to effectively operate and support the internal integration and alignment necessary to create the injury-free workplace. Many companies struggle when trying to develop new and creative ideas. Why? It is difficult to think "outside the box," especially in challenging times when it seems you are running as hard and fast as possible just to keep up. But finding successful innovation often is the key to getting off the treadmill. Here are some places to look:

  • Innovative systems—Changing how the day-to-day business of an organization is done and how operations deliver products and services to clients or customers. The systems have to be designed in such a way so as to foster a zero-harm work environment.
  • Innovation structure—Changing the processes, practices, and procedures of the organization in innovative ways can create exciting new products, services, and optimum results in production quality and safety. Properly used metrics can foster innovative thinking.
  • Innovation skills—Developing new capabilities and enhanced competencies in the employees within the organization, not only to foster but also to sustain the zero-harm work environment
  • Shared innovation values—Building on strong shared beliefs and common goals in the organization to drive aspirations and strategies that guide activities and initiatives resulting in an injury-free environment

Innovation must be integrated into the organizational, business, and operational strategy. Companies need to continually change and evolve if they are to survive.

9. Leadership

The ninth element of the safety excellence framework is leadership and is probably the most important element in the framework. Leaders can motivate the employees, create a climate of trust, support innovation, proactively manage change, and help create a culture of caring and execution.

Leading with principles involves behaving ethically, with integrity, demonstrating concern, giving credit where it is due, and treating others with respect and fairness. It also involves sharing control with others and providing them with relevant and timely information with which to act in the best interest of the organization. Leaders create opportunities for others to succeed by removing barriers. They challenge the status quo and become a change agent. Leaders recognize good ideas and find ways to be early adopters. They understand their constituents, forge a unity of purpose, ignite passion, and breathe life into others' hopes and dreams.

Leadership involves strategic thinking, which is all about connecting creativity with value. Leadership is also about transformational thinking, which is the ability to take radically new ideas and make them work, and modeling the way—showing others what success looks like. Work on small wins and show people that they can in fact win. Leaders build workers' self-confidence, celebrate accomplishments, and are proponents of win-win thinking. Leadership creates a climate that fosters involvement, promotes excellence, and creates a zero-harm culture.


The tenth element of the safety excellence framework in management strategies deals with organizational culture, and this is where the very essence of the organization exists. The values, vision, and strategies devised by the leadership ultimately affect everything the organization achieves and becomes. There are the visible aspects of culture that are readily discernible. These are such things as organizational structure, process, procedures, and practices. At a deeper level are the espoused values, which drive the organizational strategies, goals, and philosophies. The foundational core to all this is the underlying beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Herein lies the ultimate source of values and resulting actions. Herein is the link between culture and organizational performance.

Values say much about the organization. An organization's values are manifested in the actions and behaviors of management as well as its employees. The following examples of an organizational culture will not support or achieve excellence in any respect or category:

  • Where employees have to work 60–80 hour weeks to be considered to be pulling their own weight
  • Where risk taking is only rewarded when you win
  • Where failure is unacceptable even when you learn from it
  • Where safety is only important because it costs money when accidents occur
  • Where management says, "We hire bright people who know how to beat the system." "Our competitors are generally stupid and are rarely better than we are." "Employees who quit are generally ones we don't mind losing." "We don't believe in communicating much with our employees about the company's future; they won't understand it."
  • Where employees are treated like expendable resources such that when the organization's strategy fails, workers are laid off and management is rewarded

The only way an organization attains excellence is through the combined efforts of everyone working in it. To achieve this, there has to be fairness. In a value-based organizational culture, everyone leads from core principles, contributes to safe operations, is involved, and champions safety. Safety is integrated into operations and is the way business is done at that organization.

Once an employee of a successful organization was asked about what made it a great company to work for. She said, "I love my company because it loves me back." That is profound.


In reviewing the 10 elements, one sees that only the technical cornerstone really falls into the safety area. The rest are a part of the way the organization is structured and goes about doing business. The only way to truly manage the risk of incidents, injuries, and losses involving the company's workforce is to require an analysis of the means and methods, the planning, systems and metrics, strategies, behaviors, and leadership within the organization.

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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