Expert Commentary

Truly Improve Construction Risk Management: Reexamine Traditional Safety Solutions

Safety improvement is traditionally addressed at organizations in a manner that mimics the "new year resolution" syndrome. Every year, people make resolutions for improving something the following year. In safety, the same thing happens—it is easy to find something that needs improvement or to emphasize in the coming year.


Construction Safety
February 2008

This retrospection is often brought on by workers compensation insurance renewals and generally stems from a review of the previous year's losses, discovering the most significant loss leader(s), and making it a priority to lower those particular outcomes over the following year.

Usually, when things get concerted attention, they tend to improve. The improvement may come as a result of greater management oversight, better planning, improvement in worker knowledge, better execution, etc., to name a few. The following year's loss data will show this improvement, and so some other new losses will appear at the top of the list, thereby becoming the next year's "cause to champion"—so we find another thing to "fix." Given this scenario, the interventions and resources tend to become priority driven and subject to short-term "fixes."

Ineffective Performance Solutions

There is also the possibility that the improvement may result from the selected interventions impacting the symptoms rather than the underlying causes. In that case, even though some improvement is seen, it is usually short-lived, and the loss data the following year will most probably show some other significant loss drivers at the top of the list. Because the safety interventions did not address the underlying causes of those particular losses, they eventually resurface and those same losses increase again, starting this "priority" cycle all over again.

"Treating the Symptom" Performance Graph

Treating the Symptom Performance Graph

"Wacking the Mole" Performance Graph

Wacking the Mole Performance Graph

There is also the situation where an organization's losses just do not seem to respond to safety interventions as before (somewhat similar to the situation above but reflecting total performance rather than one loss category). The loss reduction effort tends to be successful up to a point, after which no matter what tools or techniques are used or emphasized, the losses do not seem to respond. The losses seem to have a "mind of their own"; They go up and down in spite of everyone's best efforts. Performance has reached a plateau!

The Problem with Traditional Interventions

Industrial activities (operations) virtually always have multiple risks associated with them. These risks have varying effect on the "work." So in the scenario depicted below, probably one or a few of the risks were correctly identified and controlled, stopping their influence; but the others that had not been identified and controlled now come into play and drive the loss picture. The randomness of the results really indicates that there is no control exerted by the organization on their loss picture (results) and the law of probability is driving performance!

Typical Variability Graph

Typical Variability Graph

The problem here is in the intervention methodology. These folks are utilizing the traditional safety solutions, based on traditional intervention methodologies. First of all, they are starting from loss data which tells them what the problem may be, but not the causes of these problems. If they conduct further research and review their accident data, then the quality of the data comes into play. Who labeled the losses? How was the loss categorized? If it was a claims handler who read the accident report, then it may have been “wrongly” labeled, from a loss prevention perspective.

For example, let’s say that a worker carrying a long piece of lumber trips and falls. The claims department will in all likelihood label the accident's cause as manual material handling. This would probably trigger an ergonomic solution response. But let’s say that the worker tripped while carrying the lumber because there was a lot of debris on the floor. The ergonomic response would be an ineffective preventative solution. The appropriate intervention in this case would be housekeeping. This is a simplistic example, but it makes the point that how the injury is labeled or identified may actually be part of the problem. This sort of process may not generate the appropriate interventions, and losses would continue in spite of the organization’s efforts. And usually when the added effort does not generate the expected results, the typical solution is to do perform the interventions more rigorously.

When additional effort doesn't work, then external factors are cited as the elements to blame. These may include blaming some of the workforce, the state of the economy, competition, etc. In reality, the source of the problem may be the analysis and methods of intervention selected by the organization.

The interventions discussed so far are the typical ones found in the governing safety standards, industry procedures, and reflect traditional safety practices. These standards were developed about 40 years ago and are based on practices that were being followed in the industry from the turn of the last century. Times have changes, but the interventions have not.

Developing Effective Performance Solutions

It is unrealistic to continue to apply the same interventions going forward and expect to get different results! So the organization must find some other approach to resolve its loss picture. There are a number of areas that can be explored to find more effective tools. These are in the operations area, business processes, and organizational systems. Each of these has residing risks that have to be identified, assessed, and eliminated or controlled. Given the above, it seems clear that to solve the safety performance problem one has to look at it from all of these perspectives. Doing so will achieve stellar safety performance, the results of which are depicted in the graph below.

Stair-Step Performance Graph

Stair-Step Performance Graph

The Four Cornerstones of Effective Performance

The first cornerstone is safety. The organization's safety program must be evaluated and perfected. It must include all the typical safety programs utilized by the best-in-class organizations. To this, the company must add all the programs that would address any unique requirements based on the type of work the company performs. And, of course, the programs must be flawlessly implemented.

The second cornerstone is operations. This area is where the organization engages in what it does to exist. This may involve producing a product or service. Some of the tools in this area may include a risk assessment process, planning the operations so that the safety of the workforce is identified and detriments are eliminated.

The next cornerstone is business processes. Here we identify how the business goes about dealing with external and internal customers. These dealings also have risk. This area would include the type of contracts the organization signs and the kinds of commitments it makes in terms of volume, speed, and quality.

And the last area in which risk may reside is the organizational systems. This is how things get done, what the expectation are, what organizational behaviors are tolerated or accepted, what leadership does, what values are deemed important, the vision of the organization’s future state, management’s strategy, business goals, and objectives, etc. This area is probably the most difficult to influence or change.

It is important to stress in each of these four areas, risks have to be identified, assessed and eliminated, or controlled. This is the way to truly improve the safety assessment process and achieve long-term safety performance goals.


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