How to Improve and Promote Safety in Construction

The construction industry poses unique health and safety challenges for its workers. In fact, about one out of every five workplace deaths in calendar year 2019 were construction-related, according to OSHA. Luckily, health and safety processes play a vital role in minimizing risks.

I spoke with two industry experts, Steve Mellard, national safety director at Anson Industries, and Desiree Ropel, safety manager at Hermanson Company, for an insider look into building a safety culture within the construction industry.  

The Importance of a Safety Culture

The term safety culture was first used by the International Atomic Energy Agency in its 1986 Chernobyl accident summary report to describe how the thinking and behaviors of people in the nuclear plant contributed to the accident. Decades later, successfully increasing employee buy-in to build a safety culture and safety program is still something that many construction organizations struggle with.

Aside from minimizing health risks and saving your organization money, a safety management program that fosters a safety culture also provides other benefits, including:

  • Improvements in quality and production
  • Increased employee morale
  • Gains in employee recruiting and retention
  • Better image and reputation among customers, suppliers and the community.

If having a safety program is the first step, the second step is ensuring that it is followed and enforced; otherwise, it will have little meaning or impact. Ropel points to the importance of buy-in from all employees: “It’s less about the words on the pages and mostly about buy-in from the people,” she says.

From the highest level of management to front-line employees, a safety program must have widespread buy-in to be successful. Engendering the importance of safety as a part of culture, rather than an add-on to it, is critical to buy-in.

Barriers to Garnering Employee Buy-In

There are many reasons why employees may not buy-in to a safety culture, including:

  • Employees may be unaware of the safety hazards they face and thus less receptive to the changes required to avoid them
  • Rapid organizational growth and lack of emphasis on safety practices
  • Perceived, or actual, lack of time to follow safety protocols
  • Disinterest in safety issues, as they don’t feel it’s relevant to them
  • Feelings of invincibility since they haven’t yet had an incident
  • Lack of management involvement and buy-in from the top.

How Buy-In Can Be Achieved

Laying out the vision, managing resistance early, and offering rewards and incentives are important first steps to achieving company-wide buy-in of your organization’s safety program. Here are four ways to get started:

Implement a safety incentive program. Mellard recommends utilizing a rewards program where gift cards and other apparel are awarded for following safety protocols. This helps to show employees—and their families—that safety behavior is valued and rewarded. The program should be simple, and rewards should be given often since safety behavior needs to be repeated daily.

Take an individual approach. While Mellard recommends a rewards program, he emphasizes that nothing beats a personalized approach. Employees need to feel heard and have an open forum where they can discuss safety issues freely and directly. It’s important that this communication is not blame-focused and is nonpunitive.

Enforce safety measures. It’s one thing to have a written policy; it’s another to actually enforce the policy. Employees need to know that safety is an enforced priority for upper management. Ropel recommends giving employees and field leaders ownership to help develop and enforce the policies. This way, everyone knows they have a voice, and it will be heard.

Write checklists. Integrating checklists is an extremely effective tool in creating employee buy-in. Safety solutions can allow for company-wide monitoring; audit and safety scheduling; push reminders; user specific dashboards; and more. This helps to ingrain a safety focus into everyday work and turn safety procedures into a routine part of the workday.

A Safety Program Needs Strong Leadership

Going hand-in-hand with employee buy-in is a strong leadership team that guides and enforces safety. For the safety program to be successful, leadership must be fully committed and lead by example. Leadership must also be prepared to nip any employee resistance in the bud. This is a crucial ingredient in creating a safety-oriented work culture. Implementing a successful safety program involves more than creating an employee handbook. It is the responsibility of every construction company to foster and nurture a safety culture.

One of the most important things that leadership can bring about is widespread cultural change around the topic of safety. However, Mellard discourages a safety cop approach. When employees view a safety manager as the only person in charge of safety, it becomes almost impossible to get employees to buy-in. Safety on the jobsite is not just the responsibility of the safety manager; it’s everyone’s responsibility. 

Mellard advises against authoritarian-style safety leadership. Instead, he recommends promoting a leadership style that speaks to employees using their own terminology and references past experiences in the field. This has implications for hiring in leadership positions. Safety managers should be hired not only on their degrees, but also on their experience in construction, their ability to relate to employees and the demands of the job.

Ropel also points to the importance of leadership being seen as a safety resource. Leadership needs to be level-headed, keep their composure and be approachable for them to be truly successful at their jobs.

Boosting Your Construction Safety Program

In addition to achieving employee buy-in and safety leadership, here are seven key areas of focus to boost your safety program and safety culture:

Continuous Safety Training. Laws and policies surrounding safety in the workplace are constantly changing because of new regulations and standards, incidents, equipment, and projects. This means that safety training is not a one-time event. Conducting regular safety training to teach new safety practices, as well as to reinforce existing ones, is crucial to a successful safety management program.

Proper Tools and Equipment. It can be surprisingly common for workers to start a job without proper tools and equipment, particularly if they are quickly switching between tasks. Your organization’s safety program should emphasize that workers never start any job, no matter how small, without all the required tools and safety equipment. After all, accidents only take seconds to happen.

Compliance Tracking. While your organization may have a robust safety program in place, it won’t be fully effective if proper tracking for compliance is not implemented. Your organization needs a centralized system to ensure proper procedures are followed. 

Contractor Safety. Working on a large construction project can often mean that general contractors and subcontractors are also sharing the job site. Safety issues can arise if those companies have less than desirable safety cultures. Management should ensure that any contractors present on the jobsite are abiding by the organization’s safety rules and procedures as well as following company policy on tracking incidents.

Scheduling and Budgeting. The bottom line for any construction business is being on schedule and on budget. Before standardized safety regulations, many workers were constantly put at risk due to an emphasis on speed and cost. These days, we now know that a healthy workforce is also a cost-effective workforce. The total cost of fatal and nonfatal injuries in the construction industry is estimated at nearly $13 billion annually, according to The Center for Construction Research and Training. Safety needs to be considered as an equal to schedule and budget.

Aging Workforce Adaptations. Studies suggest that injuries are less frequent but more severe among older construction workers. For example, in the journal Epidemiologic Reviews, data showed that worker compensation costs increase with the age of workers, in part due to greater lost work time per incident. Organizations can mitigate this risk by adapting the workplace to fit the needs of older workers. This can be done by using lighter tools and materials as well as emphasizing ergonomic working practices.

Leveraging Technology. A big part of a successful construction safety program is collecting the information and sharing it with all stakeholders. Technology has made it much easier to integrate safety into the workplace. The ability to look at overall trends and create custom reports for all districts, divisions and trades is a huge advantage for leadership and employees alike. Sharing these facts and figures with management, on-site supervision and field personnel can havea positive effect on the overall success of the safety program.

When implementing a construction safety management program, there are many considerations to keep in mind, including leadership, employee buy-in, training, third-party contractors and technology. That said, providing a safe workplace for your employees not only makes good business sense; it is a fundamental component of any successful business. Achieving and maintaining a safe workplace is both essential—and very possible—but requires continual leadership, resources and the embedding of a safety culture in the ethos and vision of your company.

Selling Safety: A Three-Dimensional Approach

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