Protect Your People: The Proactive Approach to Construction Safety
Historically, construction safety measures have been reactive.
Whenever injuries or fatalities occur, we’ve called these events accidents or tragedies.
And if enough accidents and tragedies kill or injure construction workers, the industry responds with personal protective equipment, fall protection systems, or other occupational safety measures.
This backward, reactive thinking isn’t working.
Barriers to proactive construction safety
Admittedly, construction is a dangerous industry. And implementing a proactive occupational safety and health management system (OSHS) can be challenging.
Construction projects are typically awarded to the lowest qualified bidder. This general practice rewards slim margins, tight timelines, and little tolerance for error.
These conditions promote a production-first mindset and often treat safety measures as unfortunate liabilities or worst-case scenarios to guard against.
A workforce in flux
Construction companies often have transient workforces and high employee turnover, making company-wide safety training difficult.
Additionally, construction sites have a never-ending flow of independent contractors, subcontractors, specialty contractors, and suppliers—each with their transient, high-turnover workforces.
Getting all these workers on the same page and adhering to the same safety standards can seem impossible. There are just too many people in too many places.
The ever-changing weather and environmental conditions on construction sites are yet another consideration.
The job site is constantly in motion, with people, materials, and machinery jockeying for time, space, and position in unpredictable conditions. The risks inherent in all that uncertainty are always cause for concern.
A disjointed construction safety model with punitive controls
With accident patterns as the basis, OSHA has created its occupational safety guidelines in pieces, like the Construction Focus Four safety training, for instance, with each piece addressing a particular risk.
Addressing individual risks has been moderately effective, but research confirms this approach is still incomplete.
Injury and fatality rates continue to climb, even in the face of severe punitive fines and punishments. Research on this phenomenon points to the fact that employees may be hesitant to report safety concerns for fear of lost time, work delays, penalties, and possible reprisals.
Using systems thinking to improve construction safety
The systems thinking safety model holds that we can reduce risks, injuries, and fatalities when we recognize that construction operations occur within a dynamic context of ever-changing environments and interactions.
Let’s use one of OSHA’s Focus Four safety measures as an example.
We can say that while a safety harness was enough to prevent a fall in one particular context, the safety harness alone may not be enough to prevent a fall in another context.
Breaking it down further, we see that systems thinking relies on four basic premises:
No single preventative measure is universally effective.
Risks are not always apparent. Injury and fatal circumstances result from dynamic interactions within multiple contributing factors.
Interactions give rise to outcomes. i.e., “We didn’t see that coming.”
- Diversity of perspective:
People perceive and are affected differently by the same stimuli. That means each person’s perspective is valuable; some views will overlap while others will conflict.
Seven essential elements of systems thinking in construction safety
Commitment from management
As with all organizational change, management must lead the way.
Including well-trained safety managers in C-Suite positions with a budget that reflects the size and scope of the company’s operations is mandatory.
Without an organization’s leadership’s well-funded, active participation, no strategy will ever be effective.
Staffing for Safety
Well-trained safety staff plays a crucial role in safety performance.
These specialists will set limits, reinforce the need for preventive actions, and demand corrective actions as required.
Plan early, plan often, plan continually.
The complexity of construction projects makes it difficult to identify and predict risks.
Safety considerations must begin early in the design phase, continue through pre-construction and follow the project through to completion.
Safety planning must be an hourly, daily, and weekly priority throughout the project lifecycle.
*BIM is leading the way here.
Safety training, safety training, and more safety training
A well-trained workforce raises risk awareness and reinforces the benefits of maintaining active safety management systems.
There are abundant free resources for construction safety training and education available through the America Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Involve the workforce
Involved construction workers are more invested in the outcomes and are more likely to comply with safety procedures, model safe behavior, and encourage their co-workers to comply.
Recognizing safe job site practices through awards and bonuses should be balanced with production incentives.
Combining safety practices with productivity targets ensures employees and project stakeholders understand that each is necessary and valued equally. In addition, balancing safety and productivity prevents the tendency to sacrifice safety in pursuing job progress.
Ongoing feedback from work rates and safety performance enables management to adapt the schedule for progress while maintaining a safe work environment.
Again, this is where construction project management software can help.
Gathering this critical data is fast, easy, cost-effective, and convenient.
Mobile apps and intuitive dashboards keep project owners, design teams, contractors, and subcontractors connected and up to date, so nothing falls through the cracks.
Take a proactive approach to construction safety
Contact Linarc today for more construction safety resources.
We want to help you prioritize construction safety in your organization for the benefit of your people, your construction business, and our industry.