Why It's So Hard to Build a Safety Culture in Construction (And What You Can Do About It)
Some features of construction work make it difficult for a safety culture to take hold, but there are steps you can take to overcome some of these challenges.
Given the numerous and serious hazards involved in construction work, the construction industry has long placed an emphasis on improving working safety by building a corporate safety culture (find out Why Creating a Safety Culture Is Better Than Relying on Compliance).
Despite these efforts, some features of construction work make it difficult for a safety culture to develop and take hold. In this article, we'll look at some of these challenges and I will provide some advice for dealing with them.
Construction Safety and Lagging Indicators
The construction industry has long measured its safety performance in terms of indicators like TRIFR (Total Recordable Injury Frequency Rate) and LTIFR (Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate). In an effort to promote and reward safe conduct, these indicators have often been used to grade companies and award contracts.
Despite all efforts, this strategy does not seem to have resulted in major improvements to industry incident and accident rates.
One of the reasons for this lack of progress is that TRIFR, LTIFR, and their many variations are lagging indicators of safety. They measure only the rate of injuries the workers have suffered, but it's hard to improve performance strictly by analyzing failures.
Although lagging indicators are insufficient, improving safety is not as simple as shifting the focus to leading indicators of safety. There are inherent obstacles to building a safety culture in construction companies, and paying attention to a different metric won't change that.
Why It's So Hard to Build a Safety Culture in Construction
Knowledge, Training, and Money
Although it falls under a single term, construction is really an aggregate of different occupations. And with no governing body having overarching responsibility for the field, there are no unified regulations regarding training.
Usually, employees work their way up on the company organization chart based on seniority alone. Today's supervisors and managers are often simply the workers of yesterday. This often results in workers being appointed manager without knowing what a safety culture is or how to foster one.
Occupational health and safety is also often seen as a separate entity, one that is disconnected from the rest of the organization. Safety, in other words, is not an integrated part of the business. It is left to the safety professional, since they are the “specialist,” rather than being treated as a collective effort (see The Dragon Slayer: Why Safety Should Be a Communal Effort for related reading).
Moreover, in many organizations, safety is seen primarily as a cost. Investments in safety are often thought to erode the company’s bottom line – even when a good safety program and a strong safety culture can be financially beneficial for a company.
Transient and Temporary Workers
The construction workforce fluctuates substantially during the year. Many of the jobs in the industry are weather-dependent, especially in the Northern United States and all over Canada. Additionally, when companies are awarded projects, they will hire new employees to execute it and lay them off once the project is completed. These temporary workers don't stay long enough with a company to assimilate its safety culture. This is exacerbated by the fact that many companies will decide not to invest in temporary workers, since training them would primarily benefit their future employers (learn more in Transient Workers vs. Temporary Workers: Know Your Training Obligations).
Temporary and seasonal employees, moreover, know that their time with the company is finite. Without employment security, loyalty to the company, or any reason to identify with the company, these employees have fewer reasons to commit to the company's vision, mission, and core values.
Another major concern comes when projects wind down and approach their end. At this point, temporary and seasonal workers will likely be focused on finding a new job to replace the one they're about to lose (or have suspended for a season or two). They might put less emphasis on safety and are unlikely to give much thought to training, development, and improving work practices.
Working at Different Locations
When a temporary worker proves to be a good asset for a company, the organization will try to hire them back when a new project is starting. But that project is sometimes in another state or province.
Keeping them employed for longer periods of time and paying their work-related expenses (travel, accommodation, meals) takes care of these employees' basic needs and allows them to get more involved in safety. However, a new location comes with new challenges. Working in a different jurisdiction means working under different health and safety requirements. This washes all previous experience away and requires the employee to learn and abide by a new set of rules and regulations.
This geographical mobility also decreases the number of regular interactions between workers from different sites, minimizing the opportunity to form a system of shared ideas and beliefs.
Supervisors on construction sites are often responsible for more than one crew. Because these crews work in separate areas, the supervisor can't devote their full time and attention to any of them. This results in some or all of the employees not receiving enough mentoring or coaching, which impedes their ability to assimilate the company's safety culture.
Linguistic and Cultural Barriers
Because the entry requirements for the industry are low, construction work attracts a disproportionate ratio of immigrant workers. The resulting various degrees in English proficiency among the workforce can create communication barriers which can sometimes result in some workers not fully understanding work directions or safety requirements (find out How to Overcome Language Barriers in Safety Training).
Workers who have previously worked in countries with lax safety requirements may also assume that many safety requirements are simply followed on paper and bend safety rules when they believe doing so would improve their productivity or efficiency.
Not every construction project can be completed using the skills and labor of the company's stable of workers, whether they're permanent or temporary. In those cases, the company will rely on contractors to execute some of the specialized or technical work.
Unfortunately, this results in some of the same problems that come with relying on temporary workers. While contractors might be well trained and versed in the safe execution of their work, they have no experience with the company's particular safety culture. They may prefer to do the work in their own way, which can sometimes mean a way that is strictly legal and compliant but still considered hazardous by the company.
Construction companies often have one-off relationships with their contractors, or might rely on a regular contractor for only a few weeks every year. This results in a low commitment to the organization and its safety culture.
Unlike temporary workers, contractors are not simply paid a salary but must keep their overhead in mind when performing work. There is, therefore, a risk that they will opt to take certain shortcuts or cut corners in order to save money and increase their overall earnings from the contract.
Tips for Improving Safety Culture in Construction
Without being all-inclusive and prescriptive, here are a few solutions that will help mitigate some of the barriers listed above.
- Use leading indicators to monitor the health of your program and create better employee engagement. Involve all your employees in job hazard analyses, field inspections, observations, and the like. Make it clear that these are positive activities rather than burdensome tasks.
- Make safety an integral part of your business routine, from bidding and pre-job site meetings to preparing your deployment to the site and executing the job.
- Have a supervisor and manager training program to educate them about the corporate values, what a safety culture is, how to build it, and how to engage their crews.
- Train supervisors, managers, and operators in all aspects of running a safety program, including worker compensation and return to work programs. Provide financial literacy education to help them understand the ROI of safety initiatives. These members of your team are your stable workforce and will be key to training your workers wherever your business takes you.
- Make health and safety part of your supervisors' day-to-day duties, from the bidding process to mandatory site visits. Use your health and safety professional as a resource, not as the only driver of safety.
- Provide funds for safety training for all your employees – it makes financial sense even when using temporary workers.
- Work with your Human Resources department to create a plan for what happens at the end of the season or project. Find ways to give your temporary workers a soft landing when finished. For example, make their work days more flexible so they have time to look for another job, try to move workers between divisions or companies within a conglomerate, or work with a placement agency.
- When working in multiple jurisdictions, try to identify the higher standard and develop a health and safety program based on that. This will ensure consistency and avoid confusion.
- Bring your whole workforce together as often as possible. Doing so will foster communication and collaboration, which will promote a shared safety culture. Corporate safety meetings, season start meetings, and social events are all good opportunities to meet and share (to find out why this is so effective, see Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture).
- Management and supervision should establish minimum intervals for formal presence on sites, inspections, meetings, or even just to bring coffee and doughnuts and have a chat with the workers.
- Where face-to-face meetings are not possible, use technology to engage with everybody. Teleconferences and Skype meetings are great opportunities for management and supervisors to engage the organization’s employees without dealing with the logistical challenges associated with gathering in person.
- Make sure that you and your employees speak the same language. Either learn their language or provide your employees with language classes to master the dominant language in the state or province.
- Safety manuals, policies, practices, and labels should be in a language that is well understood by your workers.
- Measure your safety culture using standardized tools – do not assume that your employees are engaged or share the same values as you. When finding gaps, you might need to train your employees to make sure they understand the expectations related to your work culture.
- Integrate your contractors in your safety program. Prequalify them to ensure they have the values congruent with your safety culture, then include them in everything you do. It is helpful to use the same contractors for extended periods of time so they can become familiar with your safety culture.
Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager