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By Missy England
May 8, 2017
With all the safety courses and toolbox talks going on, it’s hard to imagine that anyone on a construction site today can forget to put on safety glasses, wear a hardhat, safely climb a ladder, use the appropriate fall prevention technique, or put the saw blade guard on the table saw. So, if forgetting isn’t a the main issue, that means that safety violations usually happen because people ignore the safety standards.
But, why would people ignore taking proven steps to reduce the chances of getting injured or killed? One of the main reasons is that they haven’t been injured when ignoring safety rules in the past.
H.W.Heinrich author of “Industrial Accident Prevention,” states that for every 300 accidents without injury, there are 29 with minor injuries, and one resulting in a major injury. As people go about their workdays acting unsafely, the lack of injuries is constantly reinforcing their unsafe behavior. In other words, every time we don’t injure our eyes because we are not wearing safety glasses, we become more convinced that safety glasses aren’t necessary.
Another reason people ignore safety standards is because they are rewarded for doing so. When an employee ignores a safety rule, they get an immediate reward of saving time, which can then be used to finish the task faster and potentially get off of work sooner.
Other times, there are workflow processes that reinforce unsafe behavior. If workers must remove a stairwell guardrail to move materials to an upper floor because there is no inter-floor lift available, this unsafe behavior is rewarded by allowing them to finish the task more quickly. Finishing a task quickly is always appealing because it allows workers to maintain the schedule or even get ahead of schedule.
People also ignore safety standards or rules when ignoring them is sanctioned. When a foreman or manager turns a blind eye or encourages employees to take shortcuts, employees learn that they can get away with ignoring safety. There are also many human aspects at play, not the least of which is the attitude that “it won’t happen to me.” Then, there are those who are simply disinterested, or don’t care––often because they’ve never had an accident, or simply because they don’t like being told what to do.
While disinterest and not caring often originate for any number of reasons, there’s some evidence that workplaces can contribute to it. The construction industry, like other industries, tends to dehumanize the topic of safety. This leads employees to question the motive and commitment to safety, which in turn, fuels disinterested, or “don’t care” attitudes, opening the door to more safety violations.
When people with construction experience talk about safety, they’ll often say that construction companies don’t really care about worker safety and that they care only about profits and finishing the job on time. Unfortunately, there is anecdotal evidence to support this perception. To be fair though, it’s not just construction. This is a perception expressed across all industries.
When the American Society of Safety Engineers surveyed employers, they found that the number one reason cited for taking actions to improve safety was workers’ compensation costs. Coming in as the second biggest reason was “the right thing to do.” Next was “increasing profitability.” There were four other reasons related to the bottom line, and two related to the human aspects of better safety outcomes. Indeed, most writing on the topic of why companies should view safety as important focuses on the business reasons, with little mention of important outcomes like less pain and suffering, and fewer negative impacts on families and society. Don’t companies care about those things too?
But even when the discussion focuses on the bottom line, there is a discrepancy between the things people say and write, versus the things they actually do.
“Research has shown that development and implementation of effective safety programs reduces accidents. Project safety is an issue which is supported by everyone in concept. Unfortunately, when it comes to spending time and money on safety, many people do not feel it is vital to the success of their projects.”
According to Scott Schneider, Director of Occupational Safety and Health for the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America, low bid contracting, incentives, production pressures, lack of design for safety, subcontracting the dangerous work to multiple layers of smaller contractors, and not classifying workers correctly, all contribute to subordinating safety for the sake of money.
These structural aspects fade into the background when companies use accident rates as the measurement of workplace safety. The result is that as long as the accident rate stays below the industry standard, the focus on safety is diluted. The company reacts to safety, rather than being proactive about it.
Whether you are a frontline worker or one that works in the office, there’s little evidence that somebody other than yourself can protect you on the job. And when it comes to preventing safety violations, you’re also the one with the power to prevent them.
There is plenty of advice and suggestions on avoiding common workplace safety violations, and improving your own safety and that of others. For companies, watching accident rates might serve their safety programs better if instead of focusing on them as a goal, they used them as just one indicator in managing their safety programs.
Affecting individual attitudes about safety is challenging. However, companies might make headway by putting some heart into their safety focus so that employees know it’s as much about them, as it is about the bottom line.
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