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The Industry Has a Problem with Safety. Here's How to Fix It.


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The construction industry has a problem with safety. Safety records in the industry are troubling, at best, and little improvement has been made over the years. This is partially due to construction processes and job sites, however, a large part of accidents occur because safety is not taken seriously enough.

And we're bending the rules a little.

There is a lot of talk about safety, and in at least one notable research effort it was clear that companies don’t often have safety behaviors that match their rhetoric. Three professors wrote in the Winter 2016 edition of MIT Sloan Management Review about decades-long studies of companies in the manufacturing sector claiming that “Managers believe accidents are a cost of doing business.” Bending safety rules to get the job done, turning a blind eye, and changing safety requirements to get results, were behaviors noted by managers and even union representatives. 

Workers referred to company safety initiatives as “Safety Unless Production Affected,” and when safety rules were routinely bent, so were other rules like those affecting quality, and cost control. 

There was ample evidence that companies with exemplary safety programs, (that employees actually followed), reaped cost efficiencies and gains in productivity. Even when faced with wage disadvantages, as some companies are in the global economy, the researchers found early adopters of OHSAS 18001 or ISO 9000 saw their injury and illness costs reduced by 20-40 percent. And, as their safety performance improved, so did their “productivity, return on assets, and sales.”

Top-Down Safety

When managers, owners, CEOs, and executives take an aggressive and unyielding stance on safety, the message to the rank and file is clear: production and profitability take a back seat to safety. Of course, getting buy-in from management means making the case for safety. That includes showing how cultures of safety actually increase productivity, quality, and profitability. 

There was ample evidence that companies with exemplary safety programs reaped cost efficiencies and gains in productivity.

There are also indirect costs to organizations when safety is not part of the culture, and it’s important when getting buy-in to help people understand those as well. When workers don’t think the company has their best interest at heart, they often feel undervalued. Once trust erodes, people are less invested and begin to look out for themselves rather than one another. 

Invest in Your Team

Getting people personally involved in the safety program entails a thoughtful look at the safety standards and how they are applied. It’s good practice to have excellent reasons for when, and where, rules apply. You should also ensure that any enforcement is consistent, both in how it’s judged and in how it’s carried out. If people see the rules as arbitrary or inconsistent, it’s likely they’ll be confused about when and where the rules apply. They will also lose trust in management if only some people are held accountable. 

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