Using Behavior-Based Approaches to Enhance Construction Safety

Many construction sites include Construction safetyan enforcer who is widely disliked. His mission? Spot workers who are violating the site’s safety rules and ensure they are called out and penalized. Often described by many names (some unprintable), this enforcer is most often known as the safety “cop.”

In the workers’ eyes, he takes on the characteristics of Barney Fife of TV’s classic Andy Griffith Show. He arrogantly puffs out his chest as he steps into a situation, never noticing that those he’s hoping to correct see him as a fool. His heart is in the right place, and his objectives are sound, but his law-and-order approach makes him ineffective. The workers who he sets out to protect? They suffer the most, because when they ignore his dictates, they put themselves in hazardous situations.

The approach of “I’m going to catch you doing bad things, and I’ll punish you for them” is far too prevalent on construction sites. Instead of enhancing worker safety and reducing the cost of incidents, it creates a gap of resentment between the owner and the workers.

Learning from manufacturing success

To find a better approach, consider the changes in manufacturing. The world’s most successful manufacturers have learned that the old approach of “I’m the boss, and you’re to do whatever I tell you” failed to benefit anyone. Workers became unmotivated — even angry — and the result was poor quality, low productivity, and high turnover.

When manufacturers realized that the key to achieving the performance and level of quality they desired was to help their workers change their behavior, the situation improved. They began to take a different approach with all facets of the manufacturing process — including safety — and achieved success. Workers began to take a greater responsibility over all aspects of their jobs.

Despite that success, the concept of behavior-based safety has been slow to migrate to the world of construction. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a healthcare provider that has long been quick to embrace new ideas, including behavior-based safety. To illustrate how it works, I’ll draw upon our experiences.

It’s all about attitude

One of the basic elements of behavior-based safety is recognizing that changes in behavior begin with changes in attitude. It’s unreasonable to expect a worker to act differently if he doesn’t have a genuine and personal interest in making that change. If safety becomes just one more top-down command he’s expected to obey “just because,” the best he’ll offer is grudging acceptance.

On the other hand, if he learns that he exerts a significant amount of control over safety in his workplace, and that the primary beneficiary of that is not his employer or the owner, but himself, he will look at safety in an entirely new way.

That’s where our jobsite safety committee comes in. The committee includes representatives of each of the trades and/or contractor companies working on the site. Its primary purpose is increasing co-workers’ interest in and awareness of safer work practices. As the safety consultant on the site, I facilitate that process, giving the committee the goal of motivating workers to do the right things because they are the right things, not just because that’s what the rules demand.

Promoting safety through multiple channels

The committee works as a team to “market” safety to their fellow workers, educating them about the importance of safety and monitoring their compliance, with an emphasis on recognizing “good” behavior, rather than penalizing “bad” behavior.

They started a “Safety Begins with You” campaign and have worked with the owner’s public relations and multimedia group to develop materials supporting the effort. One example t is working with the multimedia team to develop a video that is being used during orientation. It represents one of several different ways through which they are sharing the message and trying to change behavior. Others include posters and banners.

Their activities are an important reminder for safety professionals and those responsible for managing the safety process. Just as Designing for Safety encourages safety professionals to look beyond traditional approaches and ideas, we can tap into others who have expertise that will help us achieve our goals. We can view safety as something that is woven through every process.

Benefits for contractors

Both workers and owners benefit from behavior-based programs, but they’re not the only ones. Outside contractors on the site gain from employees who have developed a better understanding of the value of safe work practices and a sense of self-determination and personal responsibility. That typically has the long-term effect of reducing claims, as well as other benefits that aren’t as easy to quantify, such as greater job satisfaction and an enhanced appreciation for quality.

Throughout my career, I have observed a clear correlation between safety and productivity, and the contractors who consistently display the highest productivity will invariably also have the lowest incident rates.

Addressing turnover

One of the biggest challenges with implementing a behavior-based safety program on a construction project is the reality of turnover. A skilled tradesperson may be on one project for six months, switch to another project for a year, and then move to a third. Each of those sites will have different approaches to safety.

The owner I mentioned has an advantage in that tey have unusually high standards for contractors. Those standards, which are supported by a comprehensive prequalification program, reduce the pool of available workers. That reduces turnover among both contractors and tradespeople, creating an environment supporting long-term efforts such as behavior-based safety.

The owner has multiple projects underway at any time, so it’s likely that the workers will move on to one of those other projects when a given project ends. Because behavior-based safety has been woven throughout the company, those workers will encounter the same safety culture.

The approach really works

The best way to illustrate the success of this approach is through real-world examples. I recall a superintendent for a contractor who didn’t exactly warm up to this behavior-based concept. For the first six months he was on the site, we butted heads over safety issues. Then his own behavior began to change, and he started calling other contractors’ safety-related deficiencies to our attention.

An even better example is the tradesperson who wrapped up his work on our project and moved on to the next. Several months later, he returned to address some punch-list items and pulled me aside to talk about the safety violations he had witnessed on his current project. Although his new site didn’t take a behavior-based approach, he continued to follow the lessons we instilled while he worked with us. He will always be better off for that, and so will every contractor and owner for whom he works.

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