In construction, strong safety leaders are able to create a safety vision embraced by workers. These are leaders who encourage two-way communication, exhibit safety behaviors themselves, and put employees in a position to be safety leaders, too.
To find out more about how strong safety leaders can drive worker participation on construction sites, we turned to Scott Schneider, the retired Director of the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America’s Occupational Safety and Health. Scott was the primary author behind a new document published by the AIHA Construction Committee and Management Committees, “How to Improve the Safety Climate on Your Construction Site,” which we used to uncover 5 key lessons on creating safe work environments in construction.
1. Use climate surveys
Construction tends to be hierarchical. Knowing this, leaders can design ways to work against this “command and control” structure so that all workers can feel involved and that their contributions matter.
Climate surveys are one simple way to show workers that they are being listened to in terms of promoting safety on the worksite. “The mere act of asking indicates concern on the part of the employer,” according to this new guide.
“Even more important is what is done with the information that results. Sharing the results of any workplace survey is critical; otherwise, it’s akin to taking a test but never learning the outcome.”
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2. Focus on trust
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“Safety climate on construction sites is all about trust.” Do your workers trust leaders to place safety before productivity? And in turn, do leaders give workers the ability to stop work if there is a serious safety issue? If you’ve ever heard statements similar to, “I took care of the problem myself,” or, “I didn’t think anything would be done to fix the problem,” you could have a lack of trust within your organization (1).
Ways to promote trust include:
- “Giving away” trust to your leaders first. It can be difficult at first do so, but it helps to foster trust.
- Communicate as much as you can about how to prevent injuries and illnesses.
- Be sure to show integrity—including following the same rules you’re asking others to follow
- Give people your full attention.
- Show appreciation and reward a job well done.
- Don’t gossip.
- Calibrate your emotions appropriately when dealing with inevitable conflict.
“Explicitly giving workers the right to stop the job when they believe it’s unsafe shows that leadership trusts workers,” explain the report’s authors. “This is the ultimate form of worker involvement. Workers, of course, must be educated about how to identify hazardous situations for this to be effective.”
3. Encourage accountability
Many safety leaders are aware of the idea of a “Just Culture,” which refers to a way of safety thinking that promotes a questioning attitude with the goal of reducing unsafe behavior. It’s a kind of workplace culture where trust has been cultivated to the extent that workers feel fully encouraged, and rewarded, for reporting all kinds of safety-related information (1).
These engaged workers feel inclined and accountable to report unsafe conditions and incidents. The key ingredient is that workers feel secure and supported in doing so, and in turn, this cuts down on injuries and illnesses..
Since your workers are the ones on the job and on-site each day, they are the ones who see issues or problems first. They are the ones who really need to be equipped to reduce hazards, risks, injuries and accidents.
In contrast, being punished (or seeing another worker punished) for raising a safety concern is the quickest way to destroy that trust, and to remove any incentive for reporting risks or hazards.
4. Make sure your safety committee is well-run
Depending on your company or small business, you may benefit from a formal safety committee to drive safety in the workplace. “A joint labor-management committee which meets regularly to discuss and promptly address safety concerns is probably the best way to involve workers in the safety program,” says the AIHA guide. Research suggests this works well on larger sites in particular. “On large job sites, with many subcontractors, safety committees may include representatives of all subcontractors or all trades” (1).
To optimize your committee, the AIHA guide recommends the following:
- Ensure that membership is voluntary
- Meet regularly at a set day and time
- Have equal representation across employees, management and union, when applicable
- Have clearly defined duties and responsibilities
- Share successes with one another and do what you can to keep it positive
- Allow time for individuals to speak up and share comments
- Ensure there is real follow-through (1)
An effective safety committee is not one that is a forum for complaints. It should be used as a proactive tool to prevent unsafe working practices, reduce risks, and to equip and empower workers to become more involved.
5. Remove barriers for reporting
Too often in construction or in small businesses, incidents or close calls are blamed on “carelessness” of a worker. In these cases, unfortunately, often the “solution” is to discipline the worker or to call for more training, says the AIHA guide.
Organizations have greater ability than ever to move from such a fault-finding environment, to a fact-finding environment. To make the shift, encourage reporting by making it simple and efficient. A few tips include:
- Use accessible tools that allow for timely reporting of close calls or problems
- When needed, use a third party for them to report to
- Use a truly anonymous way for reporting
When Can You Tell If Worker Involvement Is Increasing?
If workers feel their participation is valued, they will actively participate. Another key indicator about worker involvement is whether workers have a perception of the safety program that is different from their supervisors. How engaged are your workers during training? How involved are they at any safety committee meetings? Those are also signs of involvement (1).
Worker involvement in health and safety processes is critical, and helps to keep workers engaged in what they are doing each day. “Every worker must be a safety leader, because safety is optimized only when every worker is involved and empowered.”
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- “How to Improve the Safety Climate on Your Construction Site”
- “Workers Compensation Claim Management“
About Scott Schneider
Scott Schneider is a Certified Industrial Hygienist. He has worked on occupational safety and health issues in the Labor movement for the past 37 years. He worked for the Carpenters Union, the Workers’ Institute for Safety and Health (WISH), the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) and the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), from which he recently retired.
Over his career he has helped develop standards to protect workers from Asbestos and Silica, fought to protect workers from noise exposure and ergonomic injuries as well as in areas such as work zone safety, fall prevention and improving safety climate in construction. He is a Fellow member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and was awarded the William Steiger award by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) for his contributions to the field.