Advancing safety in your workplace: improving construction safety through a positive safety culture

Introduction

A business thrives on culture – it’s integral to the overall health of your business, it’s people and your customers. This also applies to safety.

To be able to consistently improve safety in the construction industry, there needs to be a cultural change in the approach to safety (Fisher, 2006). This culture change makes a significant impact to the people at the greatest risk of injury: on-site workers. They’ve not received a consistent and clear message on the importance of safety from all levels of management, partly due to:

  • The transient nature of the on-site workforce (both employees and subcontractors), moving between companies, projects and sites. This makes it difficult for any one company to consistently influence the attitudes and behaviours of this moving workforce.
  • An inconsistent understanding of the meaning of safety competency, particularly with respect to the importance of behaviours such as communication and leadership. (Cooperative Research Centre for Construction Innovation, 2006)

The safety culture concept is used to address these issues and to change safety behaviours. However, real-world application of the concept can be challenging. The Cooperative Research Centre for Construction Innovation (a working group comprised of industry, research, academia and government) has put forward a framework in addressing these challenges in A Construction Safety Competency Framework; this educational series distils the comprehensive research and actions into a 9-part framework.

In partnership with Procore, SignOnSite is delivering a practical, actionable guide for construction executives, senior managers and safety managers to effectively implementing the safety culture approach at their organisations.

The aim of this guide is to promote the behaviours and attitudes that conducive to a proactively safe environment. Alexandrina McManus, a safety expert at Procore adds, “Culture is the collection of beliefs, perceptions and values that everyone shares. A strong safety culture nurtures and encourages employees to embody the right attitude, safety beliefs, systems and processes to ensure everyone is able to stay safe. Those who are owning, living and championing safety are not just limited to management onsite; this culture needs to encompass all external contractors and leadership.”

The key target beneficiaries are those on-site – the most at risk of injury and death. “Ultimately, we want to improve the lives of the site team and contractors building our homes, schools, workplaces and hospitals. A strong safety culture onsite will take the form of a decrease in incidents onsite, less rework due to a mentally healthy team and a better-connected network; creating more jobs and opportunities for everyone,” Alexandrina explains.

The benefits are not limited to on-site workers, projects run more smoothly and stick closer to timelines due to a stable, consistent workforce. “There are so many positive impacts for a contractor when a strong safety culture is adopted. Systems and processes are consistently adhered to, risk assessments are properly analysed prior to approval, mitigating risk of serious injury or illness.”

Actioning Change

The Construction Safety Competency Framework puts forward nine culture actions to achieve this cultural change:

  1. Communicate company values
  2. Demonstrate leadership
  3. Clarify required and expected behaviours
  4. Personalise safety outcomes
  5. Develop positive safety attitudes
  6. Engage and own safety responsibilities and accountabilities
  7. Increase hazard/risk awareness and preventative behaviours
  8. Improve understanding and effective implementation of safety management systems
  9. Monitor, review and reflect on personal effectiveness

Culture Action 1: Communicate Company Values

The goal of this culture action is to relate behaviours, decisions and attitudes that are expected, supported and valued by the company to the larger workforce. There needs to be clear and consistent communication that safety is something that you as the employer genuinely value and care about – it’s not a simple case of ticking a box.

Jobsite safety is far more than systems and processes. It is about instilling a culture that permeates throughout every single aspect of the construction process. Safety values need to resonate with those most at risk on site: the men and women building our buildings and conducting high-risk works. A one-directional message from leadership announced in a toolbox talk at the beginning of the day simply does not cut it anymore. We need the contractors and specialists directly involved in safety conversations to ensure everyone comprehends and respects the why, what, and how.” (McManus, 2019)

The individual values that your company has could revolve around the prioritisation of safety as it relates to productivity or even succinct phrases such as ‘safety-first’ or ‘zero-harm’.

Practical methods to communicate these values:

1. Identify, document and distribute your safety values

By formally identifying and documenting your safety values, you remove ambiguity and create a concrete source of truth for the entire organisation. It provides a clear, singular view of what the company and its people are trying to achieve. Common safety values centre around concepts of zero-harm, safety-first attitudes and having a commitment to safety.

Distribute these values to the people in your organisation. Explicitly state that living these behaviours is expected and rewarded at your company.

For example:

  • Distribute your health and safety policy statements to new starters, at the commencement of new projects and at site inductions.
  • Display posters and signs highlighting your safety values around sites and at offices.
  • Conduct workshops and presentations dedicated to your safety values.

2. Embed your values

Motivate and inspire others to work towards achieving a particular goal or outcome by sending clear and consistent messages about the importance of work health and safety. Alexandrina explains that safety values can resonate strongly on jobsites when partnered with processes and documentation.

Engaging our contractors before the works take place, by reviewing the SWMS, JSA and MSDS forms is a good start. But even if a risk is not listed in safety documents, doesn’t mean that it’s not happening on site. Engaging those affected directly by asking their opinion can open the conversation further, beyond documents and processes. Ask them: Have they seen the site yet? Do they have any concerns already? What is their experience with that type of work?” (McManus, 2019).

3. Live your values

Set clear requirements and expectations to employees.

Leadership and management can lead by example by living the company’s values. By showing the value of safety through consistent action, leaders show their organisation where priorities lie.

Companies often roll out a concept called ‘one small thing’ whereby senior managers are expected to make one small (but public) change to display their commitment to the cultural value of safety.

For example:

  • Management can conduct site walkarounds
  • Non-safety role managers can reinforce safety

4. Review based on values

When reviewing a project or an employee’s performance, a section can be dedicated to living the company’s safety values – how this person prioritises, commits to and acts on safety.

5. Reward based on values

Foster the development of attitudes and beliefs that support safe behaviour. Positive reinforcement gets noticed – call out and reward those who truly live the company’s values, no matter how small.

Examples:

  • Acknowledging people in company-wide or site-wide forums,
  • Giving awards and prizes on a regular basis;

What’s next

This Advancing Safety Series will run until March 2020.

In the next article in this series, Procore and SignOnSite will dive into the second culture action: demonstrating leadership.

Subscribe to this series to get first access.

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