Sitewide communication and swiss cheese

SignOnSite Safety Stories: Sitewide Communication and Swiss Cheese

Over the years our amazing clients have shared loads of safety wisdom with us – from awesome innovations to the “oh crap” moments. In this series we’re looking at the challenges they’ve faced and the lessons we learnt from them.


By nature, construction is a high risk industry, which has led to an abundance of regulations designed to promote safety on Australian projects.


Under the Work Health and Safety Act (WHS Act), principal contractors are required to consult, cooperate and coordinate with their workers. This is based on the idea that discussion facilitates better understanding and decision-making, which in turn reduces work-related injuries.


This becomes even more important when a worker is engaged in any one of almost 20 high risk activities identified by Safe Work Australia.


Because trades on site are transient, it’s very difficult to consult with all workers solely through face to face meetings. Different trades, sub-contractors (and their sub-contractors) are continually coming and going – entering the job site at different times of the day and at different times throughout the project.


It can feel like a constant struggle trying to do what is right and legally required, while also managing the build itself.


Safety Signage: SignOnSite Construction Safety Stories

Pre-starts, signs and mobile phones


Toolbox safety meetings, or pre-start talks, are the traditional tried and true way of delivering sitewide communication.


Letting workers know the risks and hazards they are about to face is an essential part of the day. However, catering your talks to specific trades with specific risks can prove difficult and time consuming, especially when workers are coming and going throughout the day. It’s easy for workers to ‘slip between the cracks’ and not receive the information they need.


Site safety signs and messages are another layer of safety to catch workers who have missed critical announcements or forgotten them. Though they’re a staple on all modern sites they can often be missed in the clutter of a site, and don’t help you when you need active acknowledgement from workers that they understand the risks involved in the work they’re doing.


Mobile phones are also becoming a tool of choice for communication, since workers usually have their phones on hand all day and messages can be delivered instantly. Technology can easily record acknowledgements of safety information, and intelligently deliver communication at critical times.


Mobile phones have their own set of disadvantages. There is a risk of ‘over-communication’, bombarding workers with endless messages causing them to switch off. Authorities have also warned against the dangers of distracting workers who are engaged in high risk work.


SignOnSite swiss cheese theory of safety

Safety systems and swiss cheese


Meeting your consultation, cooperation and coordination obligations becomes easier by using both traditional and digital safety processes, playing to the advantages of each.


The best way of approaching this problem has been called the “Swiss cheese theory of safety”. Most safety professionals would be familiar with this metaphor – the concept that accidents only occur when all pieces of a safety system fail at once. In the language of swiss cheese, this is when the holes line up on each individual slice of cheese.


Each process in your safety system is a slice of cheese, and holes appear in places where the process can fail. Making a system safer involves either inserting more slices of cheese, or reducing the size of each hole.


For example, a sparky who is a subcontractor of a subcontractor rocks up to work at 11am because he was on a different job in the morning. He’s been inducted to the site, but that morning he missed a toolbox talk on lacerations. An injury had occurred the day before when he wasn’t on site. He’s distracted as he walks straight past a paper notice on the site shed explaining what happened, and reminding him to wear the appropriate PPE.


In this case, the holes lined up and the two components of the safety system both failed. The sparky is still at risk, as if neither of those systems existed in the first place.


SignOnSite safety systems analysis

Shrinking holes or inserting slices


How can the Site Manager improve the site’s safety communication? According to the theory there’s two things: shrink the holes in the slices of cheese, or insert more slices of cheese.


If they want to shrink the sizes of the holes, they can do things like run more toolbox talks to catch workers arriving late, or position the site notice board where it’s more likely to be seen. This is an important part of managing safety, but past a certain point there will be diminishing returns for each change to the existing processes of the system. Sometimes the holes can only get so small.


The other alternative is to insert more slices of cheese, by introducing another complementary component of the safety system. This component of the safety system should not have holes where the others do, so that it catches workers who fall through the holes of the other systems. If the Site Manager could automatically communicate critical information to workers’ phones the moment they walk onto site (eg. SignOnSite’s Daily Briefing feature), then this adds another layer of safety to the existing site processes.


Construction Technology for Site Safety - SignOnSite

What technology makes a good slice of cheese?


By definition, the best ‘slice of cheese’ to add to your system is one that blocks all the holes from the other slices. In the context of construction safety, this means that the best addition to your safety system should complement your existing processes.


Not all technology is created equal – if you find yourself wondering why some technology feels so clunky and hard to use on site, it’s usually because it was designed by someone imagining how sites must work.


We discovered the best way to build technology that actually makes sites safer is to talk to the people who are going to rely on it.


When we built SignOnSite, we consulted with industry and regulators to find out the best way to make construction sites safer. One piece of valuable feedback we got was that pushing notifications to workers while they’re working wasn’t safe.


This is why we geared our Daily Briefing feature to deliver communication to all workers as soon as they sign on (walk onto the job site). Messages are still delivered straight to their phones, but it’s at a time when they’re most likely to be looking at their phones, and least likely to be engaged in work.


If they don’t have their phone, they can receive the same brief by signing on at the onsite kiosk – again, a low risk time.


There’s also the added benefit that delivering communication at specific times prevents workers being bombarded with continual messages throughout the day, so they stay more engaged with the Daily Briefing over the life of the project.


SignOnSite kiosk sign on


For the sparky who missed the toolbox talk and notices about lacerations, this could make all the difference.


When he arrives on site and signs in, he is notified of the briefing and can read all the minutes. These let him know what happened, the key hazards and risks of lacerations on the job, and the PPE he should be wearing when doing certain activities.


Great safety technology should feel as natural as any tool on site, and be a natural partner to the systems you already have. When it comes to your obligation to consult, cooperate and coordinate with workers on site, good technology should be the ‘slice of cheese’ that has your back.


To learn more about how to integrate SignOnSite to improve your worksite communications, drop us a line at or book a free demo.

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