Originally posted Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Written by Owners Perspective

The modern jobsite presents a unique set of safety challenges, as well as a unique set of opportunities. A safe jobsite and a healthy workforce are two of the most essential factors in ensuring the success of a project, and in today’s environment, with Owners challenged to get buildings up as quickly as they possibly can, they take on an even greater importance. The ever-increasing attention to efficiency in the industry has resulted in significant advances in the study and practice of keeping project sites both safe and productive—objectives which, it turns out, are more in agreement than competition with one another.

Richard Petty, Construction Services Manager for the Office of Facilities Planning and Construction at the University of Texas System, spoke with me about the cultural transition they are trying to effect. “The initial thought process that we’re trying to promote is one of learning instead of punishment,” Petty explains. “The typical approach to safety for decades has been a regulatory environment, in which ‘you do this, or you’ll get fired.’ We’re trying to change that to a behavior recognition and behavior modification learning environment.” No worker intentionally behaves recklessly or dangerously, Petty says. If an accident occurs, it is because whatever the worker was doing at the time made sense to him or her. The important thing is not to punish the worker, but to discover why a behavior that led to an accident made sense to that worker—to discover, in other words, the underlying cause.

Under the old paradigm, there has traditionally been an unspoken conflict between safety and production. Production-oriented individuals felt that safety was a hindrance to production, while safety-oriented individuals felt that it was a necessary tool in ensuring production. “We’re trying to change that thinking to create the environment and mindset of safe production,” says Petty.

A safe project, he explains, minimizes lost productivity due to accidents. Insurance studies have shown that the actual cost of an incident, in terms of lost productivity, may be six to ten times the costs of the care for the individual involved. Petty gives the following example: “Let’s say you’re doing a twelve-story building, and on one floor you’ve got thirty or forty people working. Now, let’s say someone’s working on a ladder, and they fall off. Nobody continues to work. When that man falls of the ladder and hits the floor and yells, everybody within earshot stops what they’re doing and turns around and rushes to the area to see ‘What happened? How can we help? Can we get somebody?’ Those who didn’t hear the initial incident, when they see people running down the corridors or moving away, they’re going to say, ‘What’s going on?’ So what happens is work actually stops on that entire floor for that period of time. You don’t get production. And then there are going to be conversations. People are going to be saying, ‘Did you hear what happened to Bobby?’ They’re supposed to be working, and what’s going on, well they’re stopping to talk about Bobby and what happened, and how long he’s going to be out, and what’s going to happen to his family, etc. If you look at reality, all of that stuff really adds up, and it ends up impacting the productivity on a project much more than just the initial dollars involved in handling the medical claim issue for that individual.”

The new paradigm in project safety recognizes that creating a safe culture actually increases productivity. That has been demonstrated empirically. Now people like Richard Petty are working to disseminate this message. He compares it to the cultural shift that occurred in the oil and gas industry a few decades ago. “They were injuring people left and right, and they recognized there had to be safety regulations put in place, so they implemented them. Now it’s a very regulated and safety-conscious environment.”

Part of the difficulty for the construction industry has been in overcoming a work ethic among construction workers—a can-do mentality that, while admirable in its own right, does not always prioritize safety. “There’s a certain bravado that can be counter-productive, shall we say, to a good safety attitude,” Petty explains. “We’re trying to get people to recognize that you can have a good work ethic, and you can be very aggressive about your work, but at the same time, you need to do that with the understanding that safety goes hand-in-hand with the work you’re doing.”

This is not a new challenge, of course. Petty recalls when hard-hats and safety glasses were beginning to be implemented. “You had a lot of guys saying ‘I’m not wearing those safety glasses; they get in my way; I can’t see as well.’ We’ve gone from that to now I see a lot of guys having mandatory glove policies on projects.”

Mandatory glove policies are one example of the sort of data-driven safety reforms that can yield real productivity increases on project sites. Such policies are the direct result of insurance claims for lacerations, Petty says. “They were getting these sheet metal pieces coming to projects that have to do with ductwork, and they would sometimes have raw edges. Well, if you grab an edge of that sheet metal and it’s got a little bur on it or something, it’s going to cut you. So seeing these claims, you say, ‘Wait a minute, how can we prevent this?’ Rather than saying, ‘You’re not supposed to be doing that,’ you ask ‘How can we put somebody in a position to do this safely?’ Well, gloves would be one solution. You put gloves on, and all of a sudden those lacerations just stop. That’s a direct result of a positive intervention through being aware of what’s happening on a project. What we’re trying to do now is go beyond a reactive environment in which we’re dealing with the results from claims, to a proactive environment in which we’re out walking the jobsite and being aware of the environment people are working in and the potential for accidents, incidents, and unsafe behavior within that.”

One tool that has been useful in raising workers’ consciousness about safety, according to Petty, is a self-monitoring and reporting program called Safety Net, which they have on PDAs that they use on the jobsite. The program includes safety checklists that can be refined through experience by the user. “Let’s suppose they’re excavating to lay the initial infrastructure piping down for a project,” Petty explains. “Well, under the excavation section, there are various checklists of safety issues and items that should be present for that operation. There should be what’s called a ‘Job Hazard Analysis’ or ‘Job Safety Analysis.’ That’s a standard within the construction industry. So the JSA/JHA will state that they need to make sure they have safe access into and out of the trench. If it’s below a certain depth, they need to have shoring in it to support the edges of the trench. They need to be able to have people in there with the right equipment. They need to have whatever sort of shade protection is needed there, hydration, etc. So all of that would be in that checklist of items for excavation.”

One purpose of this tool is to recognize positive behavior, thereby reinforcing safety consciousness. The project safety coordinator, which the UT System requires a contractor to provide for every project that they undertake, notes those things that the contractor/subcontractor is doing correctly, as well as those that need to be addressed. “We want to use this for recognition of positive activities and behavior on the job,” Petty says. “The way our program is set up is that we have our inspectors and the general contractor go out and look at the job site from a safety point of view to recognize and record those things that are in place and those that aren’t. They’re appreciated and recognized for a job well done when they find things that aren’t in place, because we look at that as being proactive. We have prevented an incident from occurring by recognizing a potentially hazardous situation before someone gets hurt.” An ROCIP program administered jointly with the UT System Office of Risk Management provides loss prevention professionals who make routine visits to all projects. When these external safety professionals visit the projects, which they do once or twice a month as determined by the size of the project, they use the same device to record the safety culture that they observe on the project. “An idea situation would be one in which our field staff and the general contractor’s field staff are finding numerous incidents of defenses that are not in place. Then the inspector comes to the job, and he finds next to nothing deficient on the job. That tells us that the culture that is present on the job is proactive and effective.”

Another preventative measure the UT System has implemented is encouraging contractors to self-report when something goes wrong—another goal that presents certain cultural challenges, as Petty explains. “Contractors don’t like to hear that they’re doing something wrong, much less self-report that they’re doing something wrong. Having them report errors has been a real culture shift, and we still struggle with that with some contractors. But the larger, more forward-thinking contractors agree with us and recognize that it’s important for preventing accidents.”

An extension of this preventative approach involves encouraging the reporting of near misses. Petty gave the example of a man working by an open shaft in a twelve-story building who is suddenly startled by a loud noise, which turns out to be the sound of a hammer that has dropped from ten stories above, ricocheting around on the ground but not hitting or injuring anybody. “Right now, that probably would not be reported. Nobody got hurt; you don’t want to get the guy up there that dropped the hammer in trouble. What we’re trying to promote is an environment in which that gets reported and recognized, and we ask why it happened. Maybe what are needed when you’re working around opens shafts are tethers on the hand-tools. Then, if you do lose a grip, it doesn’t fall down the shaft. Something as simple as that can create an environment in which things are recognized in the context of looking to help people, not looking to punish them for a mistake. That’s also a huge cultural shift.”

One of the most important aspects of this new safety paradigm is moving away from what Petty calls “the old shame, blame, and retrain routine,” in which someone makes a mistake that leads to an incident, that individual is faulted for the mistake and is then retrained. Instead, the UT System has a card that they’ve issued to all of their staff with an eight-step process of what to ask when an incident occurs on a project that is designed to help everyone understand and learn from that incident. “And, again, we’re trying to understand why this individual did this, why it made sense to them at the time,” Petty says. “Don’t get me wrong, there are instances in which individuals, for whatever reason, don’t want to embrace safety. When that becomes apparent, well, they need to work somewhere else, in another environment.”

But the importance of understanding the cause of the incident lies in the fact that the cause may be perfectly legitimate and may not indicate a need for retraining at all. “Don’t just stop with, ‘Bobby’s a bad egg, and he doesn’t listen, so let’s send him home for the day.’ What we want to do is to find out why Bobby doesn’t want to put his safety glasses on. Maybe it turns out that Bob has heavy prescription glasses, and when he puts the safety glasses on over them, he can’t see very well. The real lesson from that is that Bobby needs prescription safety glasses. If you get that for him, he’s fine; he’s happy to wear them. He can see well, etc.”

Safety, Petty explains, is one of those things that tend to be last on everybody’s mind until something happens. “It’s just that we deal with this environment all the time, and we have to remind ourselves to be conscious and be aware of safety, because you become complacent when you’re around this day-in and day-out.” The culture they’re trying to create is one in which people hold safety as a core value, so that it’s inherent to the way that they think. “We want an environment in which people would not think about putting themselves in a precarious situation without protection—they wouldn’t consider getting on top of an area or working next to an open shaft without fall protection that is secure and would make them feel comfortable and confident that they’re going to be safe.” That approach leads not only to fewer injuries, but also to greater productivity, a higher quality of craftsmanship, and faster delivery.