To maintain a safe work environment we dedicate much effort to the rules and regulations that govern both employers and employees. These rules are important, and understanding them is often the first step towards the implementation of a successful safety and health management plan within a company.

But there are other important elements to maintaining a safe and healthy work environment and the most basic is making a conscious decision to work safe every day. As simple as that sounds, we are probably all guilty of violating that basic principle at least once in our careers. Evidence of this is unfortunately abundant and easy to spot in the workplace.

Look at the examples in these photos. Both of these were taken on a typical day while I was out trying to do anything but look for safety hazards. In both instances I was able to talk to the offending individual and in both cases they stated they knew they were violating the rules. They also seemed to genuinely know that their actions were risky and unsafe. In one case the individual immediately corrected his actions, but in the other case the individual went immediately back to doing what you see in the photograph.

The question that we all struggle with is why. In many cases it is done in the name of getting the job done. In other cases people will state that they weren’t thinking or just got caught up in the work and forgot to take proper precautions. Many people will also use the all-too-often cited justification that I have been doing it this was for 15 years, and others will use the ultimate defense of, it’s none of your business, it’s my choice. I have heard all of these justifications on job sites every week. The one thing they all have in common is that when I am investigating an injury or fatality, these justifications become very difficult to hold on to; unfortunately at that point it is too late.

So we return to the questions of “why” and “what do we do about it?” The solution to the problem is the implementation of an active safety and health management system. The adoption of a safety plan is not enough. While that may form a part of the foundation, a safety plan is just one element in the successful management of safety and health.

We must first realize that the goal must be to manage safety, quality, and productivity equally. These aspects of construction management are inextricably linked and a failure to manage one area will impact the others. Besides the rules contained in the safety plan, we must also provide training and we must instill a sense from the top down that safety is important. This starts with the ownership of the company and must continue through to every employee. There is nothing more damaging to a safety and health management system than for a field worker to see the owner of the company walk on to a job site without wearing the hard hat and work boots that are mandated by company rules.

Along with the rules and training and the ongoing job hazard analysis, teaching employees to choose safety is critical. When people ignore safe work procedures simply because they have done it that way for years and nothing has happened, they are playing the odds. As anyone who gambles knows, when you play the odds, you eventually loose. When you play the odds in the workplace safety game, you are literally gambling with your life.

We also need to teach workers that contrary to their belief, safety is actually not their choice. The rules and safe work procedures are there to protect not only them, but their co-workers, other people on the project, the company itself, and in some cases the general public. We don’t have dig too deep into the news archives to find recent stories about unsafe acts that injured or killed innocent people who were simply walking by the project.

Anyone who has had the misfortunate of witnessing an accident that results in a serious injury or fatality will tell you that it has a tremendous impact on them. Whether that is because you are the one that has to go tell the victim’s family about their death, or because you have to live with the fact that you had an opportunity to say something before the accident occurred. Worksites that experience serious injuries or fatalities are never quite the same. Besides the emotional impact, the company itself can experience continued consequences from law suits, to loss of customers, to increased insurance premiums; these incidents alter the course of a company’s progress, and never in a good way.

Construction companies must begin to undertake the implementation of an active safety and health management system. A successful system may start with the rules (the safety plan), but it continues with the training, ongoing planning and task analysis, and instilling an attitude that encourages people to choose to work safe.