Employees can be their own worst enemy in terms of safety, and often become very comfortable with the hazards around them. A common thought among them is, “We have done this in the past and nothing happened, so why should we change the way we work now?”
James Emmons Employees can be their own worst enemy in terms of safety, and often become very comfortable with the hazards around them. A common thought among them is, “We have done this in the past and nothing happened, so why should we change the way we work now?”

One of the truly defining elements of a company's culture is a commitment to employees, clients, and community. Nothing reveals this dedication better than having a great program that demonstrates safety as a corporate core value. When people start to change their personal values and live their lives in a true safety-oriented culture, a natural paradigm shift occurs in how they perceive their jobs, co-workers, spouses, children, families, and friends.

Because of our commitment to our employees, we became very concerned when our safety program did not produce the results that would allow us to meet our aggressive safety goals. Even though our recordable incident rates were well below the national averages, our inability to control the number of claims and the causes of these injuries was not acceptable to the core values of our company. Simply, we were struggling and frustrated with our efforts to reduce our employee injuries. The workers' compensation injuries just kept streaming into our claims management department, employees continued to suffer the pain of injuries, and their families continued to worry and keep vigil on the injured worker. The question we kept asking ourselves was, “If we truly have a top-of-the-line safety program, why aren't we able to control these injuries?”

To understand the challenges we faced with our safety program, we first had to take a hard look at how we conducted our business. We truly had to examine our safety culture not only from the company viewpoint, but also from the perspective of our employees, who are the ones most affected by injuries. Although we had written safety policies and procedures, published safety manuals, developed and delivered exemplary safety training to our employees, our employees still suffered. To better comprehend this safety challenge, we began to analyze how safety works in the field and identify the challenges preventing employees from working in a safe manner.

Government regulations

Government agencies and all of their associated regulations certainly try to move the construction industry toward providing a safe work place for employees. In fact, companies are bound legally by these regulations to provide safe working environments. Likewise, employees have the legal right to demand that employers provide a safe work place, free of recognized hazards, unsafe behaviors, and unsafe conditions.

In response to governmental regulations, companies spend a lot of time developing their policies and procedures. However, in too many cases, a company simply purchases these programs to meet federal, state, or local government regulations and—in some instances—client requirements. By doing so, a company meets the legal requirements, while the program often sits on a shelf in the field office.
James Emmons In response to governmental regulations, companies spend a lot of time developing their policies and procedures. However, in too many cases, a company simply purchases these programs to meet federal, state, or local government regulations and—in some instances—client requirements. By doing so, a company meets the legal requirements, while the program often sits on a shelf in the field office.

However, looking at the number of fatalities and injuries in the construction industry, we can see that these laws and regulations are not having the expected impact related to reducing the consequences of unsafe conditions and behaviors causing these injuries. The financial effect of the citations issued after an injury and the legal defense costs eating away at the bottom-line profits creates a certain level of concern for companies having a number of injuries. If claim costs cannot be contained, they eventually will affect a company's ability to be profitable and—in some cases—continue to perform work. This fear does help in gaining compliance to the regulations cited, but may or may not generate a commitment by the company to establish an effective, long-term safety program.

Although OSHA and other government regulators would like to believe their efforts to prevent injuries are effective, they are limited by how well employers incorporate the standards into their procedures as well as into the actual behavior employees demonstrate while working. For example, we found it is very difficult to (1) get the safety regulations into the work place and incorporate them as an effective work place practice; (2) have employees want to follow the safety regulations and demand a safe work place; and (3) have the owners, contractors, and construction managers maintain safe working conditions in the work place.

Certainly, we have appropriate regulations in place to maintain safe job-sites. But getting compliance is extremely difficult. If you think getting compliance to the legal requirements is easy, just ask yourself the following question: “Did I drive the speed limit to work today?” Many times we are complacent with our own safety and expect the same of others. If we were truly committed to driving in a safe manner, we would avoid tailgating, obey the speed limit, and abstain from other activities while driving.

Unfortunately, regulations don't have the positive effect we would like to see, and the employees are the ones most affected. Even if employees recognize unsafe conditions or behaviors, they seldom take action to correct the safety issues. They simply are not given the necessary authority to make the corrective actions. The consequence of speaking up often gets employees classified as troublemakers or considered to be bad team players. If they want to keep their jobs, they will be quiet and do their job.

Beyond policies and procedures

In response to governmental regulations, companies spend a lot of time developing their own policies and procedures. A company committed to its safety program will spend time, effort, and money to develop specific operating procedures to guide compliance to regulations, industry standards, and the safety of its employees.

In too many cases, a company simply purchases these programs to meet federal, state, or local government regulations and—in some instances—client requirements. By doing so, a company meets the legal requirements, while the program often sits on a shelf in the field office. The employees who are most affected by the hazardous conditions may never be trained in these procedures or have access to them to understand how they can work with the hazards in a safe manner.

As such, it comes down to regulations, procedures, and training. More and more regulations are being written by the regulatory agencies, and more and more policies and procedures are created to comply with the new regulations. See Safety Procedures (page 56) for a comprehensive list of safety procedures that have been reviewed by a third party for OSHA compliance.

Although this list is extensive, something is missing. Since most companies want to operate within the law, regulations can move effectively from the regulatory agency into the company policies and procedures. The question then becomes, “How are the policies and procedures incorporated and effectively maintained in the work place?” Again, we ask the question: “If we truly have top-of-the-line safety program, why aren't we able to control injuries?”

Communicating and training

Training is the logical answer as to how regulations, policies, and procedures are incorporated into the field, and this is the next area we wanted to investigate. All anyone needs to do is look at the size and depth of the training industry, the time spent on training, and the amount of training required by OSHA/MSHS and others to understand that everyone feels this is the primary way to effectively get critical information on company expectations, legal requirements, regulations, policies, procedures, and work standards into the work place. As a company with a commitment to our employees, it is obvious we also believe communication through training is critical to the safety, health, and well-being of our employees. We also feel that if we want to maximize the productivity of our employees, we need to ensure they are trained in our procedures and cultural expectations.

Comprehensus

Case in point is our safety training program which uses video-documented jobsite procedures in the industry. Every business line and most of our policies and procedures are covered and available in a format that can be accessed from anywhere in the country. We call this program Comprehensus, and it is essentially an online index of jobsites with video documentation of our company culture, safety expectation for the work tasks, procedures, and related safety programs. A complete listing of all the training is 49 pages long and includes all the appropriate safety topics and expectations for all the safety regulations, policies, and procedures we use in our work. In fact, we have so much material that we could give employees training for a year without exhausting our training topics. Obviously, time constraints limit the amount of training we can do, and there are certainly limits to how much training an employee can receive. However, we understand that employee retention of information is a critical limiting factor for effective training, so the majority of our training programs use hands-on techniques or employee participation in the training to maximize their retention. Simply put, we have a true commitment to training, and on many of our projects we give all new employees two full days of training before we consider allowing them to enter the work area.

So now it comes down to regulations, policies and procedures, and communication through training. Once again we had to ask ourselves, “If we truly have a top-of-the-line safety and training program, why aren't we able to control these injuries?” What else is needed to ensure employee safety?

Employees' commitment

Safety comes from a combination of governmental regulations, company policies and procedures, training, and the employee's ability to be an effective part of the safety process. The employee and his personal commitment to safety is the missing piece.

Regulations become what we want to do in order to protect the employee's safety and health. Policies and procedures are how we are going to comply with the various regulations and standards. Training is the method of communication with our employees, and now the employees become the means to enact procedures that will enable us to work in safe environments on the jobsites. Responsibility exists not just within the leadership employee, but all employees who are working together to complete the project.

Training takes on a more important role for the employee because his safety now depends in part on his actions and decisions, which only can be effective if he has the understanding of the work process he is doing. Stopping the job without fear of reprisals is one of the most important aspects of allowing employees to participate in their own safety. Giving your employees this authority sounds good but is easier said than done. Jobsite supervisors have a natural tendency to control all aspects of the job, but having the leadership accountable to an employee reverses the traditional roles of who is the worker and who is the boss.

The good news is that employees typically do not use their authority without good reason. They depend on their jobs and unless disgruntled for some reason, will act in a responsible manner. If they truly have a legitimate concern about their safety or the safety of others, it will add a whole new dimension to reporting and correcting unsafe conditions or behaviors before an incident occurs.

In the worst case, the supervisor can stop the job, discuss the safety concerns with their employee and either implement corrective actions or—if the employee's concerns are unfounded—restart the job. Either way, the supervisor must legitimize the employee's concerns in a positive and proactive manner to ensure other employees will continue reporting unsafe conditions and behaviors. Knowing the employee's safety concerns will be addressed and corrected with respect and dignity reduces fear and further encourages participation with the safety program.

As the employees become accustomed to working with this kind of authority, they become better at controlling the unsafe conditions and behaviors that can make a job inefficient and unprofitable. Reduction in losses goes right into improving the bottom-line profits for the company. Better profits translate into more successes, which translate to better year-end bonuses and higher salaries for the employees.

The benefit of protecting the health and well being of employees goes well beyond the project and its profitability. The very lives of all employees, their co-workers, families, and friends are all positively affected by the actions that can come from a single employee.

Where do we go from here?

Now that we finally can recognize that adoption of safety as a true core value is key to success, our employees are fully empowered and supported for “Safe Production.”

However, changing a culture takes time and a lot of effort is required throughout the organization to implement the difficult changes. By taking the first step in recognizing the areas we needed to improve, we also have made plans to become involved with our employees as a strategic partner in the development of a true safety culture. It is only through this partnership and our own personal commitment to safety 24/7 that our company's core values will be successful.

— James Emmons, director of safety, manages the safety program for Structural Group, Hanover, Md. He is responsible for the development of his company's comprehensive safety program and teaches seminars on various safety subjects. He authored A Field Guide to Better Safety, a safety-training manual used by company personnel. He can be reached at 410-850-7000 or jemmons@structural.net.