Best Practices, Feature, Operations, V10I1

From the Top Down: Safety Culture

(Photo courtesy of rutchapong moolvai from Pixabay)

A pervasive safety culture is essential to any contractor’s success, no matter its size. 

More often than not, a safe work environment is synonymous with a more efficiently and productively run job site.

Therefore, there’s no good reason for a company to ignore safety, says Dr. Doug Trout, medical officer in the construction office at the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH)

NIOSH promotes construction-related research and coordinates research-to-practice initiatives across the United States.

To accomplish its mission, NIOSH works with universities, unions, and trade associations to disseminate vital safety information in the construction space. Trout says much of his agency’s focus is on the prevention of OSHA’s “Fatal Four”—falls, “struck by,” electrocutions, and “caught by”—which represent two-thirds of the fatalities in the construction industry. 

“There’s a lot of research out there, but we try to focus on practical solutions, and getting the research into the hands of the people doing the work,” he adds.

Nevertheless, the best safety-focused tools and information mean little if a contractor or manufacturer hasn’t established and nurtured a good safety culture—from the top down. A company’s culture is essentially the value that it places on worker safety. 

“Shed builders need to be cognizant of OSHA standards, of course, but at a higher level they should support a good safety culture or climate,” he adds. 

As a guide, NIOSH offers a Safety Climate Assessment Tool on its website that assists contractors with measuring their safety culture while also providing steps for improving it. 

“It gauges management’s commitment to safety,” Trout says, “and there are things that management can do to stress to the workers the importance of safety.”

In the end, though, a good safety culture simply isn’t possible without management’s “buy-in,” says Jessica Bunting, director of research to practice at The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR)

CPWR’s multi-disciplinary team offers training and other activities aimed at reducing injuries and fatalities in the construction space.

“We’ve seen through our own research where workers are more likely to use PPE (personal protective equipment), or stop work when they sense something is unsafe, if it’s regularly mandated by management,” Bunting says. 

“They’re more likely to do that if they’re not just simply pressured by employers to keep working.”

As such, a shed builder should first evaluate its own internal safety culture

“Shed builders can implement specific tools to strengthen their safety climate in a variety of ways, and engage in a continuous improvement process,” she adds. “It’s a first step to see where you stand as a company and determine how to improve.” 

Another critical piece of the safety puzzle is pre-task planning. It boils down to a change in mindset. 

“They might not think they have the time, but planning ahead will enable a shed builder to plan for a safer, more productive job site,” NIOSH’s Trout says. 

“Think ahead about your job. If you need a ladder, what kind? Or if it can be done with a lift, do you need to rent one? A man-lift would be a lot safer, but if you don’t think about it until the job begins, the workers might not have time to get it. That increases the risk to safety.”

Pre-task planning is particularly essential in today’s strained workforce environment, as workers in the field might not have adequate training or might have a poor grasp of the English language. 

“If you have the safety culture and pre-task planning processes in place, you can make up for those issues,” adds Trout. “Maybe you need to take an extra five or 10 minutes and provide that training and safety message.”

Bunting says CPWR provides a checklist of practical examples that can help employers implement or improve their own pre-task planning process. 

“We also have more specific planning tools that I would encourage folks to check out on our website,” she adds. CPWR also offers planning and training programs on materials handling, for example, as well as sample “toolbox talks” for superintendents at the job site.  

Reaching smaller contractors is by far the biggest challenge that CPWR faces. 

“Many of them don’t have the same structure in place as a larger contractor that would enable us to deliver information to them … so reaching them is our biggest challenge,” Bunting says. 

As a solution, they’re creatively finding ways to get safety information and resources into permitting offices or other locations where smaller companies will interact. 

“We know small employers want to keep their employees safe,” she says. “They’re often like a close-knit family—and in some cases, they actually are family—so they care about one another and their safety. 

“It just comes down to a lack of available information.”

Another obstacle standing in the way? A perceived lack of time at the job site. 

“It might seem counterintuitive to them, but a shed builder can improve timeliness and productivity with proper safety planning,” says Trout. 

“If you plan ahead and improve safety, it will almost always improve productivity.”

There are a host of free tools available that can help any shed builder, no matter the size, in putting protocols in place to enhance safety at the job site. 

“Often, smaller firms are working with tighter economic resources, so a lot of the things we create—training modules, infographics—are free and universal for any size contractor,” Trout says.

Sample “toolbox talks” can be found on the NIOSH website, consisting of one- or two-page documents that small construction firms can use weekly or daily for on-the-job safety training. 

“Having toolbox talks in different languages and at the appropriate literary level is a big emphasis for NIOSH, to offer them in plain, simple language as well as in Spanish,” Trout adds.

NIOSH also emphasizes “prevention through design,” whereby projects are designed and constructed in a manner that minimizes risky behavior. 

NIOSH is in the process of developing practical checklists available on the CPWR website, several of which are applicable to residential construction. 

“Working at heights is a significant risk, so if you have carpenters working on framing, for example, it might be safer to build the trusses for that roof off-site on firm ground, then lift them into place with a crane,” Trout says. 

“That way, you don’t have to have workers framing the trusses or roof from an elevated position.”

Recently, NIOSH has focused on the use of ladders as a potential hazard, sponsoring research at the University of Pittsburgh that is looking into designing safer ladders. 

“That can include even the basic design of ladders, and whether ladders can be redesigned to make them safer, or whether the rungs of the ladder can be made to minimize the risk of slipping, etc.,” he shares.

CPWR’s Bunting says mental health and opioid use have also garnered more attention in recent months. And for good reason. 

According to the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, it’s five times more likely that a construction company will lose an employee to suicide than the OSHA “fatal four.” 

And in its most recent data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that contractors have the highest rates of death by suicide among its workers.

“Those issues are killing more workers than typically work-related safety and health hazards,” Bunting says. “It needs to be addressed, and I’m seeing where it used to be about creating awareness around mental health. 

“Now, people are aware and are interested in addressing it. The conversation is more about what folks are doing, what they can do, and where they find training for their workers, etc.

“There’s a lot of movement around how we address worker wellbeing holistically.”

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