How to build a culture of safety in construction

Boosting safety depends on getting all employees to buy into the concept and empowering them to take responsibility

Following the crane accident that claimed the lives of 107 people at the Grand Mosque in Mecca last year, safety is back at the forefront of the construction industry discourse in the Middle East.

While the shadow of the disaster at Islam’s holiest site still hangs over the industry in the region, the lessons – of giving safety its due – do not seem to have completely sunk in, as can be seen from the many incidents of fire at construction sites in the GCC.

For the culture of safety to be really bought into in the region’s construction sector, it has to be made personal. When it comes to safety, most companies do follow the rules. They train their personnel, document the training and inspect their work-sites as often as required. However, while they do go by the book, this is merely going through the motions, without the intrinsic buy-in of the safety-first principle by every team member.

According to Chandramouli Neogi, design engineer at Indian construction giant DCPL, the culture of safety in a company depends on six main elements. The first is collective responsibility in which everyone is responsible for safety all of the time. The second is the willingness of employees to go beyond the normal requirements of their duties to identify safety issues. This needs to be followed by the next element – empowering all levels of the organisation to raise the red flag.

Three other elements make up the safety culture, according to Neogi. They are the giving and receiving of honest feedback across all levels, an emphasis on safety in every conversation, and an organisation-wide commitment to safety.

Lead from the top

The lead in implementing these principles has to come from top management, Neogi says. “They have to drive home the culture of safety and the requirement for personal commitment from each employee to work safe. The people at the top need to pass the message down to their subordinates, who pass it down to department managers, who take the message to the teams on the ground.”

Neogi feels an effective safety programme has to be personal – and that requires honesty, openness and face-to-face communication, which is not easy in the rough and tumble world of construction. Confrontation over safety issues can be uncomfortable. That’s why it’s rarely done.

“It’s not easy for a line worker to pluck up the courage to approach his manager when he sees a safety violation, especially when dealing with that violation can mean missing a deadline. Neither is it easy for supervisors to talk to people in their charge about safety issues when they have set these people stiff targets.”

Fear that the conversation is going to end badly causes too many people to look the other way. But if you don’t have the conversation, what does that reveal? “You are saying that the unsafe behaviour is acceptable. It is noticed when you don’t set the example and the unsafe behaviour becomes the norm.”

Two key factors help: positive reinforcement and a personal safety message. Globally, many companies ask employees to write out a personal safety message and share it with co-workers and managers. The message answers one question: Why is safety important to you?

The reasons may vary for every individual, from family to personal health and several others. The most important part, though, is that they’re personal and shared with co-workers. Armed with this knowledge, if you see a co-worker working without safety glasses, you can say: “You told us in your personal safety message that you love to watch your children play football. If sparks fly from that welding torch, it may blind you and you’ll never see them play again.”

“Making it personal for each employee usually overcomes any pushback, and typically we come to the same conclusion,” says Ajit Chaudhury, project manager at Construction Engineering Services in Sharjah. Most of the time, those conversations turn out to be much worse in anticipation than in reality, he adds.

Positive feedback

Positive reinforcement is another way to make these conversations effective, agree both Neogi and Chaudhuri.

Spontaneous recognition for good safety practices is one of the best ways to make them routine, Neogi says. “Positive feedback for little things like people using the chock blocks, or wearing their Type 2 safety glasses, should be routine. This makes it easier for employees to accept the corrections or critical comments that may be needed in the future.”

Chaudhuri adds: “The old military adage – praise in public, criticise in private – is a great thing to remember. Shouting and admonishing doesn’t really work. You have to reach people’s hearts, and then you won’t need to stand over them yelling.”

Empowering and involving the whole organisation in a culture of safety is ultimately management’s responsibility, and often simply entails valuing employees at every station and listening to all rungs of the ladder. The people on the ground, such as fleet managers, technicians and mechanics, often know more about the machinery than those in higher positions.

“When buying new equipment, it is imperative to sound out the actual users of the machines for their safety input before the final purchase decision,” says Neogi. “Their recommendations on what they find safest to use should not be ignored.”

Chaudhuri adds: “All safety information about new equipment should be disseminated to the operations group. Technicians often train the operators and can reinforce the safety aspects of each machine.”

The culture of safety, then, is a personal practice founded on an organisation’s ability to infuse team spirit in its employees and empower them to treat it as a personal responsibility.

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