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Dangers of Poor Communication on a Construction Site

By Robert Pieters, Contributor

Despite an increase in education, the construction industry continues to struggle with workplace safety.

Excessive heat or cold, hazardous materials, slips and falls – these are just a few of the daily challenges facing today’s construction crews. Despite an increase in education, the industry continues to struggle with workplace safety, according to OSHA data. Construction can be dangerous, but by taking some important steps, significant progress can be made to ensure that workers arrive home safely each night.

While OSHA and other groups do an effective job of promoting the importance of prevention, especially as it relates to the “Focus Four” hazards – Falls, Struck-By, Electrocution, and Caught In-Between – it is imperative that construction industry leaders take proactive steps to make safety a priority.

The following are four key issues construction business leaders need to consider in addressing safety with their own teams:

  1. Planning is Where Safety Begins

All roads to eliminating injuries begin in the early planning stages of a construction project and don’t end until final inspection. Safety starts with clearly understanding the scope of work and what inherent safety issues may arise. These will vary significantly based on the type of construction work involved. Although every construction project requires a comprehensive safety plan, constructing a new industrial building can be more straightforward than remodeling an existing building that could come with its own history of problems such as asbestos, lead, and mold.

Location and industry are also key factors. For example, NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) remodel work taking place next to a busy oncology department will require a lot of foresight. Some considerations include noise reduction and dust mitigation to protect staff and patients during the construction process.

Collaboration and communication are key elements of planning and a safety culture. Pre-planning and pre-install meetings with building owners, architects, and construction project managers will set expectations as well as review and clarify any ambiguities relating to design, specifications, and codes. This is crucial to identify potential hazards and develop a game plan to prevent them before they become an issue.

  1. Engrain a Safety Mindset

The unfortunate reality is that death rates for construction workers have stayed the same over the past decade with three out of five due to OSHA’s “Focus Four” hazards.

Training plays an essential role in reducing the risk of injuries and death, and this is something that needs to be prioritized by construction leaders from new-hire orientation to the job site. Project leaders need to verify that an employee’s training is current before the project starts and that all certifications are updated. This is true for a variety of roles, whether for a crane operator – who needs to be re-evaluated every five years – or a forklift driver, who’s re-certified every three years.

When assigning roles, look at who is available and align the role with the people who have the right experience. Look for both formal and informal settings in which to mentor less-seasoned employees so the work is done safely. As an example, Riley conducts general trainings like Tool Box Talks and Safety Round Tables in addition to providing specific education on topics such as OSHA 10 & 30 and respirator training/fitting for silica.

But training alone is not enough. According to a study[1] by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, there is a “forgetting curve” that proves that the biggest drop in learning retention begins soon after your training session. It’s not that workers are not listening, but without constant reinforcement, the message won’t stick. Instilling a safety mindset that goes beyond one training session or checklist will ensure that safety is a 24/7 priority.

For example, Riley Construction institutes daily huddles – a brief informative meeting held prior to the day’s shift – as well as weekly jobsite meetings that ensure upcoming safety issues are highlighted. This is especially crucial to prepare for and monitor high-risk activities such as trenching, excavation, steel erection, crane operations, hot work, and helicopter picks. Planning occurs at least six weeks ahead to make sure all necessary materials (e.g., respirators, fall protection equipment, etc.) are on hand. The benefits of engraining a safety mindset have been undeniable, as Riley has gone 14 years without an OSHA citation and has an EMR of .56, compared to the national average of 1.0.

  1. Conduct Regular Safety Audits

Scheduled and random safety audits are an essential way to identify weak spots in safety, make necessary changes to your safety management plan, and instill a culture of safety throughout every aspect of your work. These audits not only create safer job sites, but they also ensure projects stay on track and on budget.

Every year, new tools and equipment bring new potential hazards and new jobs bring new challenges. Performing audits on a weekly basis or when high-risk activities are taking place ensures that you stay in step with updated regulations and requirements.

When an audit uncovers an issue, it should be addressed immediately with workers in the field. More extensive issues should be brought to the superintendent’s attention to ensure they are corrected as soon as possible. Safety audit results should be used as leading indicators of potential problems as well as what’s going well on projects. This will help your team determine what resources, such as additional training or new equipment, might be needed to address issues before they become serious.

Riley recently introduced a Safety Reports app that has helped digitize their safety program. This app enables them to conduct safety activities and audits in a more efficient way. It not only tracks top safety findings and all current safety inspections, but also provides the OSHA standard for each specific activity being observed. This ensures each safety situation is responded to appropriately.

  1. Communicate with Empathy – Not an Iron Fist

After a near miss or injury in the field, it’s tempting to think that an authoritarian “iron fist” approach might be the easiest way to get crew members to listen to and retain safety messages. Instead, it is the quickest way to create disgruntled crew members who begin to resist leaders. A more effective approach is to talk with crew members about a near miss or injury and build an understanding of what led to the situation and collaborate on how to prevent it in the future.

Prevention in a safety culture includes clear expectations and holds workers accountable. It’s essential to have an open-door policy where crew can share concerns and grievances so corrections can be made more quickly. The more engagement that workers have on the job site, the more likely safety risks will be reduced.

Each morning on the jobsite should begin with a brief safety meeting. This is the time of day to assign tasks, relay expectations, and discuss safety concerns on the day’s activities before any equipment or materials are moved. By ensuring everyone on the crew hears the same messages, the company minimizes the risk of injuries and incidents.

Construction leaders who follow a comprehensive safety planning and auditing process, instill a safety mindset and culture, and provide clear and regular communications on safety topics are paving the road to a zero-injury workplace.

Robert Pieters is Safety Manager, Riley Construction (rileycon.com).

[1] https://www.mindtools.com/a9wjrjw/ebbinghauss-forgetting-curve

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