The key then is to go beyond simply finding hazards or spotting at-risk behaviors or conditions. A process must be in place to determine whether the findings are systemic or simply one-time occurrences.

Managing Risk in Construction

A safety professional must consider the levels of understanding to risk when working with sites or individuals. We are walking lessons learned, and that is our advantage.

Risk is not a new concept. In fact, every day we evaluate the risks in our lives and make decisions accordingly. Everything from the house we live in to the speed of our car to the route we take to work to how we spend our money are all based on decisions to manage and mitigate risk. Although more complex, your company does the same.

A great deal of time and effort is often spent developing Health and Safety Plans for organizations in an effort to manage risk. Most health and safety plans are comprehensive in nature and provide such things as the nature of hazards present in the workplace, as well as who will be responsible for health and safety related tasks that are conducted to protect against these hazards. As the name implies, it is a plan, or detailed course of action to be taken in order to achieve a desired outcome. Most can agree that the desired outcome when it pertains to safety and health is the prevention of injury to workers and damage to property.

Based on the intent of the plan and applied accordingly, each person within the company has a part to play in injury prevention. If the plan is followed, then no injuries should occur. Yet injuries still occur. What is the disconnect?

One key element of a plan is to measure and review whether the desired outcome is actually achieved. In other words, is the plan working as intended? Do the controls in place and the activities performed actually work to mitigate hazards and control the risk in the field? Surprisingly enough, this verification part of the plan is the one that is most often missed.

During a recent tour of a work site, a safety manager asked the project team these basic questions: "What is your biggest risk? What keeps you up at night with worry?" The superintendent responded with this: "Easy. Fire." At this particular project, renovation of a printing facility where they produce newspapers, the risk seemed evident. The conversation then steered toward that risk, and further details emerged. The building was old and lacked a modern sprinkler system, and it was empty two nights of the week. Abatement was under way to remove old floor tiles and radiators. During construction, the building is occupied and in full production.

Once the operational details were outlined, the safety team began to ask about the next step, which was a simple, logical question about controls of the known risk: "What are you doing to protect against fires?" That's when things got interesting. When asked whether the temporary abatement barriers were fire resistant, the response was this: "No." During the tour of the project, chop saws were seen throughout the areas and were in use to remove rusted pipe fittings throughout the building. When asked if hot work protocols were underway, the response was this: "No, none of that. We aren't using torches here." Lastly, when asked about a fire watch on nights when no one was working, the response was in line with the others: "No, it wasn't specified in the contract."

In order to mitigate or eliminate risk, one must first recognize the risk. Cut your hand once with a folding pocket-knife blade, and you will buy a locking blade to eliminate that risk. However, it took getting hurt to understand and avoid the risk. A safety professional must consider the levels of understanding to risk when working with sites or individuals. We are walking lessons learned, and that is our advantage. Gauging the "expected knowledge" in a simple conversation is critical to establishing understanding of risk such that efforts can be made proactively to prevent harm.

Back to the story. The safety manager then went on to explain the value of fire-resistant barriers and showed the superintendent where they are called out in that city's code. He then explained that hot work is not just welding and cutting, but can range from sandblasting to concrete cutting and certainly the use of chop saws. Last, the safety manager asked whether a fire watch on those nights would be appreciated by the owner and the workers. The superintendent responded: "Certainly. It makes sense."

Seizing the Opportunity to Coach and Teach
When an obvious risk is recognized, it may not be obvious to others. Care is needed to point out what is found and why it is important. This is an opportunity to coach and teach, as opposed to berate and tell someone what they do not know. Time can be spent providing examples of what right and wrong looks like so the project team can better recognize similar patterns in the future.

Back, then, to the original question—what is the disconnect? Another key to answering this is the manner in which we currently measure "safety." As long as there is no adverse event—injury or damage—then the operation is deemed safe. "No harm, no foul." In fact, risky behaviors can be prolific and even reinforced using this logic, if positive outcomes (i.e., no injuries) continue. The hazard may be recognized, but the likelihood of an injury occurring may be devalued the longer no injuries occur. This could lead to a false sense of security, leading to continued risk taking.

An improved process for managing risk can certainly improve how safety is done on a project. This is not a new process. In fact, insurance companies have long stressed these steps be employed to manage risk:

  • Risk identification: Potential risks are defined, such as work site hazards.
  • Risk analysis: Risks are then reviewed in order to determine the probability of leading to negative outcomes, their potential consequences, and causal relationships with other business functions.
  • Risk assessment and evaluation: The risk is then further evaluated after determining the overall likelihood of occurrence combined with its overall consequence. Decisions can then be made on whether the risk is acceptable and whether the company is willing to do it (or continue to do it, as related in the story) based on its appetite for risk.
  • Risk mitigation: This step is conducted in order to assess and prioritize risks, as well as develop plans to mitigate them using specific risk controls. During this step, actions to address the risk and drive improvement through interventions occur.
  • Risk monitoring: Part of the mitigation plan includes following up on both the risks and assessing the effectiveness of any controls in place that were designed to eliminate or mitigate this risk(s).

The key then is to go beyond simply finding hazards or spotting at-risk behaviors or conditions. A process must be in place to determine whether the findings are systemic or simply one-time occurrences. The process must also be evidence-based based on observational data. Once trends are spotted, steps must be taken to address corrective actions, preferably before damage is done.

All other business functions operate in this manner. Finance doesn't wait for a zero balance in the account before declaring an issue. The project team doesn't wait until the schedule is irrecoverably behind before implementing change. Why, then, should safety wait to address risk until it manifests into problems before addressing trends in risk?

It is necessary to develop a culture that recognizes and rewards those who speak up and speak out regarding potential risks, as opposed to "shooting the messenger." In addition, punishing people for simply being human does not aid in gaining insight into risk. Rather, it leads to risk being hidden or masked. Sharing lessons learned and potential negative outcomes posed by situations allows for better outcomes through proactive approaches. You need to show the outcome to help others understand the impact. Telling is of little value, yet showing is powerful.

You cannot manage risk if you don’t know where your risk resides. Additionally, knowing where your risk resides is simply the first step necessary to manage that risk. Moving forward, a process that closes the loop between identification, evaluation, and action is the ideal approach to manage risk, drive continuous improvement, and keep someone's son or daughter safe.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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