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Construction Safety in the Atypical Wake of Worker Turnover

Now is a great time to invest in safety training. Here’s why.

Even at the best of times, managing safety concerns in the wake of the construction industry’s turbulent employee turnover patterns is a challenge. And right now is hardly the best of times.  

From 2012 to 2021, the construction industry experienced a monthly separation rate—the percentage of employees who were fired, quit or otherwise stopped working every month—of about 5 percent. That’s high compared to many other sectors, but industry veterans know that it’s typical for a sector noted for its sizeable employment churn, and it’s just one more unavoidable challenge of working in construction.  

And then all of a sudden, in the first ten months of 2022, the monthly separation rate dropped by a quarter, moving down to 3.75 percent. On the surface, it looks like this should be a cause for celebration, but it actually signals a major shift in employer/worker dynamics in the construction industry. And it’s a sign of potential safety troubles ahead.  

In the past, the majority of separations came from workers getting fired. So while turnover was high, it was driven by employers. Now, for every employee who is let go, two more quit. The overall separation rate is much lower, but the number of workers who are quitting is way up. As any hiring manager will tell you, it always seems to be the best employees who leave.  

Low unemployment rates are likely contributing to the high levels of employee mobility. The latest figures available (as of this writing) show the U.S. unemployed rate at 3.7 percent. In the last 50 years, the only time the national unemployment rate has been lower was in the handful of months leading up to the pandemic. With a potential recession looming, these numbers may return to normal in the coming years. But the current economic cycle still presents several pressing issues and demonstrates the challenges that can arise for the industry in any atypical economic period.  

Construction companies are having a much harder time replenishing their workforce. Because the pool of qualified laborers is a lot smaller, workers can be a lot choosier about where they go. This industry-wide challenge has quickly become a major safety headache.  

If you work in construction and you have any sort of safety responsibilities, then likely, you’ve already felt the effects of this employment trend. Many of your best workers, the ones who are skilled and attentive to safety measures, have packed up their toolboxes and left for another job. They’ve been replaced with folks who seem to have never heard of the concept of workplace safety, or departed workers haven’t been replaced at all, leaving your team stretched thin.  

Either way, there are substantial safety issues at play. More than ever, job vacancies are filled with folks who are new to the construction industry or to the type of work that your company does. Numerous studies have shown that a lack of experience is correlated with a heightened risk of injuries and other incidents. It also increases the number and severity of human factors in the workplace, as the loss of experienced employees can affect team cohesion and communication, leading to more ambiguity and confusion. If workers haven’t been replaced, then your crew is likely suffering from fatigue and frustration as they’re pushed to do the same amount of work with fewer people. On top of all of it, a high turnover rate can have a negative impact on workplace culture.  

There’s no reason to expect this trend to abate, so it’s time to find a way to get the most out of the workers who have remained at your company. With layoff rates in 2022 having declined 54 percent from their 2012 to 19 levels, most employers are much more hesitant to get rid of workers who, in the past, might have been let go. It also means doing what you can to help retain the company’s best employees because they have more job options than ever before—and they know it.  

The silver lining is that there’s never been a better time for construction companies to invest in safety training. The knock against larger training initiatives has always been that employee turnover was too high—it wasn’t worth spending money to train employees when one in twenty workers will leave the company every month. But now that those rates are dramatically lower, the investment in safety training is much less likely to walk out the door. Doubly so because the employees who will most benefit from certain types of training, especially personal awareness safety training, are those who are least job-mobile.  

Safety training also serves your skilled employees who are at greater flight risk. A recent study in the International Journal of Human Resource Management discovered that job-related training can improve employee retention by over 10 percent. The research covered skills-based training that improved employee productivity, which likely excludes most standard safety compliance training. But non-mandatory safety training, such as human factors education, will both keep people safer and keep them from leaving.  

Human factors training can also be efficient compared to off-site trade certifications (at the cost of a few hours compared to a few hundred hours) or ongoing compliance training. After an initial introduction to human factors concepts, skills can be developed over time in the flow of work with continuous learning, practice exercises, storytelling and targeted communications with a safety climate led by effective frontline supervisors.  

But if full-fledged training of all employees isn’t a viable option, then consider narrowing your focus to only frontline supervisors. They are one of the key determinants of an employee’s overall level of job satisfaction, and boosting supervisors’ ability to engage employees will also increase the company’s ability to retain them.  

The ideal fit is a training initiative that provides frontline leaders with a suite of soft skills that can be applied specifically to safety issues, as well as more generally to employee engagement. This might include improving their ability to relate to employees while delivering toolbox talks or how to intervene in a positive and constructive manner when they notice workers engaging in unsafe actions.  

Both of these options—improving the capabilities of supervisors and offering extra safety training to employees—can be transformative, and most organizations find them well worth the time and financial cost. Each initiates a cycle that can counteract the cycle of turnover. Teach more skills and knowledge to more of your people. More people stay. Less employee turnover means the safety culture can deepen its roots. A deeper culture means a clearer sense of “how things are done around here,” with more people staying in an environment where they feel comfortable. This cycle continues to expand outward, establishing a stronger culture and compounding organizational knowledge.  

But if training isn’t a viable option right now, there’s still a shared underlying principle that you can adopt to reap some of the benefits. At their core, both of these types of initiatives are about demonstrating care.  

In any job hunt, people consider three big items first: location, wage, and type of work. As someone with safety responsibilities, you have zero influence on all three of these factors. Once you move beyond the big three, there’s a fourth influence in job migration: the desire to work for a company that cares for you. And this is where safety folks can make a difference.  

When workers believe their employer cares about them as a person, and not just as a unit of value production, they are happier in their job. Intuitively, they’re more likely to stay put in their job. Perhaps counterintuitively, they’re also safer. According to Rodd Wagner’s latest research into the link between happiness and safety, “happy employees are better at keeping themselves and their colleagues out of harm’s way for reasons both conscious and subconscious.” Quite simply, demonstrating care for employees can reduce injuries and turnover.  

There are all sorts of ways to show that you care about the people at your company, from simple things like listening, building psychological safety or saying thank you to more formal recognition programs or milestone celebrations. But none are more impactful than investing in their personal skills development—especially voluntary safety education like human factors training and safety-focused supervisor training.  

It’s the voluntary, not-required-by-law part that shows your care and commitment, by investing in their well-being. Finding a way to make all that extra training happen, despite all the tricky logistics, signals caring too. If your leadership team doesn’t see the initial value of wedging in a few hours of extra training to keep employees safe and happy, then position it in terms of comparative savings, as a method of mitigating troublesome patterns in employee turnover. It’s a lot easier, and cheaper, to train-to-retain employees than it is to replace them over and over again.  

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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