The Intertwined Worlds of Safety and Quality

The Intertwined Worlds of Safety and Quality

Safety has historically received a lot more attention and mindshare on projects than quality.

Despite tight schedules and shrinking margins, everyone can agree on one thing: that the most important thing on any construction project is that everyone goes home safe at the end of the day. Attend a meeting on any construction site, and the word “safety” is bound to come up at least a few times; in the context of on-site practices and procedures, upcoming trainings and toolbox talks, supervisory responsibilities and reports... the list goes on.

Safety also has a “cousin” that has only recently moved into the limelight. It's a cousin that for far too long faded into the shadows—presumed to be doing just fine—or perhaps was someone else’s responsibility. In fact, he was sometimes deprioritized altogether since he is never one to make a fuss or cause a scene, except for when things go wrong. That cousin is quality.

Safety and quality are two intimately intertwined yet distinct elements of any construction project. Both are important. Yet safety has historically received a lot more attention and mindshare on projects. That’s not to say that quality isn’t a focus, because it certainly is but in a different way. Just ask any of the many hard-working quality personnel in the industry who are working their tails off to make sure projects are delivered on time, on budget and according to specifications.

Yet, despite the impressive effort and best of intentions, serious quality issues persist. Boeing has made headlines for its poor quality practices leading to Alaska Airlines’ door plug incident in January 2024. Rework rates on construction projects exceed 30 percent and add nearly a trillion dollars to global project costs, according to published studies. Without a massive shift in culture and the way the industry thinks about quality, it will continue fighting an uphill battle.

So what exactly is the difference between safety and quality, and as an industry, what can be done to better elevate quality?

Safety and Quality: Apples and Oranges?

At its core, construction safety can be defined as protecting workers and surrounding communities from any type of injury or health-related risk. By contrast, quality is responsible for ensuring adherence with pre-defined procedures relating to materials, labor and design. At the risk of over-simplifying, safety is about people, and quality is about the final deliverable.

Comparing safety and quality at face value might lead to the assumption that they operate as completely separate functions. After all, they have distinct teams with dedicated roles that are tasked with achieving different goals. Further, safety is often considered a collective goal by everyone on a project, while quality personnel and goals are more isolated. But classifying safety and quality as distinctly as apples and oranges would be a big mistake.

Safety and quality are very much interrelated. In fact, poor work quality is often the root cause for many construction safety incidents that occur. BBI Services has reported that correcting poor work quality is responsible for 39 percent of all workplace injuries in construction. Subpar workmanship or incorrect materials puts everyone’s safety at risk. It’s a dangerous causal relationship because even a seemingly insignificant deviation from specifications can prove to be a deadly mistake.

Take Boeing’s recent quality issues as an example. The accident is often framed as a safety issue, due to the massive safety risk that was posed to all passengers on board. But, in reality, the problem stemmed from a failure in quality control processes. This underscores the causal connection between quality and safety: quality lapses can often jeopardize safety too. 

Failure to Plan Is Planning to Fail

Now that quality’s direct relationship with safety has been underscored, it’s important to outline how construction leaders can set their projects up for success. Benjamin Franklin once stated, "Failing to plan is planning to fail." In order to improve quality, it’s important to have a detailed quality plan, which should be entirely separate from a safety plan.

A safety plan consists of the protocols, procedures and precautions aimed at minimizing occupational hazards and promoting a safe working environment. This should include measures such as site inspections, hazard assessments, emergency response protocols and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Conversely, a quality plan delineates strategies for maintaining consistency, precision and excellence throughout the project lifecycle. It encompasses procedures for quality control, quality assurance, inspections, testing, and compliance with industry standards and regulations.

One mission-critical part of a quality plan that is often forgotten is a method for ensuring that procedures are being followed. Historically, fieldwork has been verified via a series of paper checklists that are all too easy to pencil-whip. Over time, they become treated as useless and are often misplaced or forgotten.

Thankfully, technology has evolved leaps and bounds. There are now excellent quality management systems available that guide field workers with step-by-step procedures and require quality checkpoints such as questionnaires, images and data—such as torque value and pressure levels—from IoT devices like tools and gauges.

Channel the inner Benjamin Franklin and always have a plan for ensuring procedure adherence. Excellent quality results will follow.

Shining a Spotlight on Quality

Construction leaders have done an incredible job of prioritizing safety. Of course, there is always more that can be done, but job safety has now become a collective focus of everyone on a construction project. Exactly as it should be.

However, the industry can and must do better at shining a spotlight on quality as well. It is currently an isolated focus, and there’s a lot that can be done to improve it based on learnings from safety culture.

The success of “safety culture” is centered on its ability to channel the collective attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of everyone on a construction project. It excels at fostering a culture of accountability by establishing a zero-tolerance policy towards unsafe practices. Similarly, it’s necessary to foster a culture prioritizing quality by rewarding individuals who report quality issues, instead of slapping them on the wrist.

Charlie Munger famously said, “Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome.” Many owners and general contractors now grade contractors on their safety compliance. High-performing companies are rewarded with performance payments and public recognition, while low-performing companies are penalized. The same should be done for quality. The right data collection allows for the objective measurement and reporting of rework rates on projects so that the same rewards and penalties for quality can be imposed for safety.

Improving an issue as pervasive as quality doesn’t end there. Leadership is responsible for setting the tone of organizational culture. Leaders must get smarter about capturing data and effectively analyzing the root cause of quality issues. Only then can the industry start altering actions and decisions to create a future with better work quality.

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