Achieving Sustainability in Construction Safety Programs

Safety is not a bolt-on program that can be managed after the project begins; safety should be integrated into how work is performed, as are cost, schedule and quality.

When we hear the word sustainability, what do we really think of? Most people think of something linked to the environmental world. Clean energy technologies, such as wind, solar power, and hybrid cars, are the most common things that come to mind. But how many times does the word "sustainability" surface in construction during a discussion on safety? If you said "not too often" or "I haven't really thought about it," then you aren't alone. After reading this, you'll be able to apply a practical approach to incorporate sustainability into your safety program.

You've done everything right; you've garnered management commitment, improved your safety culture so that the craft workers are actively engaged and communicating, developed a comprehensive set of leading and lagging indicators and all indications are that your team is reducing injury frequency and severity on the project. The real consideration now is what you do to keep it going. Often, with success comes complacency; don't lose sight of what produces results. Remember that meaningful results are a culmination of (1) defining your internal clients (whose help do I need?), (2) defining your leading and lagging indicators (how do I measure success?), and (3) determining what your barriers are (what can derail progress?). We will break these three components down and examine them further.

Let's start this initial evaluation by first discussing your internal clients. This applies to everyone in some capacity and it's important to note that each needs a different level of streamlined and pointed information delivered to them. Determine who these people are (CEO, CFO, project managers, construction managers, and trade craftsmen), what information they need and when, and how they can help. Contact them and establish/reaffirm their responsibilities and the dire need for their continued commitment.

The second element is determining which leading and lagging indicators to evaluate. The sky is the limit, but start with small, high-value items. Listed below are some questions to research with your construction management team. If you can put a number to it, great; if not, a wet thumb in the wind should be enough to tell you which direction you're headed.

1. Are all levels of the project team showing continued involvement and contribution to the safety program?

2. Have we seen a reduction in both the severity and frequency of our incidents, and do our observations/audits unilaterally support this?

3. When we perform observations, what is our observation strength? Are we focusing on high-value items, such as excavation safety and fall protection, or simply doing a cursory look at easily observed, low-impact items such as PPE?

4. When talking to the craft and construction supervisors, what is morale like? What are the results of the most recent perception survey?

5. Has our communication improved?

6. When we meet to discuss the project schedule, are we willingly incorporating safety into our work plans?

If some of the above items are showing signs of erosion, develop an action plan to address them.

The third element is determining your program's barriers. More specifically, where does the team think the challenges will be? Challenges to watch for are weakening core values, mixed messages being sent by project leadership, lack of trust in management by the craft and lack of interest or focus.

Remember that continuous improvement and sustainability require continuous effort, although those efforts to sustain the improvements your team has made will not always be in the same areas. Your work is not done!

After you've made the initial evaluation of these three simple, yet very important components, we would recommend reviewing the "7 Keys to Sustainable Success" and how they help you toward building long-term sustainability.

Key #1: VSP (Vision, Strategy, Plan)
lthough you may or may not have formalized it, to have reached a point in your safety program where you are now focused on sustainability, you had to have developed some sort of vision, strategy, and plan.

The Vision clarifies the direction you want your program to go -- a desired end state. Avoid using incident rates, financial metrics or other lagging indicators for this. Try to maintain your focus on long-term, big, and bold statements that can tangibly be supported with data. An example of a Vision statement might be: "To protect the lives of our employees and the environment by identifying risks, improving our EH&S processes and promoting a team-oriented approach toward continuous improvement."

The Strategy includes individual program components that will support the Vision. Examples of these might be training, developing a core safety steering team, conducting project safety audits and resolving to uphold communication throughout the program.

The Plan component of the VSP process supports the strategies you developed and should be detailed so that it's very clear what will be incorporated into the safety program, to ensure that each of the strategies is met. Plan examples for the provided strategies include determining who will be trained and when, who will participate in the steering team, when the group will meet and what its mission will be, what the frequency of the audits will be and the associated inspection methodology, and how communication will be maintained. For the communication piece, especially if site inspections are occurring, it's important that a data use plan be developed to determine when and who receives the information and what the anticipated value is.

These three components are inter-related and must be developed in concert with the project management team to ensure these people have buy-in and will support the effort.

Key #2: Effective Goal Planning
Setting achievable goals for your safety management system is imperative. The goals you set should be both quantitative and qualitative in nature and should be reviewed regularly. Options for goal choices vary greatly and can be focused on completion of a set number of inspections per week, timely resolution of items requiring corrective action, percentage of at risks with adequate documentation and observation strength. Goals should be created using input from the craft. In addition, the goals should be created so as to achieve a desired result, such as completing an action plan based on a data-driven decision.

Key #3: Support the Continuous Improvement Loop
All effective processes follow some type of organized structure. Let's take, for example, the Deming cycle with which many of us are familiar. This includes multiple elements covering Plan, Do, Study, and Act (PDSA). At the highest level, we should be creating a plan with the project management team and the craft, showing what's necessary to execute the plan, reviewing the individual components for lessons learned and applying corrective action or recognition as applicable.

To use this toward our sustainable advantage, keep these major components at the forefront and evaluate them regularly. If something isn’t going right, determine what it is and what';s causing it, then make changes to the people, process, and/or environment as necessary.

Key #4: Training
We all agree a safe project is one where our employees are adequately trained to perform their jobs. Unfortunately, training often is used as a universal remedy to incidents. While it might apply in some cases, remember that it's only effective where a skill deficiency exists. When thinking of sustainability as it applies to training, if it is needed, verify that the right people are in attendance and that it is relevant to them. Avoid scheduling training after a person's shift as this greatly impacts effectiveness, exacerbates fatigue, and can create morale issues.

When project executives are present at the training sessions, try to avoid having them all in one class. More often than not, it tends to impact the level of interaction in a meeting sometimes due to an intimidation factor. Encourage questions and interaction as much as time will allow and encourage leaders to take a vested interest in the training process.

Key #5: Communication
Communication is of primary significance within successful and sustainable safety processes. If you are collecting safety information and not disseminating it to the right people on the right intervals, it's impossible to support the continuous improvement loop.

Another aspect of communication relates to planning for upcoming work scopes. Often in construction, work is performed without any consultation or interaction between the Safety Department and project management. In the absence of that planning, safety documentation, baseline medical testing, subcontractor prequalification, and adequate staffing, among other items, often go overlooked. Safety is not a bolt-on program that can be managed after the project begins; safety should be integrated into how work is performed, as are cost, schedule and quality.

Communication should be about the promotion of accountability, responsibility, and the fostering of a caring relationship.

Key #6: Understanding Risk
Understanding the risk based on the tasks being performed and the hazards you identify on the project is the first step towards how we approach them as safety professionals and prioritize the corrective measures and future focus. This is not something that is learned overnight and is as important as recognizing the hazard in the first place.

Risk is the product of (1) frequency, (2) probability and (3) severity. Frequency is a determination of how often we perform a task and probability is how likely it is that an injury event would occur. Severity defines how significant the losses would be if the event actually occurred. The team should be calibrated on how to evaluate hazards in order to effectively assess the risk.

Key #7: Active Engagement
Active engagement is the expectation that should be placed on both the project leadership and the craft. While at face value those expectations look similar and simple, it's important to identify a clear distinction between the two and realize this is often the cause of total program failure.

Leaders truly have to show they care about their employees by putting people before profits. Project managers and project executives should possess an approachable demeanor to avoid an "us versus them" mentality. Members of leadership are required not only to actively support safety initiatives, but also must follow the rules. Credibility of the program will be lost if employees see company officials ignoring minimum safety requirements.

In the same way that leadership has responsibilities, so do the craft. They have to take a vested interest in the success of their safety program, and the first step of that is caring for each other. If one employee sees another engaging in an at-risk behavior, such as walking underneath a suspended load, he or she should identify it and then coach to improve.

Developing the safety program, implementing the components of change and turning the corner toward improvement are two thirds of the battle; sustainability might only be the final third, but it's the difference between continuous safety improvement on the project and going right back to where you started, or worse.

Pay specific attention to the concepts of the Communication key. The relationships and accountability driving this are significant to the continued success of a program. Ignoring this step fosters working in a vacuum and the creation of a gap between project managers and safety representatives.

The concepts listed in this article are based on real-world successes, and they work, but they aren’t the only ways to build sustainability into your program. Creativity goes a long way and can be a great asset to your program.

Remember that the employees are the most important part of any safety program and when they are empowered and have positivity toward success and improvement, the process of maintaining program sustainability is much more manageable.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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