Part 1

Error Proofing an Innovative Approach to Safety

To reduce work errors, the contractor must incorporate error proofing into the way business is carried out, the organization is structured, and the operational processes are performed.

Construction safety traditionally focuses on the worker for reduction of accidents and improvement of outcomes. Though the worker, who is at the "sharp edge," performs the final act resulting in an accident, there are often multiple contributing causes that may be overlooked or not seriously considered. Most accident investigations and root cause analyses fail to get at the reason for the decision made by the worker to do what he or she did at that crucial point in time.

A review of typical safety interventions produces a list that will include programs, training, meetings, talks, postings, inspections, incentives, punishment, etc. These have been in use since the enactment of the workers compensation laws, some going back about 100 years. To this we can add the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which has been around more than 40 years, as well as various forms of behavioral interventions, which have been around for about 35 years. While all of these laws and interventions certainly have contributed to the reduction of construction incidents and accidents, they have not eliminated them.

Identifying the Source

Most defects or incidents in the construction process are caused by some form of human activity. Often, those involved in the process may not be aware that they contribute to the problem, or they may be aware but fail to respond properly or effectively. Some may lack the information, capability, or knowledge. Others may fail to adequately understand or evaluate the level of exposure or consequences of their actions.

Construction error can reduce productivity, result in poor construction quality, or cause injuries to the workforce. It is estimated that anywhere from two to 10 percent of the gross cost of a project is wasted due to such errors. Errors may contribute to the incidents or accidents, which cost the industry $50 billion or more annually, and the traditional tools and techniques used to reduce accidents are not effectively and positively affecting this enormous cost. The resulting numbers of accidents or losses may be viewed as the "defect rate" of the operating process.

What most of the folks implementing safety interventions fail to address is why the worker chose to do what he or she did. The construction industry can benefit by taking a page from manufacturing, where error proofing has had a great impact on reducing the rate of defects.

To reduce work errors, the contractor must incorporate error proofing into the way business is carried out, the organization is structured, and the operational processes are performed, such as in partner selection, operational planning, task risk assessment, and execution. Following are six potential outcome improvement or error-proofing techniques:

  1. Elimination seeks to eradicate the error-prone process step(s). This may involve redesigning the building elements to make them easier to build or maintain. Or it may require the rethinking of the work practices to eliminate the risk of making a mistake.
  2. Substitution identifies more reliable processes to improve error-free execution. This involves exploring the uses of alternate processes to diminish exposure and the potential for mistakes.
  3. Prevention redesigns the structure's elements or modifies the operational process or work procedures to reduce potential error-causing action.
  4. Risk reduction seeks to simplify the process, minimize exposure, or ease its execution. Prefabrication, preassembly, or standardization helps reduce exposure and the potential for making mistakes.
  5. Detection is aimed at early identification of mistakes to assist the operator to correct performance. This requires an analysis of the operational processes, task procedures, or work practices for error causation as well as peer reviews and performance/execution observations.
  6. Mitigation tries to minimize adverse effects of the error. Since humans are prone to make mistakes and systems can degrade, errors are inevitable. So, this step tries to immunize the adverse effects of such an outcome. This may involve preoperational planning, pre-task activity review, self-checking, pairing of people, etc.

After a number of high-profile accidents in the 1970s, the airline industry searched for ways to improve operations. Those people recognized that human errors were a causal factor in many of the accidents and developed the crew resource management (CRM) process, which teaches teams to make optimum use of all available resources—equipment, procedures, and people—to promote safety and enhance the efficiency of flight operations.

If we boil the organization's operational process down to its most elemental state, an output (building) is created by the use of the construction company's systems (processes, practices, and procedures), and these are activated and managed by the people (workers, supervisors, managers, and executives). Looking at this model, there are only two major sources of potential error or loss, and these are either in the systems or in the people. Unfortunately, in construction, the focus is primarily on the worker part of the people segment, resulting in trying to eliminate the problem by addressing only a small fraction of the whole. This is the underlying reason for the lack of greater success in a more substantive reduction of the negative safety outcomes.

Instituting Error Proofing in Construction Projects

Mistake (error) proofing is a powerful tool adopted by the manufacturing industry to increase the quality of its products, improve efficiency, and reduce cost. Construction is also a production process, and many of the error-proofing tools and techniques used in manufacturing are applicable. The following steps can be useful in the effective implementation of an error-proofing process into construction.

  1. Create a cross-functional team to evaluate the existing systems and identify error-proofing opportunities. The team should include representatives from all levels of management, departments as well as producers (workers) and key subcontractors' personnel, if necessary.
  2. Devise standard procedures for error proofing the organizational, business, and operational systems so that they are easy to use, generate results, foster involvement, and are sustainable.
  3. Utilize a structured problem-solving methodology to isolate problem areas and determine the most effective way to improve performance.
  4. Value stream mapping can be used to identify areas where improvement is necessary and to ease implementation.
  5. Select the most effective and appropriate solution after a thorough review and analysis of the issues and constraints involved. Utilize the six progressive steps listed above.

Error proofing all of the company's systems is an important step in increasing efficiency, improving quality, enhancing productivity, increasing job satisfaction, facilitating safe execution, and improving profitability.

Another thing to consider is that in the traditional (worker) intervention practice, the underlying assumption is that the worker has total control and therefore can resolve the problem. This cannot be further from the truth; the worker has to function within the overall operational system. Yes, the worker can control his or her action and maybe exert some influence over the immediate area, but a vast number of extenuating conditions and circumstances influence the outcome. Management controls the "big picture" (strategy, goals, objectives, schedule, cost, etc.). At the operational level, management selects the worker, assigns the task, provides the tools and equipment, makes assignments, supervises the work, etc. So, if management places the worker in a predicament where the production goals conflict with safe procedures, the worker may choose production in order to stay employed. This speaks to internal alignment and system integration, which are controlled by management. Therefore, management can greatly influence the error proofing of operations and improve the worker's success rate.

A Thought

Dan Petersen said that "Incidents are caused by the combination of management system failure and human action or error" and "Human action or error may also be caused by management created environments that reward risk taking."

This article is the first in a series of two. For the second part of the article, click here.

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