Building a Safety Culture That Works: More Than Just Rules and Procedures

Building a Safety Culture That Works: More Than Just Rules and Procedures

Construction safety culture can transform by prioritizing leadership, employee engagement and proactive measures beyond traditional rules and procedures.

The construction industry thrives on a robust safety culture. Cultivating an effective safety environment goes beyond adhering to policies and procedures and pursuing incident-free days. While metrics and measures have their place, the genuine concern for the well-being of everyone on the worksite is the real driving force. It is about taking proactive steps to prevent incidents and prioritizing the safety of the individual and the organization.

The journey toward effective safety management begins with all employees, from the CEO to the superintendent, acknowledging their responsibility to each other and their loved ones for a safe work environment. Organizations must commit to fostering a safe environment for employees, subcontractors and the community, ensuring everyone returns home. 

To bring about strategic changes in safety management, organizations must engage and educate leaders, identifying opportunities for improvement within the company.

Laying the Groundwork for Effective Safety Management

Investing in corporate leaders, field leaders and frontline workers forms the foundation of an effective safety culture. Successful organizations empower their leaders with the right resources, recognizing that strong leadership requires proper support in management, leadership and communication skills, especially in leading safety initiatives.

Effective safety management — and the systems supporting it — hinges on leadership involvement in building genuine and trusting relationships. An elevated level of engagement and commitment throughout the organization is vital for the success of a safety-centric culture. While developing skills and awareness is crucial, soft skills sustain a safe culture over time.

Field leadership programs not only enforce hard skills but also teach the soft skills, such as listening and leading, needed to empower individuals to be safety leaders in the field. This approach encourages leaders to pay attention to new employees, foster a supportive environment and instill a top-down commitment to safety through productivity, quality and project management.

Establishing strong relationships, starting from the onboarding process, is crucial. According to Tony Govind, director of human resources at Adolfson & Peterson Construction (AP), genuine conversations during the onboarding process — facilitated by the director of safety — build trust, common ground, and a heightened sense of care and concern for one another's safety.

Cultivating a Thriving Safety Culture

A successful safety culture transcends traditional enforcement methods, moving away from punitive measures toward emphasizing the human aspect of safety. Employee involvement and positive recognition play pivotal roles in building and sustaining a robust safety culture.

Employees are less likely to make risky decisions when reminded of the personal motivations behind working safely: their homes and loved ones. A deeper awareness of colleagues' personal lives encourages intervention when unsafe situations arise.

Safety should be integrated into everyday work. Initiatives like starting daily meetings with a "Safety Spotlight" can encourage employees to share firsthand experiences with job danger, express thoughts on daily safety concerns and volunteer for safety responsibilities.

Employee buy-in and involvement are key to a strong safety culture. Engaging people at various levels is vital, creating a sense of pride and making employees feel like they’re part of the solution. Establishing a safety committee with representatives from various departments and tenures is crucial to ensure ongoing employee involvement. This committee can discuss trends, address outstanding issues, review incident reports and share best practices for continuous improvement.

In addition to employee involvement, recognizing and rewarding positive behavior on jobsites is essential. Recognition, even in simple forms like a dedicated section in a newsletter or regular meetings, contributes to employee satisfaction, recruitment and retention.

Protecting Workers Today, Tomorrow and Beyond

Construction companies aiming to attract and retain top talent must make practical changes to safety management. Providing ongoing educational opportunities for employees is crucial for informing them about hazards and best practices and empowering their participation in safety program development.

Investing in the safest equipment is essential for a sustained safety culture. As technology evolves, organizations must ensure employees have the latest equipment for physical protection on various projects. Leaders should actively listen to onsite employees, providing the right equipment for fall protection and ensuring employees feel safe at all times.

The National Safety Council, advocating for jobsite safety, offers valuable insights and educational resources. Organizations can use these resources to facilitate two-way conversations about jobsite safety, complemented by data and assessments to identify areas for improvement.

While the pandemic presented safety challenges for the construction industry, some changes are crucial for a sustained safety culture. Companies should continue emphasizing hygiene practices, making accessible wash stations and regular cleaning standard procedures.

A strong safety culture in construction is no longer about blame and punishment but starts with leaders fostering relationships to emphasize the human side of safety. Organizations should go beyond policies, understanding why individuals work safely and encourage a culture of caring for others through committees, employee recognition, equipment investment and ongoing efforts.

When executed correctly, a successful safety culture:

  • Attracts employees of all levels
  • Holds everyone responsible for safety
  • Emphasizes that all injuries are preventable
  • Promotes two-way communication and relationships
  • Encourages care for others and speaking up about unsafe behaviors or conditions
  • Empowers employees to willingly follow rules and procedures

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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