Construction Safety: The Crossroads of Employee Discipline and Engagement

My father started a construction company in 1965, the year before I was born.  I have worked in it, off and on, since I was 13.  For the past 16 years, I have served as the company’s legal counsel and, most recently, as it’s chief risk management officer.  Just as construction methods have changed, so to have the attitudes towards construction safety and its enforcement.

In the early days of my father’s business, he had the clout (being the founder, field superintendent, president, and safety director) to tell people how to behave and bend them to his will.  As the company grew and more levels of management were inserted, forcing employees to act safely gave way to expecting or sometimes simply hoping they were working safely.  Still, there was a much greater emphasis on production that on safety.

Over the last two decades, litigation, insurance costs, and government regulation have focused a brighter light on the issue of construction safety meaning that contractors have had to develop different ways of handling the subject.  Gone is the old mentality of the safety director being the “safety cop” with the authority to kick someone off the project for unsafe behavior.  This paradigm has been replaced with models that recall the total quality management movement, the concept of continual process improvement (the Japanese Kaizen approach), and, in general, the adoption of organization development theory as first envisioned by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1940’s.

Construction safety is more and more being driven by issues surrounding perceptions of safety and the type of culture that exist within a company.  While this focus is the most likely to produce lasting results, it is also the most difficult to maintain and, ultimately, achieve success through the adoption of safer work practices by construction employees.  Organizational culture is similar to human DNA and nearly as immutable.  In terms of organizational change, altering a company’s culture is likely the most difficult type of change that a business can attempt.

And yet, for all the difficulty, changes in organizational change can bring enormous rewards.

In the case of making changes to attitudes towards safety and safe work practices, there are obvious financial benefits.  In the end, however, the most important potential reward is that more and more construction workers go home to their families at the end of the day.  Uninjured.

If you need help analyzing the culture of your organization and trying to make changes to your “company DNA,” contact me.

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