Building an Effective Job Site Safety Program

You have a program in place, but is it effective?

By Paul Coderre, CSP, ARM

If you’re a contractor, your job sites present the most consistent and, in most cases, the greatest potential for employee, subcontractor and visitor injuries. While your shop, yard and office can generate occasional accidents, most injuries occur on the job site. The reason isn’t mysterious – your job sites carry the greatest risks and hazards. For the most part, those risks and hazards are known and recognized by site superintendents, foremen, and workers.

So, why do we still have incidents and injuries if most of the hazards are known? It comes down to the level of risk that you, and in turn your supers and employees, are willing to accept in order to get the job done. Other than asteroid strikes, earthquakes and locust swarms, if we recognize something as a hazard, we can pretty much eliminate the risk of an injury. Now that you’ve rolled your eyes, let me say that I agree with you. If we want to get anything done whether it’s on a construction site, getting to work, or walking across the street, we must accept a certain level of risk. We can’t escape risk, it is inherent to life.

However, the level of risk we accept is not an all-or-nothing proposition. In construction, deciding the level of risk we will accept is a dynamic part of our decision making process. As business leaders, you make those decisions. If your job requires an excavation, there is risk associated with that part of the job. Your risk acceptance decision could range from high-risk (excavation without a trench box or cut-back) to low or moderate risk, in which you apply controls to minimize the potential for collapse or cave-in. The accident and injury results that your organization faces are an outcome of your risk mitigation decisions.

But, how do we keep people on our job sites from taking decision making into their own hands? We are all familiar with the employee who works on the roof without a harness and lanyard; or the one that operates a saw without the guard; or the one that uses the unsteady scaffold, on the brink of falling over. That’s where we come back to the fact that this is your company. You decide the level of risk that your company is going to accept. The trick is getting that message out and making sure your decisions are followed.

Easy job site safety fixes can be tempting – do some inspections, hold a couple tool-box talks and – badda bing – your job sites are safe. Unfortunately, job site safety is more involved than that. If you leave the decisions up to your employees without any guidance, then your job site and your results are uncontrolled. The level of risk being accepted is being left to the person you hired yesterday.

Here are the key elements of an Effective Job Site Safety Program:

  • Commitment
  • Understanding
  • Communication
  • Accountability

Consistently applying these elements of risk management to your organization will result a risk level that you have decided is acceptable.

Commitment

Do your site supervisors actually manage the risk on your site (to your expectations), or do they go through the motions? I often go into organizations as a safety consultant, and am handed three-ring binder, and am told, “This is our safety program.” It typically requires the supers to hold daily toolbox talks, document their safety inspections, hold workers accountable for everything from wearing hard hats to lifting with their legs, and more. The jobsite usually engages in some variant of the program described, but very rarely do they enforce every step of that program.

When you develop your safety program, make sure it is your program. We put together program templates for companies all the time. Each time we put together a program template for a company, we tell the owner to go through the program and make it their own; eliminate the things that don’t apply to their operations and even more importantly, eliminate or modify the things they do not intend to do. Once the program is built to accommodate an acceptable level of risk, commit to it. Make that program the rule by which you, your supervisors and your employees will live by. This is by far the most important aspect of keeping job sites safe.

Understanding

After building your safety program, you have to make sure that everyone in the organization (particularly your managers and supervisors) understand your expectations. They should know, and be able to apply, the protocols you established in the plan without having to reference it (because it’s at the office or in the trailer, not out on the job).

If you have certain requirements for inspections or training or PPE, the supervisors should know the requirements and why they are in place. They must also know your level of commitment to those requirements. Only then will they understand that they must maintain that acceptable level of risk on your site, because that level of risk will yield the results you are looking for. And only then will your supervisors understand the need for them to administer those protocols over the job.

With the understanding built among the supervisors, they will also extend that understanding to the employees. Again, if the employee group doesn’t understand the expectations, they can’t be expected to work within them. Building this understanding takes both continuous training (upon hire and periodically during the project) and constant reinforcement by the supervisors – which brings us to our next element.

Communication

Risk management is a very broad discipline, particularly in construction. Minimizing the possibility of an accident or injury can include everything from health exposures (i.e. silica), to mechanical (i.e. power tools), to electrical (i.e. arc flash), to falls (i.e. ladders and scaffold) and many other risks. We cannot expect employees to intuitively know or understand all of our expectations. Therefore, we must commit to continuous communication of those expectations as the demands arise. If a job involves work from elevations, then we have to build understanding in those risks. If it involves a chemical exposure, then that has to be trained (establish the expectation) and reinforced with continuous reminders.

Much the same as establishing the expectations for production results, your supervisors must continuously be present to build understanding of the safety protocols, and to provide appropriate reinforcement to workers based on observation. The term “reinforcement” brings us to our next element.

Accountability

The term accountability has developed a negative slant in recent years. Holding your staff accountable is really just making sure they are operating to your expectations; which isn’t a bad thing. Accountability, driven by the process of providing feedback and reinforcement to people, is the most important way to make sure they understand what you desire for your company and for their safety. Holding someone accountable could mean providing positive feedback or acknowledging that an individual (or group) executed their jobs successfully. On the other side, accountability can also mean providing feedback if the group did not perform as expected, requiring you to restate your expectations or provide additional education or training on an issue that was missed. If your expectations continuously go unmet, you can make risk-based decisions as you find appropriate.

However you look at it, holding people accountable and providing feedback is the best way to ensure that your expectations (safety program) are being followed. Don’t shy away from routinely providing feedback.

The Bottom Line

Job site safety isn’t rocket science (unless you’re building a launch pad). Effective job site safety is based on deciding what you are trying to get done and the level of risk that you are willing to accept to do it (commitment), teaching your employees about your expectations (understanding), continuously reinforcing those expectations (communication), and letting employees know whether or not they are meeting those expectations.

For those expecting a different discussion about building a job site safety program: get a safety program template, train your employees, conduct site inspections, do accident investigations, and maintain the appropriate documentation.

That’s a much shorter list of things to do, but you’ll notice that the title was also shortened by taking out the work “effective.”


For more information please contact Paul Coderre, Vice President of Risk Management Services at [email protected].

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