Safety has always been a huge priority in the construction industry, but today, it's more important than ever. In addition to the existing safety considerations that teams need to consider, the COVID-19 pandemic has added complexities to the mix, with new health and social distancing guidelines.
In some cases, construction companies need to revamp their existing practices and implement new safety initiatives, technologies, and strategies.
Successfully doing all that requires a tremendous amount of trust, and we can’t have a conversation about construction safety culture without talking about this essential building block. In this article, we’ll explore the role of trust in construction safety and how you can effectively improve it in the workplace.
A high level of trust promotes an environment in which employees can focus on their work and do their jobs better. Improved performance leads to fewer safety issues and better output overall.
It’s no surprise then that high-trust construction companies see more impressive results, which can extend to better safety programs. These firms experience 56% lower employee turnover, generate more repeat business, and see 25-95% higher profit margins.
That being said, let’s dig into some of the more specific reasons why trust is invaluable in construction safety programs and how you can improve it.
Trust paves the way for a strong safety culture, where employees actively participate in your programs, adhere to best practices, and contribute when necessary.
The safest construction companies have an organization-wide understanding and buy-in to safety programs. That means all employees know about which safety steps the company has taken and how they work. This is fully embedded in the culture, and employees feel like it’s their duty to be as safe as possible.
Getting that buy-in and encouraging employees to live your safety values (versus just paying lip-service to them) requires trust.
Employees and project stakeholders need to feel secure and confident that management has their back in order for them to feel safe about doing things like participating and contributing to your initiatives, reporting incidents, and voicing their opinions.
In other words, team members need to feel emotionally safe in order to do their part and also look out for the rest of the team.
As one project manager shares in Autodesk and FMI’s Trust in Construction report, “when you have true trust, everyone’s working collaboratively for the same end goal rather than just looking to safeguard their own piece of the pie.”
High-trust construction firms demonstrate transparency through their internal processes and communications.
What does this all have to do with safety?
For starters, safety programs rely on open communication and transparency to work. A study on safety communication among construction workers concluded that improving communication among crew members "can translate to superior safety performance and fewer workplace injuries."
In other words, jobsites will be much safer when communication improves and matters are discussed openly. After all, safety issues can’t be dealt with if team members don’t know what’s going on. A high level of trust can prevent this from happening because it promotes an environment where people feel secure about speaking up, and thus issues are addressed promptly.
Uncertainty prevents employees from being able to do their jobs efficiently. When people aren’t sure where they stand or what happens next, they can’t be as responsive or productive, and this diminishes safety at the jobsite.
Uncertainty also contributes to low morale. When teams are uncertain of something, they naturally begin to assume the worst. This leads to fear, which in turn can prevent or hinder needed action and good decision making.
The best way to minimize uncertainty is to foster a high-trust environment that promotes transparency and clear communication. And never blindside your employees. This is a sure-fire way to lose their trust.
Keep project stakeholders in the loop with all updates and developments, so they know what to expect at any given time.
The bottom line: jobsites will be much safer when matters are discussed openly.
Now that we’ve discussed the importance of trust, let’s talk about how to enhance it for your safety programs, particularly in the age of COVID-19.
Employees play a critical role in maintaining jobsite safety, so you need them to be at the top of their game. In order for that to happen, your team members need to trust that you’re looking out for their safety.
Provide the right tools and equipment. Always have the appropriate machinery and tools in place and conduct regular checks to ensure compliance with the latest safety standards. Maintenance histories and detailed safety checklists are a must, not just for the sake of compliance, but also for transparency. Proper record-keeping communicates to employees that you’re looking out for them.
Offer protective and safety equipment. The usual safety gear such as hardhats and vests are essential all year round, but during a pandemic, additional PPE — such as respiratory protection — are likely required.
You’ll need to equip your team with PPE that works and functions well, while maintaining proper fit. Don’t settle for one-size-fits-all gear, as they can do more harm than good.
For instance, women often have to wear ill-fitting gear designed for men, which can impede their movement, making them less effective at their jobs as well as more likely to experience mishaps.
Focus on training. Part of helping employees feel safe is giving them confidence to do their jobs well.
This starts with the right training. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned an employee is; if they don’t know how to operate a particular tool or wear their gear properly, they’re endangering themselves and their colleagues, which puts the whole project in jeopardy.
So, implement rigorous training for all team members, and conduct follow-ups regularly — even when they’re not strictly required. Not only will this keep you compliant (and preserve your eligibility for insurance payouts), it will dramatically reduce jobsite safety violations.
If you already have a training program in place, reevaluate its effectiveness. According to a 2018 study on commercial construction, 80% of contractors are concerned about jobsite safety. The study also found that 67% of respondents feel that the most impactful actions that contractors could take to increase safety is to provide more training to employees.
Having consistent, repeatable methods and practices leads to more streamlined operations, and fewer errors.
Strive to find a routine and promote consistency in your projects. This means implementing predictable practices around meetings, project planning, post-mortems, etc. Again, when people know what to expect, they’ll worry less, do their jobs better, and be safer overall.
Of course, jobsites can be complex and unpredictable at times, and this is where transparent communication comes in. If routines aren’t possible, keep everyone safe by keeping them in the loop. Communicate clearly and be direct. If unexpected or complicated issues come up, discuss them via one-on-one meetings to prevent misunderstandings.
Trust organically stems from great relationships, which is why you should encourage your team to form strong bonds.
Every organization is different, so there’s no one best way to improve relationships. But a good starting point is to develop informal personal contracts between team members.
These are not signed and written legal contracts, but rather agreements about how things will be done. For example, what is the communication plan for team members? How should decisions be made? Who has the authority to make what decisions, and when? Establishing answers to these questions will help facilitate trusting relationships — which ultimate improves safety in the workplace and jobsite.
New technologies that promote health and safety are constantly being developed. Investing in these things is a smart thing to do, but you need to do it with caution.
Technology, no matter how innovatie or safe, can make people uncomfortable, simply because it’s unfamiliar.
Employees might have some misgivings about new technology — even if it’s designed to keep them safe (e.g. tools that utilize AI to enforce social distancing, or even temperature checks).
One way to overcome employee distrust or apprehension is to come up with a strong communication and training program. Launch an initiative that showcases the value of the new tools, and make sure employees know what's in it for them.
It’s also smart to roll out any tech changes gradually, as to not overwhelm the crew. Being methodical with your implementation gives you the chance to learn and refine your efforts.
Finally, collect feedback. Check-in with team members to see how they feel about the transition and what can be done to make them more engaged and comfortable.
Trust is a crucial building block of any construction safety program. It promotes an open and productive environment wherein employees can stay safe and thrive — which results in lower employee turnover, better client retention, and higher profits.
For this reason, construction firms should continuously assess and improve trust in their organization.