Who takes the blame when construction projects get behind schedule or over budget? Is it the project manager? The front line worker? The subcontractor? The answer would be no to all three. The likely scapegoat when things goes wrong is usually Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS). And why is this true? It’s because too often the safety of the worker is sacrificed for the sake of speed and production.
When incidents and injuries occur, entire projects are affected.
If the workers are fearful due to the safety culture being non-existent, then the quality of work will be less than acceptable which means the task must be performed again, which means the worker is again exposed to hazards.
Although workplace safety is everyone’s responsibility, the philosophy is that the “safety person” is responsible for the entire project’s worker safety. During a construction project it is much easier to replace a safety professional than it is to replace someone such as a project manager or superintendent.
“Cost and schedule always override safety,” said Brad Daley, Duke Energy. “Telling the truth isn’t always valued. At one job site, I was asked to fill out forms saying inspections were conducted, which wasn’t true. You can bet I left that job quickly.”
This attitude holds true whether the work takes place in oil or gas chemical refineries, automotive plants, power plants, heavy civil construction, industrial demolition, new industrial process construction, or soil remediation projects. Size doesn’t matter either. The problem exists in projects affecting anywhere from 3 to 1000 individuals.
There is a long list of instances when safety is typically ignored or brushed aside. Here are three examples:
During a project that is behind schedule, there is a phase of the project when there is a safety related stopping point.
This could occur at the very beginning of the project when there are more first time evolutions or near the end when there are areas of the project that are behind schedule.
Usually that stopping point is going to be blown past or a “rolling stop” is going to be done. The result? If someone is injured, that project is going to be even further behind.
How many are familiar with the 14-day rule? While some construction sites or projects will not allow employees to work past 14 days without a day off, there are no federal guidelines on this practice, according to the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Managers work around the 14-day rule by stating that the task is in a “critical path” so it is okay for workers to end up working 27 days in a row.
The temperature is 100+ degrees. The company has a work/rest program that says that workers should break every 30 minutes. Usually that does not happen. If it is practiced, it is not consistent.
“Sometimes I feel like a babysitter,” said Toosdiah Nichols, Regional Safety Manager, Horne Brother Construction. “At one job, I had to take a worker to the ER because he was dehydrated from not consuming enough water over the weekend. Once he was discharged and feeling okay, he had to get reacclimatized to working in the heat and re-educated about the importance of hydration. All this took time away from being on-site.” Contractors are doing everything to get the job done on time and under budget, which sometimes means taking some shortcuts for whatever reason and the safety professional is called in to correct it.
Safety professional can push and push until all avenues are exhausted except for one, the client. If the safety professional divulges unsafe work practices to the client to get them to intervene, it is almost guaranteed that this individual will be looking for work soon after that project is complete.
Safety professionals are in a bind. Should they do what’s right, go with the flow and work as a proverbial janitor, continually cleaning up messes and asking for forgiveness of the client?
Eventually the client is going to believe that the contractor safety professional is failing at aiding in providing a positive safety culture for the project and asks that the contractor be replaced.
I’ve seen projects where the contractor’s safety professional is no longer on the job or has been replaced suddenly. The reason for removal from the site is not mentioned and the project continues. I’ve witnessed projects where safety professionals were demoted or assigned frivolous tasks to keep them from doing the job they were hired to perform.
Employers can be very creative when it comes to quieting someone who is only trying to protect the workers and the company.
The entire culture and philosophy must be built from the top down versus building the culture from the bottom up. Those awarding the contracts must truly be dedicated to looking at the safety record of contractors submitting bids and base their award decision on that as well as their bid and abilities.
The clients often tell the contractor that safety is a priority on the project. However, if that contractor has a bad safety record, they are unable to get work with that client again.
Include EHS from the beginning to the end of projects, from planning phase to demobilization. The projects that involve safety early during the planning phase vs. those that bring in safety as an afterthought or as a response post-accident/incident are starkly contrasted.
Hold first line supervision accountable for reinforcing and coaching their team on the health and safety measures established to protect their team members and also assist in getting properly orientated with each new work area the team is presented to complete tasks.
Close the gaps between executive management and field management when addressing health and safety matters versus being reactive after an incident/injury occurs.
Outwardly support the health and safety team when they are coaching or presenting during team meetings . Example: Speak up and support your safety representatives after they have completed their presentations or training to show that you are onboard with what is being presented. Ask a question that you think the team may want to ask but may not be willing to speak up.