Good safety practices flow downhill.
A general contractor's leadership team in the field is a critical part of its safety culture. Superintendents and foremen set the tone for other employees and for subcontractors, whether they realize it or not. It’s their job to not only lead by example but to advocate for company safety policies and procedures.
Without the reinforcement of jobsite leaders, noted Paul Haining, chief environmental, health and safety officer for Skanska USA, these policies and procedures fall apart.
"There’s absolutely a connection between project leadership engagement and safety performance. When project leadership disengages, and when executive leadership above it is complacent, the safety performance results reflect that,” Haining said.
According to a survey of more than 1,000 construction pipefitters and plumbers from CPWR, The Center for Construction Research and Training, having good safety role models on a project — leaders who inspire by talking the talk and walking the walk — does more to foster a positive safety culture than performance-based rewards.
How can superintendents and foremen be the kind of safety role models that inspire workers?
1. Lead by example. Workers are always watching their supervisors for cues on how to approach their jobs, safety included. For example, a superintendent can lecture endlessly about how important it is to use fall protection, but if workers see him or her hop up on a roof for one quick inspection without the proper safety equipment, that can undo months of on-the-job safety progress. Conversely, if workers see that their supervisors are careful to abide by established safety rules, they will also make the effort to abide by them.
2. Plan ahead for safety. If superintendents take pains to protect workers, this sends a message. One of the ways they can do so is to allow enough time in the schedule for workers to complete their tasks safely. Hazard mitigation is another. Haining said a major focus of Skanska superintendent training is project planning that dives deep into project-specific hazards and allows the project team to implement a series of controls in advance to avoid or mitigate them.
3. Communicate the safety message. Project leaders should at all times be communicators of the company's safety policies. Conducting regular safety meetings and toolbox talks, coaching workers when they see safety mistakes, encouraging workers to speak up if they see an unsafe situation, establishing a system for feedback and immediately addressing safety concerns are all part of good safety leadership.
To help field managers become more effective safety leaders, CPWR developed a 2.5-hour
Foundations for Safety Leadership (FSL) module, which OSHA released as an elective earlier this year. It teaches specific skills to be used in day-to-day interactions with crew members. The training materials are available for free.
Of course, while it's important for superintendents and foremen to serve as good role models for the rest of the construction crew, Haining said the ultimate goal should be making everyone on the jobsite an effective role model no matter their position. As part of Skanska’s Injury Free Environment initiative, all of its 10,000-plus employees are trained to be safety leaders.
Said Haining, “They have a duty to themselves, their co-workers and to their families to make it home every night."
Kim Slowey is a writer who has been active in the construction industry for 25 years and is licensed as a certified general contractor in Florida. She received her BA in Mass Communications/Journalism from the University of South Florida and has experience in both commercial and residential construction.