Keeping Risk Takers in Check

The construction industry is jam packed with risk takers. Financiers who fund billion-dollar developments, executives who spend hundreds of thousands in payroll and materials before receiving that first payment and the operator who takes curves a little too fast in the forklift — they're all captivated by the game.

Most construction workers take safety seriously. But there always seems to be that one daredevil on site who tempts fate, putting everyone else in danger along with himself (or herself).

It’s not clear why some people are risk takers. The reasons may vary. One study postulates that happy people see situations as less risky than unhappy or anxious people see the same situations. But unhappiness or depression may lead to risk taking, too.

Psychologist Sally Spencer-Thomas said a marked escalation in risk-taking behavior could be a sign a person is "self-medicating" — seeking a “rush” in order to ease depression and boost their spirits when a situation in their life has gotten them down.

A small 2013 study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health suggests that construction workers are often stressed about work-related injuries and pain and often fail to seek help, putting themselves at risk for more injuries and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and even suicide.

A certain level of fearlessness can be a good thing, especially in someone who works at dizzying heights. But deliberately taking risks is a different matter. When an employee or supervisor sees someone taking one too many unprotected runs across a roofline or swinging from scaffold to scaffold unanchored, it's time to step in.

Establishing and maintaining strict safety procedures onsite helps set boundaries of behavior, but Spencer-Thomas said supervisors and trusted co-workers should speak up when things are headed out of control. 

If someone is taking unnecessary risks, managers can address it through regular performance management channels, said Spencer-Thomas. She suggested a script managers can use when approaching those workers when they see a problem.

"They can say, 'Sometimes when people put themselves in risky situations over and over again, they are also experiencing overwhelming life challenges that may be influencing decision-making and self-care. If this is true for you, I can connect you to our employee assistance program or other resources to get support. The goal of these providers is to help you thrive. Is this something you might be interested in?'"

The objective, of course, is to keep all employees safe. Success depends on top-down support from all levels of management, on daily reinforcement of safety rules and procedures — and on saying something when you see something.

 

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.