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Reinforcing a safety culture in construction

Reinforcing a safety culture in construction

Dr Gretchen Gagel outlines key steps to strengthen the culture of safety within the construction industry.

By Dr Gretchen Gagel.

Last year, I was vacationing in the US with a group of women I went to engineering school with back in the 1980s. We set off for a day of snorkelling, two groups of four in two cars, to meet our boat. The location was a bit difficult to find because of construction taking place along the road leading past the entrance. After my group parked our car, we realised that the other car was lost. My dear friend of 40 years walked out to the entrance to see if she could flag down the other car when it arrived – right into an area where two heavy pieces of equipment were operating. No one stopped. I yelled for her to remove herself from this dangerous situation, but she waved me off. She eventually walked back to our car.

By Dr Gretchen Gagel. (Image: Heidi Victoria)
By Dr Gretchen Gagel. (Image: Heidi Victoria)

What should have happened? Should I have run to her to drag her away, risking my own safety? Should one of the operators have stopped their piece of equipment, stepped down, and removed her from the area? How could this situation have been avoided in the first place? These are all excellent questions. These are the scenarios we grapple with every day on our construction sites. One moment of lost concentration, one “it will be fine just this one time”, one vacationing person mindlessly walking into danger, and injury or even death can occur in an instant.

I’ve put a great deal of thought into both physical and mental safety in our industry over the last four decades. As chair of the Board of Brinkman Construction (US), my worst nightmare is envisioning visiting a family who has lost someone because we did not do all we could to instil a culture of safety. Now that I have joined the Risk Committee of the Board of GHD Engineering, my contemplation of risk and safety has broadened to a global, even more complex perspective.

Here are the key steps I believe we as construction industry leaders need to take to continue to reinforce a culture of safety within our industry:

Zero tolerance for safety infractions

When I chaired the Judging Panel of the Australian Construction Achievement Award (ACAA) in 2023, I was travelling to inspect a construction project site in Sydney. I had been informed that the project was complete, so I left my steel-toed boots and other personal protective equipment (PPE) in Melbourne. However, upon arrival, it was decided that we would visit a portion of the project that wasn’t complete – oh no, no steel-toed boots. We quickly and rightly made the decision not to visit that portion of the project. People are watching us as leaders, every minute, to see what we do. Just recently, during my quarterly project visit for Brinkman Construction, a member of the project team pointed out to me that I was wearing an older, less visible version of our reflective safety vest. Good for them. We’ve instituted new hard hats with chin straps, and I pointed out to one of our board members that their strap was undone. These seem like little things, but each small infraction sends a signal that we don’t take our safety policies seriously. Empowering everyone on a jobsite to point out these safety infractions is important.

Leverage artificial intelligence to improve safety

During my editorial last month on global construction industry trends, I told the story of TDIndustries and how this organisation dramatically reduced its total recordable incident rate by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse 90,000 pre-job planning/safety meetings, and then training their foremen and superintendents on the words and phrases that increased crew participation in safety discussions. John Holland’s use of AI-based personalised adaptive learning for safety training with partner Area9 Lyceum was recently an Inside Construction cover story. Construction project teams are utilising jobsite pictures and AI to analyse risk, safety hazards and unsafe behaviours. These are but three of the dozens of examples I’m hearing of how cutting-edge contractors are leveraging AI for safety, and I’m excited to see how we continue to leverage AI in our industry for safety and many other aspects of our project performance.

Utilising additional technologies for safety

The hardest presentations for me to hear at construction conferences are those recounting accidents that led to avoidable deaths on jobsites. One story that has stuck in my mind is of a crane operator taking a break, climbing back into his cab, and failing to notice the person leaning against the counterweight. This unfortunate accident prompted the company to implement an equipment/personnel interaction system, notifying all equipment operators if anyone is within a certain distance of their equipment. This system would have been helpful in the situation I shared at the beginning of this article, and during a recent project visit where I saw people walking dangerously close to operating equipment. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, 1,069 construction employees died (9.6 fatalities per 100,000 workers). Falls, slips and trips remained the leading cause with 410 deaths, and “contact with an object or equipment” was fourth with 149 deaths. The fatality rate in the Australian construction industry is much lower, with 27 deaths reported in 2023, equating to a rate of 2.2 deaths per 100,000 workers. Additionally, across all industries in Australia, “being hit by moving objects” was the second leading cause of death, accounting for 26 fatalities (13 per cent of total deaths). These are people that will never see a child grow up, never again experience a beautiful dinner with a loved one. We can do better, and technology can help. It is worth the investment.

Being mindfully present is critical

I heard a fabulous presentation years ago of a pharmaceutical company that hired a sports psychology company to work with each of its global construction sites. The sports psychology company trained the crew leaders to have daily pre-job meetings with their crew to determine if everyone on the crew was “mentally present” and prepared to work. These jobsite leaders created the psychological safety for someone to be able to raise their hand and say, “I had a huge fight with my spouse last night and was up half the night”, or “I had a few too many at a party last night”; and in turn, “I’m not prepared to be mentally present at work today”. These people were asked to take the day off with pay. Of course, repeat instances of this were addressed, but how powerful is this for someone to be able to say, “I’m not quite right today” and not be penalised for that. These are the people who are distracted, exhausted, unaware, and who end up injured or killed on our sites.

Reinforce that safety moments have impact

Years ago I was visiting our team during a preconstruction Lean pull-planning session, and given that there was snow on the ground, the pre-meeting safety moment was about how to “walk like a penguin” to avoid falling. When we all left the meeting that evening for dinner, guess what? We were all walking like penguins. And laughing, and safer. Taking safety moments seriously, remembering that they bring our minds back to best-practices, is important. I’m reminded of the email signature of my friend Margaret Reese Walker, retired vice president of Engineering and Technology Centers for Dow – “Take safety everywhere you go”. It’s a reminder each time I see it.

I have a vision of a construction industry where everyone returns home in the same condition as when they came to work. I’m certain that each of you share this vision. We’ve made huge strides over the past decades and more can be done. Thinking about the ways in which you, as a leader, create and support a culture of safety at your workplace is critical.

Dr Gretchen Gagel is chair of Brinkman Construction (US) and a member of the Global Risk Committee for GHD Engineering, the National Academy of Construction (US), the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (AUS), and the Associated General Contractor (AGC) of America National Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Gretchen is passionate about leading change in the construction industry and developing its future leaders. You can hear more from Gretchen on her Spotify podcast, “Greatness”.

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