Tell the truth. What are your real expectations for your safety management program?

“Let's be honest,” said one exasperated construction business owner. “I’d be happy if it only got my workers to do what they’re supposed to do in the first place.”

But why settle for so little when the potential exists for much more? Safety management programs offer solutions for a myriad of challenges facing construction companies, not just safety compliance. High personnel turnover, generational and cultural conflicts and non-productive employee behaviors can all be reduced through effective implementation of a safety management program.

Perhaps the darker truth is that we haven’t capitalized on the full potential of safety management programs because we haven’t known how to properly “gear them up”—to organize and “sell” them to oft-resistant workers in a way that achieves maximum benefit.

Failure to Launch

Tim Reis, Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) director of The Manitowoc Company, thinks he knows why many programs struggle. Midway through Manitowoc’s five-year safety management system implementation plan, Reis found that engaging employees in the system was more critical to its success than initially believed.     
“We spent two years putting good processes in place and establishing accountability,” said Reis, adding that the success of additional stages of his safety management plan “will be dependent on our ability to make good processes excellent and our ability to engage employees.”  Unfortunately, many construction companies discover Reis’s lesson too late, having launched safety management programs without taking the necessary first steps to engage employees. 

Predictable Resistance

Resistance to ill-conceived safety implementation plans is predictable. But until recently, the source of worker resistance has been a subject of intelligent guesswork. Anthony Lauchner, a senior project manager with Balfour Beatty, blames the independent nature of construction workers.

“I figure that guys whose independent attitude isn’t accepted in other industries naturally gravitate to the construction industry,” said Lauchner. “Historically, we’ve accepted them, allowing them to get away with an attitude that works against safety improvement.”

The search for solutions to change-resistant construction workers has been prolific, if not futile. One operations manager even consulted a program for troubled youth to find guidance in handling workers he considered to be little more than grown-up juvenile delinquents.

Fortunately, we now know how specific temperamental, generational and cultural factors contribute to resistance in construction workers. This knowledge provides us with three strategies for starting successful safety management programs. Use of these strategies results in a deeper acceptance of safety efforts and reaps benefits far beyond simple worker compliance.    

1. Overcome a Temperament of Resistance

Safety management programs should be geared to overcome the historical root cause of worker resistance: emotional apathy that breeds disloyalty.

Due in part to my extensive research of the personality traits and behavioral tendencies of construction workers, we now know that the independent nature of construction personnel is symptomatic of emotional withdrawal, not outward belligerence (as it might appear).

Nervousness, pessimism, indifference, inhibition and an argumentative nature are all traits for which construction workers consistently rate themselves as needing improvement. These traits are indicative of an emotional hole into which workers retreat, escaping from emotional investment in the job or with coworkers.

Anthony Lauchner labels it a “temporary work mentality.” Others call it a penchant for disloyal behavior, the type that ruins safety management programs and is reflected in high personnel turnover rates. 

While serving as project manager and safety liaison for Jacobs Facilities, Gary Douthitt witnessed the detrimental effects that the “emotional hole” had on his safety management system for project managers. When tasked with collaborating with contractors to identify safety hazards, Douthitt’s managers didn’t seem to care.

“It was easier for them to note conditions on their report and walk on rather than stop and deal with unsafe behaviors on the spot,” said Douthitt.

As old fashioned as it sounds, building safety systems on care and compassion rather than command is the solution for bridging the emotional gap between workers and safety.

One way that owners and managers can demonstrate the compassion of safety management is obvious. “Don’t fire workers when they take the time to do the job safely,” says Lauchner. By exercising safety patience, he says, the company will convince the employee that safety management is a noteworthy emotional investment, equal to production.

 Owners may also want to provide training that develops interpersonal communication skills to those responsible for the program’s implementation. Gruff, authoritative communication only pushes workers further into emotional regression, away from safety management objectives.

2. Appeal to Generation Me

Consider the radical difference in values separating young workers from older ones when initiating a safety management program.

The egocentric nature of Generations X and Y, known collectively as Gen Me (approximately ages eighteen to thirty-five), represent serious obstacles to a safety program. According to reliable measures, narcissism, the unhealthy over-focus on self, is seven times higher in Gen Me as in previous generations.

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., of San Diego State University states in her book Generation Me, “Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves,” adding, “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or group cohesion.”

In short, Gen Me does not naturally possess a mindset that lends itself to a collaborative safety management program.

To secure “buy-in” from a generation not keen on placing the group’s needs over the individual’s, a safety program needs to harness the power of Gen Me’s self-focus. Oddly, this can be achieved by appealing to the inflated sense of self-esteem they feel when networking socially.

Such networking abilities are crucial to the success of safety management. Toolbox talks, Job Safety Analyses (JSAs) and team incident investigations are a few of the safety management tools that are dependent upon good socialization skills. Due to the emotional withdrawal syndrome discussed earlier, older construction workers have been historically weak in this skill set.

Companies should target its present and future Gen Me leaders for special inclusion in the planning and implementation of safety management programs. This includes taking seriously their opinions on how to “sell” the program to other Gen Me workers as well as taking advantage of their interpersonal communication abilities.

3. Capitalize on Present Cultural Change

In order for safety management to achieve maximum impact, safety managers should better accommodate the cultural change brought by an increasing number of Hispanic construction workers.

According to 2006 research by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic workers account for 25 percent of all construction workers. In 2006, two of every three construction new hires were Hispanic, and the percentage is expected to increase.

While most construction supervisors identify the language barrier as their primary cultural safety concern, my research indicates that the difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic on-the-job behavioral tendencies poses the greatest threat to the success of safety management programs.

Behavioral data I have collected from 750 non-Hispanic construction supervisors demonstrates that over 76 percent of those workers classify themselves as more task-oriented than people-oriented. On the other hand, Hispanic supervisors are equally more people-oriented than task-focused.

Project manager Lauchner agrees. “My non-Hispanic workers are more hard driven, less forgiving than my Hispanic ones, “ he says. “By nature, Hispanics on my crews are equally hard workers but more willing to listen and be team players.”

While the “steady Eddy” nature of Hispanic workers is well-suited to the goal of safety compliance, some feel their lack of aggressiveness is a liability. One owner of a drywall installation company told me that he wishes more Hispanics would naturally step into leadership roles because they are better at enforcing his company’s safety message with other Hispanics.

Building proactive safety leadership qualities in Hispanics while educating non-Hispanics to the significant upside of their people skills, is a key to gearing up an all-inclusive safety management program. As with Gen Me, safety managers should target in advance key Hispanic line workers who can advise the company on how to best engage others in implementing the program. Training these workers with better leadership skills yields a safety return on investment that improves a significantly growing sector of the construction workforce.    

A Perspective Long Overdue

Moving beyond the days of the wishful hopes of worker compliance demands a radical change to traditional safety management thinking. Generational, cultural and temperamental factors once given afterthought now stand as earmarks of whether a safety management system is fully engaging workers, thus reaching its peak potential.

Frank E. Bird, Jr., and George L. Germain, authors of Practical Loss Control Leadership, must have envisioned this day when they developed their famous loss causation model. Under the basic (root) causes of loss, they identified two main categories we should examine: job factors and personal factors.

After years of gearing up safety management programs focused primarily on job factors, it is the personal factors of culture, age and personality that are showing us the way to improving more than safety.     

Construction Business Owner, January 2008