During a recent jobsite visit to check on his electricians, Glenn Taverna, regional safety manager of Starr Electric Company, Inc., was haunted by what he saw. Hoisted from a crane directly outside of the executive trailer was a crash test dummy in a safety harness. In its hands was a sign that read: “Two days ago this harness saved a life on this jobsite.”
In more than 40 years, this was the most touching and effective display of a company’s regard for their employee’s safety that Taverna had ever seen. This simple gesture had a huge impact on his safety conversations for the rest of his day.
From then on, there was no doubt in his mind that he could trust his workers were working on a safe jobsite under the care of their general contractor.
But this isn’t always the case.
Taverna estimates that four out of every 10 jobsites he visits opt for a different kind of signage: safety milestone banners. And if the goal of these banners is to improve safety, it’s not working.
When comparing jobsites with safety banners to jobsites without safety banners, Taverna says one is not safer than the other. He regularly does safety inspections to make sure his teams are working under adequate conditions. Taverna doesn’t hesitate to pull his workers from a job if he doesn’t like what he sees, and has never seen a correlation between a safe jobsite and a safety record sign. What concerns him even more are the unintended consequences of advertising jobsite safety records, and he’s not alone.
In those situations, employees who report safety records sometimes are ostracized by damaging the jobsites safety record. Safety record signs can unintentionally encourage employees to value their reputation as a safe workplace, over the actual safety of the employees.
When this is the case, workers might feel discouraged from reporting incidents––especially when they feel they are faced with the gut-wrenching decision between damaging their company’s reputation or silencing concerns for their safety.
To avoid these outcomes, making the switch from lagging to leading indicators is key, but this can only happen in open environments where people pay just as much attention to what is being recorded as they do to what is not said.
In open safety cultures, employees don’t have to decide whether to get a task done on time or get it done safely. Everyone understands that safety is a core value that is never compromised.
There are no non-verbal pressures to entice employees into cutting corners because the message around company values and processes is completely clear: safety first.
How to talk about employee safety
1. Throw away the banners and change the conversation.
Start conversations by making sure everyone knows management is not afraid to stand up for their safety rights. If push comes to shove, executives will pull workers out of unsafe projects and won’t tolerate unsafe partners.
2. Show, don’t tell employees you care.
Take inspiration from the crash test dummy: to get the attention of busy workers, be creative and eye-catching. Display something on the jobsite that will emotionally resonate with workers and stay with them every day they are on site.
3. Safety culture needs to be enforced from the top down.
You can’t champion what you don’t understand. And when you have a moral and business obligation to protect yourself and those around you, knowledge is power. Everyone from owners and executives to project managers and field teams can benefit from learning how to, how much and how long it takes to build safely.
4. Establish relationships with your employees.
Keeping the lines of communication open is as easy as asking employees how their day was. Even if they don’t say anything, don’t assume that everything went well. At the same time, make sure all workers feel empowered to speak up or stop working if they feel conditions are unsafe.
With open conversations, continual training and genuine safety awareness in place of safety advertising, construction workers can look forward to having a safe place to work, while margins and reputations are protected.
The next time there is a sign indicating how many days a jobsite has gone without an incident, question its actual safety culture. When the ultimate goal is an industry standard of zero incidents, a day without an accident is cause for a sigh of relief, not celebration.