Exploring the roots of jobsite safety culture

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by Jessica Krippendorf

The B.C. Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) is conducting research into the human factor of workplace accidents and how transformational leadership can cause a shift in workplace safety culture.

The B.C. Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) is conducting research into the human factor of workplace accidents and how transformational leadership can cause a shift in workplace safety culture.

Implementing tools and techniques that empower workers and shift leadership styles is what the alliance considers the next step in the evolution of safety, said Alicia Brady, communications manager with the BCCSA.

“A lot of the time, people look at prevention like: if you want to protect your head you put on a helmet, if you want to protect your feet you put on steel toes,” she said.

“But, injuries are more complex than just trying to do this job with these procedures to complete the task.”

The human factor looks at developing intrinsic motivation in workers, rather than extrinsic rewards or punishments.

It teaches supervisors to support the implementation of management systems with skills related to empathy, emotion and engagement.

Industry first reduced accident rates with improved hardware such as guards and harnesses.

The next step was better training including incentives and rewards, and these were followed by the implementation of procedural safety management systems.

“Accident rates reduced dramatically, but they are still happening,” said Brady.

“Now, we need to look at what we are missing.”

A key component of BCSSA’s research is facilitating a switch from transactional leadership — here is your task; now do it—to transformational leadership through which workers are empowered and engaged.

Studies indicate transformational leadership has dramatic impacts on business such as increased revenue, reduction in accidents and injuries, and reduced worker turnover, said Brady.

“It’s really about emotional and social intelligence,” said Jeff Lyth, the alliance’s regional safety co-ordinator.

“We aren’t thinking we can turn a gruff, old school construction foreman into Nelson Mandela, but we can talk about these principles in straight up ways.”

Lyth presents on the human factor and transformational leadership at free, BCCSA-sponsored contractors’ breakfasts across B.C.

The presentations were developed for supervisors, foremen and other field managers — an often overlooked segment of the workforce when it comes to leadership training.

“Many of the supervisors in place did a great job as a tradesperson and were promoted based on that,” said Brady.

“They didn’t have access to supervisor skill training and were promoted without the essential skills to supervise effectively.”

Transitional leadership is comprised of four main factors.

Idealized influence involves supervisors leading by example to make the right decisions and garner respect from workers.

“Everyone knows you never get into a hole that’s deeper than four feet unless it’s properly engineered or has a trench box installed,” said Lyth.

“So, what if it’s four feet four inches? Or six feet?”

The supervisor who errs on the side of efficiency, and avoids two hours of down time waiting for the trench box to arrive isn’t furthering the image of leadership in the correct ways, said Lyth.

“We are short-term maximizers. We know there is likely no consequence and the inspector probably won’t happen by at that exact moment, but the truth is that situation arose because of a failure to plan,” he said.

Idealized influence is about empowering management systems with correct decisions.

“If the supervisor makes the safe decision, it might be two hours down time, but they will be sure to send along a trench box next time, just in case,” Lyth said.

Individualized consideration or realizing that people are different one day to the next, is another factor.

Leaders are encouraged to create a culture of trust in which workers can feel comfortable divulging that they are distracted because of personal problems without fear of repercussions.

The third factor—Inspirational Motivation—is about discovering what motivates workers intrinsically, which can lead to empowerment and self-actualization.

“People are taken off of jobsites for not following safety plans or management systems, but these things still happen all the time,” said Lyth.

“Leaders need to find out what motivates workers intrinsically, and how to pull people together that way.”

Intellectual stimulation challenges the traditional way of answering questions with directions or instructions.

Wherever possible, supervisors are encouraged to ask, ‘How do you think this should be done?’ Lyth said.

“It turns on the intellect and is a very powerful thing.”

The BCCSA is also in the process of developing a two-day supervisors’ course that will address transitional leadership skills and the human factor of workplace safety.

“If we can set supervisors on a journey with more knowledge and awareness than they had before, then we give them a fighting chance to develop their own leadership style,” he said.

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