November 2008: Playing It Safe

Words: Dan KamysNovember 2008

Building a Safe Culture in the Masonry Industry

What is all this business about "safety culture" anyway? Is that some kind of code word or something? I think most people get the general idea, but let's confirm what we mean when we use the word "culture" in reference to the construction industry.

We understand that the world is made up of different cultures, which also can be described as another "family" of people. These people share unique traits that differ from those of other families, since different cultures can co-exist geographically.

I had the privilege of traveling to Kenya, Africa. You've heard the term "culture shock." Just driving in the country was shocking. If you've been to a third-world country, you have an idea of what I'm talking about. There are virtually no traffic signals or even signs, and in areas of gross traffic congestion like Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, it's dog-eat-dog.

My first morning there, I woke up, stumbled to the sliding glass that overlooked a conglomeration of streets coming together in a signal-less group of intersections, and stood in awe of the carnage that was sure to ensue at any moment. I grabbed my camera and snapped some shots. There were cars, small trucks, large trucks, vans, buses, donkey carts, people-drawn carts and pedestrians everywhere. And not to belabor the point, but they just don't use traffic signals. You heard the incessant honking — a continuous barrage of honking from every vehicle in sight. The donkeys may have even been honking. Yet, I didn't see many more accidents than I see here. The incessant honking that would cause road rage here was a simple lane-change announcement. People point their fingers at their front bumpers to show where they want to go, and then honk and start to drift. If they hear squealing tires, breaking glass or crunching metal, they drift back some. It's part of the culture.

There is an accepted norm regarding safety on our jobsites, but what is that norm? Is taking unnecessary risk or taking the guard off a grinder the norm? Is leaving a handrail or two off a scaffold the norm? Is it normal for the forklift operator not to wear his seatbelt? Are new hires put to work without any safety training? Is it the attitude of the supervisor that safety people are just nit picking? If any of these attitudes or actions is so, it is an indicator of an unsafe culture. Unsafe actions and OSHA violations are the norm and accepted, therefore the culture.

We want the opposite. When someone attempts an unsafe act, we want everyone on the job to stop and stare at him like a cow looking at a new gate. The culture that we want to build is one in which safe procedures are the norm. When hazards are seen, they are immediately removed. When someone attempts an unsafe act, his co-workers stop him and explain, "We don't do that on this crew; someone could get hurt." That is a safe culture. The traits, habits, customs, speech and general lifestyles of the crew are about safety as the focus, even if it trumps production (although safety actually will improve production in the long run). On many masonry jobs, if the supervisor starts talking "extreme safety," his crew might look at him like he's eating a whole chicken head. But if they see him eating chicken heads everyday without fail, they would stop making such a big deal out of it and, in time, it would seem the norm for him. This is what we must start building. It's not easy to change, but it is possible and it pays dividends in the future. Here are some suggestions that can help build a safe culture in your company:

  1. Written program The first thing you need is a written program to establish what is safe and what isn't.
  2. Training Secondly, train employees on the written program so they know what is safe and what isn't.
  3. Reinforcement of program You can have a written program and train employees on it, but few will actually follow it without being forced. There are two chief ways to do this:

• Positive reinforcements — a rewards system for employees/crews who perform safely. Scores of incentive programs exist. Atta boys and simple recognition are powerful as well. • Negative reinforcements — as much as we hate it, there must be consequences to unsafe actions and attitudes. I am a fan of patient firmness for good employees: training, verbal warning, written warning, days off and then termination. After having been given three or four chances, the employee needs to go, regardless of who he is.

  1. Push from the top Safety must be believed in from the top down. It's just a fact that field personnel will refuse to believe that the head(s) of the company care about safety. Safety must be preached in every way possible from the top and then backed up by actions from the top. You can convince them by:

Calling each injured employee to see how he is Calling or seeing each supervisor after an injury for future prevention Conducting regular safety inspections Following up with appropriate actions on any violations found Holding weekly or daily safety meetings Hiring safety personnel Starting a weekly newsletter with a focus on safety.


Finally, focus on field supervisors! They are the pivotal point of true culture transformation. We can try to work this backwards, focusing on the employees, but things really won't change until the supervision changes. When the field supervisors are converted, they will convert the crews. If there are no consequences to supervision, but we are hardnosed toward the crew, it will be viewed as hypocrisy. Building a safe culture in the masonry industry is not a goal, but a journey. It's implementing never-ending change where needed, and continually trying new ways to build a safe culture.

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