What happens when safety gets in the way of worker productivity? Are construction companies still more interested in maximizing corporate profits than in keeping their workers safe? A recent study done by the National Safety Council has revealed that all of the talk lately about safety in the construction industry might just be a dog and pony show, and the truth is much darker than the public realizes.
Concerns Over Productivity And Safety In Construction
In 2015, 937 construction workers died on the job, which represents the largest amount of deaths from a single industry in the 14 industries surveyed by the National Safety Council. A little more than half of the deaths associated with falling in the American workplace each year occur in the construction industry, and that indicates that there is still an issue with safety in construction.
When the workers were asked about comparing management’s focus on safety versus increasing corporate profits, the numbers coming from the construction industry were shocking. It was revealed that 58 percent of all construction workers in the United States feel that safety takes a backseat to worker productivity in the minds of construction management. To make matters worse, 47 percent of all construction workers are afraid they will lose their jobs if they report safety issues.
While the construction industry complains that the laws in many parts of the country regarding safety are getting in the way of running profitable businesses, the numbers show that laws are the only thing preventing more construction deaths each year. According to the National Safety Council study, 51 percent of construction workers feel that management only does the bare minimum for safety based on the laws that are in place.
Safety In Construction Compared To Other Industries
The common perception is to believe that corporate profits and increased worker productivity at the expense of safety is prevalent across all American industries. But in the study, only 36 percent of workers in every other industry outside of construction felt that profits were a priority over safety. The study went so far as to say that 63 percent of all workers in all industries feel that they work in work areas that provide ergonomically compliant equipment. That number would be much higher if the construction industry was removed from it.
Throughout all industries in the United States, 47 percent of all workers believe that completing job tasks quickly takes a priority over safety. But when you single out the construction industry, that number goes up to 67 percent. Based solely on the numbers from the National Safety Council’s study of employees, it is hard to believe that the construction industry has any focus on worker safety at all, beyond the laws that are in place.
The Balance Between Safety And Quality
Based on the numbers in the above-referenced study, it sounds like the construction industry prioritizes productivity over safety and quality. Construction engineers are the ones in charge of making sure that the tasks assigned to workers do not conflict with quality or safety. The project managers are the ones who delegate tasks and decide which tasks have priority. Quality control is the process that maintains a safe workplace while making sure that the specifications of the project are being followed.
So, who is at fault when safety takes a backseat to productivity? If a project is designed to be safe and the outcome is scrutinized by quality standards such as those used in the Six Sigma program, then the breakdown could be in project management. When workers talk about managers disregarding safety in lieu of worker productivity, they are talking about project management. The desire to complete a project quickly in order to keep costs down is something that comes from management but, the idea of working faster and disregarding safety is not always in line with creating more corporate profits.
Does Cutting Corners Actually Lead To More Profits?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that disregarding safety is not the way to enhance corporate profits. In a 2009 interview, a construction company owner was asked about the comparison between cutting corners on safety and adding more money to the bottom line. While the numbers may have changed since 2009, the concepts still remain intact.
The company owner indicated that if a worker cuts corners on safety to complete a task two hours ahead of schedule, that worker might save the company $100 in real costs. Many executives within the construction industry would argue that those instances of $100 savings add up and make it more profitable for construction companies to complete projects and keeps the cost of construction down.
However, if a worker is injured while cutting corners, the resulting costs to the company could be tens of thousands of dollars. It would take a lot of workers cutting a lot of safety corners to make up the losses created by one accident. The losses come in the form of lost productivity, insurance costs, and the possibility of the job site being shut down for an investigation.
If the insurance company determines the accident occurred because of a disregard for safety, then the company may have to pay all of the medical bills related to that employee’s injuries. When you look at the numbers, taking significant risks to save a couple of hundred dollars by doing activities that could result in thousands of dollars in losses is not a great business decision.
The Battle Rages On
Smaller construction companies that operate on razor-thin profit margins and take safety risks are putting themselves in a position to be put out of business by one job site accident. Larger construction companies that continually cut corners on safety and accumulate violations and injured employees will find it increasingly difficult to get affordable liability insurance.
Construction projects are designed by engineers to be safe, and their outcomes are put under quality assurance standards that require a strict attention to detail. This means that the battle between safety and worker productivity occurs at the management level. The study by the National Safety Council shows that, in the construction industry, management is not as interested in safety as it is in productivity. That disconnect is where the real battle for construction safety needs to be waged.
Does Having Construction Safety Week Help Balance Things Out?
Construction Safety Week is a week-long event sponsored and organized by prominent members of the construction industry. Many different levels of government get involved in the program, as well as some of the largest construction companies in the country. The goal is to pick a safety theme each year and focus on as many aspects of that theme as possible. To show that they support construction safety, corporate executives lead many of the safety meetings for the week and safety incentives are rolled out for employees and site supervisors.
As construction accidents and deaths continue to increase, a lot of pressure is being put on the construction industry to monitor itself and make work sites safer. Construction Safety Week is one response to that pressure but, it is not having the effect that the construction industry was hoping for. According to the numbers, the construction industry is doing a poor job putting a focus on safety. Even though the entire industry dedicates one week out of the year to safety, the reality is that corporate profits are still valued higher than worker lives.