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The Motivation to Work Safely

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than 11 million construction workers build and maintain roads, houses, workplaces and physical infrastructure. Their work includes the hazards of working on scaffolds, dealing with noise and dust, using power tools and more. While construction has 8 percent of all U.S. workers, it claims 22 percent of all work-related fatalities, the highest of any industry.

Yet, the construction industry has come a long way. It is far less common today than a few decades ago to see crews leaving scaffold wheels unlocked, laying planks between ladders and shedding their hard hats while working in tight spaces. Safety directors have made great strides.

“Overall in the construction workplace, fatalities are down. Can we attribute that to the economic situation? Well, honestly, yes,” says Kathy Coffey, safety director at Grayhawk, LLC, Lexington, Ky. “But I think workplace safety has become a number one priority with general contractors and owners. They’re not looking solely at the low bid, but at what’s entailed in each bid. They’re asking, ‘What kind of safety program does that subcontractor have?’ It’s a wonderful trend. In the long run, it saves money.”

Cultivating self-motivation. Likely, you want to improve your jobsite safety record. How can you go about it?

In their book, When No One’s Watching: The Psychology of Self-Motivation (to be published later this year), E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions, and co-author Robert A. Veazie, argue that worker self-motivation is the key to achieving safer jobsites. Construction companies, they say, can and should develop this quality in each member of their crews. (See InSync on page 00.)

What’s that? Drywall tradespersons can motivate themselves to act safely on the job site? That’s right. Whereas it was once thought that worker safety needed to be stringently monitored and managed, even incentivized and rewarded, so as to get results, behavior scientists now say that construction workers may actually want to take charge of their behavior and act safely. They want to, and need to, feel part of larger community. And, they get charged up when they can display a measure safety “competency” on their jobs. In short, the motivation to work safely can come from within each of your workers.

“It is possible,” says Geller, “to establish conditions that facilitate self-accountability and self-motivation.”

Below are some principles that can help achieve safe worksite conditions.

Talk up the value of safety. To begin, safety training needs to be presented with the right point of view. Specifically, workers need to understand that being safety conscious is a valuable proposition not just for the company, but for them as well. “People only learn for two reasons—because they have to, or because they want to,” says Dan Allen, loss control manager, California Drywall Co., San Jose, Calif. “If they feel pressured to do something, then you want to take that pressure away. Believe me. It will work just fine.”

Similarly, Jim Dunn, corporate safety director at Baker Drywall and Triangle Plastering, Dallas, believes safety training is motivating when crews see how they personally can benefit. “We help our guys understand that they’re in charge of their own safety, that they can get hurt or stay healthy,” Dunn says. “We even teach them how to talk to the foreman. We want them to speak up and say, ‘Sir, this scaffold is unsafe. We should address it.’”

Of course, effectively communicating a safety mindset to crew members does put more black in the corporate bottom line, and company safety directors generally have to know their cost-benefit figures well when pitching new training programs to senior management. Nevertheless, it’s important to have buy-in all the way at the top of the company. “If we can reduce accidents and injuries by 30 percent,” Allen says, “we lower our Ex Mod (Experience Modification Rate, or EMR, the rate insurance companies use to set their workers’ compensation premiums). The savings can be substantial just in one year’s time.”

Make safety a priority. At Grayhawk, an appreciation for jobsite safety is a condition to be met before being hired. “We make clear during the interview with new hires that we’re serious about safety,” Coffey says. “We’re a 100-percent hard hat company. We’re a 100-percent safety glasses company. We have a pre-employment physical and a drug test. Our employees know it’s important.”

Taking a similar view, Brady Company, Castroville, Calif., recently added a series of job performance reviews, which double as screenings for good safety behavior. “A new employee has an assessment at 30 days, 60 days, 90 days and at 6 months,” says Armond Barboza-Ross, Brady’s director of safety. “We want to know their strengths and weaknesses and how we can help them. Our idea is that safety needs to be a fully integrated process. An individual who does not have good work ethics and is here only for a paycheck is an unproductive employee—he’s also an unsafe employee.”

Still, Brady Company views journeymen drywallers in a positive light—as professionals already primed with a safety mindset. “We’re a union environment, and our journeymen employees earn wages in the 90th percentile for the nine counties in the San Francisco Bay area,” Barboza-Ross says. “So, we feel that good safety performance comes with these compensation levels.”

At Baker Drywall, all new hires receive a minimum of eight hours of safety training. Dunn says they learn about personal protective equipment, tools, signs and signals, materials handling, fall protection, ladders and stairways, aerial/scissor lifts, scaffolding and more, right from the get-go.

But how do construction companies maintain a safety emphasis once employees are on board? Grayhawk taps services available from the AGC of Kentucky, which provides free jobsite safety audits and recommendations for improvement. (See sidebar.) “We don’t just assume an employee with 20 years’ experience knows how to operate a chop saw,” Coffey says. “Assuming is what gets many into trouble.”

California Drywall’s Allen applies his background as a former California Division of Occupational Safety and Health instructor and his 30-plus years of construction experience. Allen says he spends much of his time on job sites, talking to crews, giving them the tool box pep talks and direction. He once saw a crew member working on a 7-foot-high and 2-foot wide scaffold without an outrigger, and took this corrective approach:

“Do you understand what the trigger height is for guard rails?”

“Isn’t it 7 feet?” the worker said.

“That’s correct.”

“But, I’m only at 6 feet,” the worker said.

“Well, let’s get out a tape measure and check it,” Allen said. It turned out that the scaffold was high enough to require guard rails.

Yes, daily reminders are effective. Even if crews have been trained, they may not personally have used a scaffold for some time. Just as automobile drivers regularly forget traffic regulations after receiving their driver’s licenses—How far should one be behind a moving vehicle? How far away from a fire hydrant can one park?—so, too, specific construction regulations don’t normally remain top-of-mind weeks and months after taking a class.

Use positive reinforcement. Allen believes a reasoning approach has much force. “I don’t yell. I don’t scream. I don’t belittle people,” he says. “I talk to them respectfully.”

Why is positive approach important? Allen says people learn better—and subsequently act with safer behavior—when errors are pointed out in a dignified way, instead of callously.

In addition, being on the job site regularly leads to crew rapport, helping to maintain their self-motivation. “I’m on the job site. I don’t stay in the office,” Coffey says. “You have to let the crews know that you appreciate them working safely. It’s about personal contact in the field—daily.”

Of course, many companies also go beyond words of encouragement. California Drywall, for example, offers crews “safety perks.” “Right now, we’re doing Starbucks Cards,” Allen says. While walking the jobs, Allen looks for crew members going above and beyond company safety requirements and gives them a Starbucks gift card loaded with $10 of credit. On big jobs, Allen may treat the crews to a “safety lunch.” “It could be pizza or even something as extravagant as a barbeque,” he says.

Form industry alliances. “We’re trying to get all the drywall contactors to be on the same page,” Allen says. “When you come to Cal, and you have to wear a hard hat, glasses and a vest. It’s the same with other companies in the area. We’re trying to make it even across the board.”

To achieve unity, California Drywall participates in the Safety Forum of the Drywall Information Trust Fund, a group associated with the Northern California Drywall Contractors Association. Different contractors get together to discuss safety policies and standards and host speakers who discuss various regulations.

Baker Drywall/Triangle Plastering participates on the Safety Committee of TEXO, The Construction Association, which represents commercial contractors in North and East Texas. The Safety Committee meets in an open forum format so that subcontractors and general contractors can share ideas and learn from one another. “The group,” says Dunn, “is about going above and beyond OSHA to focus on leadership.”

Of course, it’s not easy being a construction safety director. The pressure is on to reduce jobsite incidents and the number of workers who grumble at the extra work required to maintain a safe job site. “It’s a continual balancing act,” Barboza-Ross says. “At every turn, it’s ‘there he goes again.’ You have to be willing to absorb some backlash and anguish, carry it on your shoulders and accept it as part of your work.”

In the end, rewards come from establishing good safety performance records. This brings savings to the company. It fosters autonomy among the work force, pride and sense of accomplishment. And that kind of motivation, self-motivation, can easily spiral out of control—in a good way and with good results.

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant.

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