Making Sense of Safety


In the forward to Andrew Hopkins book Safety, Culture and Risk, James Reason recalls the statement made by a safety director of a large company - “safety…it’s not rocket science!” (Hopkins, 2005).

You may have heard the same statement. I feel that when people say this they are suggesting that safety and accident prevention are rather simple.

“Hey, it’s all common sense” is another popular point of view on safety.

I would assert that safety is just the opposite. It is a rather complex phenomena.

Consider this: If you were to assemble a large group of rocket scientists, they would all agree on how to launch a rocket successfully. Rocket science is something you can learn and apply. It’s complicated but known.

It is something you learn and then do.

If you take a similar sized group of safety professionals and ask them how to prevent accidents on a construction project, you will get a large variation in answers with no clear pathway forward.

Preventing accidents in construction is a complex, adaptive challenge.

It not only involves complicated engineering and technical expertise, but also an intricate network of relationships, goal conflict, human error, legal issues, and social/psychological concepts like perception and risk. It is something to learn as you do.

This article is intended to scratch the surface of current emerging ideas in safety by highlighting some concepts in an attempt to challenge long standing mental modes and worldviews.

By challenging our mindset, we open up possibilities for change. In an industry where people continue to die and suffer serious injury, change is long overdue.

Managers are Smart; Workers are Stupid

“It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.” (Taylor, 1911)

Concepts from Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management can be found manifest in current safety efforts in many ways.

One way is the idea to create the “one best method” to execute work safely.

Standardization is seen as a good thing – through checklists, procedures and standardized designs.

Craftsmanship, local expertise, improvisation, and other expressions of diversity are official frowned upon in most operational safety-critical worlds (Dekker, 2015).

In present day thinking, what emerges are some interesting concepts. In the construction industry, plans, specifications, contracts and procedure create the world of “work as imagined” – a very black and white representation.

As those of you who work in the field on the front line know, everything turns gray at the coal face.

Project teams and work crews must make sense out of all of it and create “work as done.” The gap between “work as imagined” and “work as done” is in interesting place to stand.

One could say, the real work of construction safety occurs in this gap – the place where both management and workers must come together and learn their way through safety (i.e., learn it as you do it).

Writing procedures on how to work safely certainly adds some value to the challenge of accident prevention.

However, having them written by those of us who do not do the work will only result in a certain level of success.

Said procedures often show up at the workforce level as unrealistic and unworkable.

As a young safety professional fresh out of college, I spend many of long days translating government regulation into corporate procedure.

I recall writing procedures such as Steel Erection, Electrical Safety and Excavation Safety. I got really good at it and received great feedback.

However, I do not recall being asked to or encourage to talk to or involve iron workers, electricians or heavy equipment operators.

I wonder what those same procedures would look like if I had.

Manual Competence

To understand “work as done” and improve how things really work, involve those who do the work (Eurocontrol, 2014).

In his 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford explores the concept of “manual competence” as he challenges us to reappraise our views of skilled manual labor.

In the age of think tanks, consulting firms, and IKEA, craftsmanship seems to be in decline (Crawford, 2009).

Shop class is becoming rarer, and our children are told that college is the ticket to an "open future" as a "knowledge worker."

This rejection of craftsmanship wrongly ignores the cognitive, social, and remunerative rewards of skilled manual work, and wrongly assumes that white-collar work always engages the mind (Crawford, 2009).

The declining ranks of skilled labor and the constant threat of available trades in construction are obvious and everyday realities in our industry.

When we think about construction work in general, fundamentally it is about craftsmanship (or craftpersonship to acknowledge the contribution of women in the trades). It is said that craftsmanship consists simply in the desire to do something well for its own sake.

As a craftsperson, you recognize your work in a world that has been transformed. There is individual agency - the experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own.

For this reason, there exist a standard or code in which the workforce live by.

Tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s success or failures cannot be interpreted away (Crawford, 2009). There exist an inescapable accountability – either the building stands or it does not.

For example, if one’s boss questions the work, one can say “its plumb, level and square – go check it out.” I feel it is this essence of craftsmanship that we have not tapped into in the work of safety.

Of course, most safety experts suggest “employee participation” as a key ingredient in safety programs.

How often do we actually involve the workforce in safety?

What level of trust would have to occur to do so?

Could we get over our Tayloristic mindset and allow this to occur at a meaningful level?

The bold step here would be to involve actual work crews in the development of safety procedure, risk assessment, incident investigation and change management. The involvement of the workforce would help us to understand and reduce the tension and gap between work as imagined and work as done.

There is a strong believe in the administrative ordering of work to ensure that it is both safe and efficient. This involves not only several layers of line management and supervision but also extensive safety bureaucracies.

These install practices in which accountability for safety is generated chiefly through process, paperwork, audit trails and administrative work – all at an increasing distance from the operation.

Rather than safety as a practical and ethical responsibility downward, it has become a bureaucratic accountability upward (Dekker, 2014).

Where We’re Heading

The best efforts in safety right now are happening inside companies who are viewing safety in the context of complexity, those that are acknowledging the gap between “work as imagined” and “work as done” and those that are honoring the value of field expertise (craft) and the skills necessary to do construction work – i.e., critical thinking coupled with physically effort.

People are the solution to harness: they are smart, they can think rationally and solve great problems with their reasoning, their science and their technology.

People are not a problem to control – unless we only look at it that way.

Between managers and workers, we have all the talent necessary to meet the growing challenges the construction industry will need to get itself to the next level of performance in safety.

The questions is, do we have the courage to tap into it?

After all, it’s not rocket science.

Ray Master is the Director of Loss Prevention & Risk Control Services with Construction Risk Partners/JLT. His over 25 years of experience in construction safety span a wide range of industries to include heavy, power, process, real estate, oil/gas, marine, transportation, hazardous material clean-up and emergency response.

Prior employers have included JMJ Associates, Bovis Lend Lease, CH2M Hill, and Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation. He has held adjunct positions at both NYU and Columbia University.

He works out of the firm’s New York City office.

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