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What Does Worker Involvement Mean in Construction?

By Scott Schneider

LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

“We understand that every company develops its own safety culture and that companies and worksites differ,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan, “but we believe member involvement is the foundation of every outstanding company safety program. We urge signatory contractors to examine their programs and find ways to beef up this vital component.”

It seems likely that employee involvement will be an important part of any Injury and Illness Prevention Plan (I2P2) Standard that OSHA proposes (an I2P2 standard is among the agency’s top priorities). But what does this really mean in construction? What is our vision for the active engagement of workers in the safety and health process?

Why involve workers?

Workers are a company’s greatest asset. Nothing is possible without them, and the quality of the company’s output is dependent on their efforts, skills, insights and commitment.

Workers are directly affected by safety and health problems on a worksite. Usually, they are the ones hurt or killed when safety programs fail. As a result, they have a direct interest in their success. Workers are also the ones who are closest to the problem. Every day, they see what is happening on the site. They find problems first.

As construction workers, they are also problem-solvers. If they are given the tools and authority to do so, they know how to fix problems. Worker involvement in the safety program demonstrates trust and helps improve the safety culture of a company.

When to involve workers?

Ideally, workers can and should be involved in the design stages of a project. Some projects bring in experienced workers to review the design of a project, and their suggestions make the projects safer and easier to build, saving money in the process. Planning is the most important tool in any safety program, and workers who know how construction proceeds and where problems often arise can help plan for a smooth, productive, cost-effective and safe job.

How to involve workers?

Having a suggestion box is not enough. Effective involvement should be encouraged at every stage and in each aspect. Here is a range of activities in which to involve workers:

  • Site Orientation. New workers undergoing their site orientation need to be encouraged to get involved in the safety program and informed about what to do if they have safety concerns. It is helpful to involve existing workers in presenting the orientation so new hires understand this is a joint project of management and labor.
  • Toolbox Talks. These talks are most effective if they are interactive, giving workers an opportunity to ask questions and respond to the talk. Involving existing workers in presenting the talks is also helpful.
  • Job Safety Analyses (JSA). JSAs should be developed in consultation with site workers who are familiar with the process/task and the hazards that may be encountered. Site workers can also use the JSAs to instruct or mentor new workers doing the task.
  • Site Inspections.All site inspections should be joint inspections with both management representatives and site workers to ensure that the inspection is thorough and effective.
  • Incident Investigations. A thorough accident or incident investigation helps prevent similar incidents. Involving workers in the investigation helps make it more credible and informative. Near miss investigations are similar.
  • Joint Committees. A joint labor-management committee which meets regularly to discuss and promptly address safety concerns is probably the best way to involve workers in the safety program. This works well on larger sites. To be effective, workers need real power on the committee: equal numbers, paid time to participate, a rotating chair and true management commitment and follow-through.
  • Training. Workers cannot effectively participate in site safety without proper training. They need training on how to identify hazards and proper procedures for reporting them as well as their rights to a safe workplace. Safety committee members need more in-depth training.
  • Problem-Solving. Project teams of workers and management can tackle difficult safety problems like working at heights. A recent case study from England’s Health and Safety Executive shows how a team of workers addressed this problem creatively and significantly reduced the risk of falls. Another useful resource from Britain is Short Guide to Improving Health and Safety on Construction Sites through Effective Worker Involvement.
  • Safety Climate Surveys.Anonymous surveys of workers about safety on the jobsite is another way to get worker input and a true read on how they perceive safety and safety programs.
  • Reporting. If workers do not report problems, they may not get fixed before someone gets hurt. Workers must be actively involved in reports of unsafe conditions on the job to have an effective safety program.
  • Stop Work. Contractors with the best safety programs explicitly give workers the right (and responsibility) to stop work if they believe it to be unsafe. This is the ultimate form of worker involvement. Workers, of course, must be educated about how to identify hazardous situations for this to be effective.
  • Supervisor Training. Efforts to involve workers in a safety program will fail if supervisors and other levels of middle management are not oriented and trained to facilitate worker participation.

Safety programs cannot be successful with a top down approach where safety is solely the responsibility of the safety director who visits the site periodically. Nor is it a matter of merely following procedures.

“Construction sites are fluid and dynamic,” says O’Sullivan. “To achieve excellence, safety must be flexible as well, relying on the expertise of workers who are active participants in the safety process.”

The LHSFNA’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health can help contractors devise a sound company safety program. Call the Division at 202-628-5465 for assistance.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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