Safety Behaviour in the Construction Industry

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Health and Safety Authority

Summary Statement

A multifaceted study of occupational safety culture and habits in the Irish construction industry.

Objectives and design

We have a poor understanding of how either individual attitudes and behavior or management action is related to safety in the construction industry. Thus, the primary goal of this research was to investigate the factors that influence safety behavior and compliance with safety requirements on construction sites. This goal was realized through the following objectives:
  • The first objective was to examine compliance with safety requirements in the construction industry.
  • The second was to investigate the behavior, perceptions and attitudes associated with safety in construction.
  • The third was to investigate management practices and associated documentation relating to safety.
  • The final objective was to seek to establish what factors are significantly associated with safe behaviors or safety compliance.
The high incidence of falling from heights in construction accident statistics led to a focus, particularly in the site observations and operatives' questionnaire, on factors associated with falling from heights

The design adopted was a cross-sectional one based on a comparison of a representative sample of 18 sites in Ireland. The sample included large and smaller sites, housing and general contracting, and metropolitan and regional areas in the Republic and Northern Ireland. An eighteen-item safety audit checklist was used to as a protocol for measuring safety compliance. A survey of construction operatives addressed the perception of risk, behavior in risk situations, attitudes and safety climate. A total of 244 site operatives were surveyed. 59 site management and others (including safety representatives) who have a role in safety management were interviewed concerning a range of safety management functions and effectiveness. Safety documentation on ten sites was examined. A sample of ten inspectors was interviewed.


Compliance with safety requirements

The level of safety compliance across the sites was quite variable. In relation to the items concerning prevention of falls from heights, compliance ranged from good to poor. Thus, only two sites had full compliance on edge protections and handrails, five sites on unguarded openings. House builders tended to be generally worse than general contractors on these measures. There were ladders that were not tied in eight sites. Thus it can be concluded that there was much that could be improved in the majority of sites.

Perception of risk

How well are the risks associated with falling from heights perceived? In general nine situations concerning working with ladders, scaffolding and on roofs were perceived as high risk. However a small minority of workers in each site saw many of these situations as low risk. The frequency of these situations was generally seen to be fairly low in the construction industry, though constructions sites are generally perceived to be dangerous places.

The great majority of workers reported that they would respond constructively to risky situations, either reporting the defect, fixing it, or stopping work (depending on the situation). However, a sizable minority (between ten and twenty percent) would just continue working (and this was between twenty and thirty percent for ladders being too short and working on roofs in bad weather). Thus there is a small minority who may not perceive risks accurately and a larger minority who say they are prepared to continue working in risky situations.


Almost forty percent of operatives report that they have received no safety training from the main contractor. For a further fifty percent their safety training comprised the induction course (lasting between ten minutes and one and a half-hours). While managers consider this safety training to be necessary, many believe the way it is currently carried out is primarily to "cover themselves" in case something goes wrong. Eleven percent of the sample has received safety training lasting more than one day. Very few sites claimed to have a systematic safety training schedule for their employees, and safety training was not usually a consideration in recruiting operatives.

Thus it seems clear that for the majority of operatives the main way in which they achieve knowledge of the risks of their work is through their experience of work itself. Even where the main contractor provides induction training, this is often perceived as a formality, to protect the company, with little expectation that it would influence the knowledge and behavior of workers. The low level of provision of safety training is particularly worrying considering that twenty five percent of the sample report that they have worked in the industry for less than one year and fifty percent less than two years. Thus their level of experience of the risks associated with the job and of how to manage them may not be that great.

Safety management

Both the management interviews and analysis of safety documentation indicated that whereas virtually all the sites had a safety plan, these were mostly generic documents that could be applied to any construction site. Thus few contained a management structure with clear delegation of responsibilities. Although half the sites had risk assessments, which were site specific, in some of these not all the relevant site activities were addressed. These documents played little or no role in ongoing management activities and their function appeared solely to meet legislative requirements.

Safety audits were conducted in all sites, mostly following a checklist method with a written audit report. However few sites documented improvement measures or actions taken to remedy audit deficiencies. Hazard reporting was rarely documented and the same was true of incidents and near misses. Communication about safety was most often informal and verbal. A quarter of the sites had regular dedicated safety meetings, though for others safety was a frequent item on site meetings.

In all but one site some or all of the management had undertaken CIF/CEF training courses. Thus, having managers with this training did not discriminate between sites which were better or worse in safety compliance. A small number of safety managers had also undertaken diploma courses in health and safety management. Six sites had a safety representative. Most often, these had been appointed by the management.

Role of inspections

The majority of sites had at some time been subject to an inspection by national authority inspectors. The primary focus of inspections concerns compliance with safety requirements and the interviews with inspectors confirm many of the findings of this study in relation to compliance levels in the industry. While site documentation is often inspected, there is no systematic methodology for auditing or assessing the safety management system as a functioning management process which is designed to ensure safety on site. Indeed, inspectors do not see it as their role to conduct such an audit. Inspections themselves do not appear to have a major direct influence on the effective management of site safety.

Factors associated with safety compliance

The presence of a safety representative on site shows the strongest relationship with safety compliance. The only other factor associated with compliance is the second safety management factor - effectiveness of response to audits and hazard reports. Although there is a tendency for safety representatives to be present in sites with better general safety management performance, it would be a mistake to conclude that this general safety management factor accounts for the relationship between safety representatives and compliance. It appears that safety representatives influence safety compliance not only through their influence on the response to audits and hazards but also through other means. Thus they encourage the reporting of hazards and help ensure that these reports lead to better safety compliance on site. Their presence also makes it significantly less likely that workers will continue to work in hazardous situations.

There is no significant association between the general Safety management factor and any other factor (with the possible exception of the appointment of safety representatives, which is almost significant). There is no significant correlation with Effectiveness of the management system, with safety compliance or the variables assessing safety behaviors. These results pose the question: why does so much activity which is undertaken in the name of safety apparently have so little influence on safety compliance and safety behaviors?

There are no significant relationships between the attitudinal variables (safety attitudes, perception or risk and safety climate) and any of the safety outcome variables (compliance, safety behaviors). This suggests that the difficulty of getting more consistent and higher standards of safety compliance may not depend on attitudes and perceptions of workers and managers. Systemic factors are more important - having mechanisms for reporting hazards, following up on hazard reports and audits, and doing what it takes to ensure that hazard reports and audits are translated into effective compliance with safety requirements.


Safety Representatives

This study has demonstrated the potentially strong role which safety representatives can play in influencing both behavior and compliance with safety requirements, and ensuring that both audits and hazard reports are effectively dealt with. All sites should have safety representatives and their role and functions should be reinforced as part of the safety management system.

Training and certification

The most plausible interpretation of the findings in relation to safety representatives is that their effectiveness is largely due to their ability to exert influence and persuasion through informal interpersonal methods. The social and interpersonal skills which this requires should not be the prerogative of safety representatives alone. There is enormous scope for improving the ability of those who have management and safety responsibilities, and indeed all those who work in construction, to manage the human relations of safety more effectively. These skills are trainable and susceptible to systematic development. They need to be clearly and systematically addressed in all training related to safety in construction.

As far as possible, training should not only seek to foster awareness of hazard and risk, but it should strengthen knowledge and skills in managing risky situations effectively. This should include the communications and interpersonal skills, which are necessary at every level to ensure that the correct influences on behavior are consistently reinforced. Transfer of these skills to the working environment needs to be carefully fostered and monitored. All levels of training should be addressed including:
  • Site induction and refresher training
  • Initiation to the industry and specific crafts / trades training
  • Management training. Particular attention should be paid to fostering participation in in-depth professional safety management training at diploma and masters level.
The safety management system

Clearly the requirements for safety management systems need to be radically reviewed and overhauled. It is too easy to comply with the law through having a paper system, which does not effectively operate in practice. This review should address:
  • Developing stronger criteria for active and effective safety management systems. These should include design and planning, day-to-day management and monitoring and auditing practices.
  • These criteria should be developed in new ways of auditing safety management systems, which can routinely and reliably assess the activity and effectiveness of the system.
  • The role of safety officer should be strengthened to ensure that it is less easy to marginalize what is essentially an advisory role.
  • The accountability of operational management needs to be made clearer and firmer, and this accountability needs to be tied to measurable outputs of the safety management system, including the demonstration of effective action to address identified defects and hazards.
The Construction Safety Partnership Plan

At the time that the field work for this study was collected, the Construction Safety Partnership Plan was in the early stages of its implementation. The evidence suggests that the safety representatives' scheme is highly successful. On the other hand safety training for managers does not seem to be delivering a higher standard of safety compliance on many sites. If the CSPP is to be successful in improving construction safety, it must be reviewed and adjusted to address the following issues.
  • Extending the safety representative scheme to all sites. Developing effective safety representation on all sites will need more effective support from the social partners to make this work where management commitment is lower than on sites where representatives have already been appointed.
  • An effective methodology for routine site audits must be developed. Auditing will not be effective unless it includes an effective system for monitoring the implementation of safety measures and response to hazard reports. The CSPP only states that the current auditing arrangements will be reviewed by early 2001. This should be strengthened to require more stringent criteria for auditing.
  • The recommendations for the introduction of a Safety Management System by the Construction Industry Federation should urgently be reviewed in the light of the evidence of this report. Recommendations for Safety Management Systems must address the problem of translating a paper demonstration that there is a management system into clear evidence that that system is delivering improvements in safety on the ground.
  • There is a wide range of training recommendations in the CSPP. However it is important to ensure and to demonstrate that this training is effective and that the safety messages are transferred to the site and result in safer behavior and more effective safety management. The management training program should be urgently reviewed in the light of the lack of evidence that it is having an impact. The other training initiatives should also be reviewed with respect to how well they address the social and interpersonal processes which are essential to ensuring that safety is effectively addressed on a day-to-day basis.
  • The role and activities of Inspectors should be reviewed with a view to maximizing their impact on site safety in a cost-effective manner. The advantages of developing additional methods of influence which do not require legal sanction should be explored.
The CSPP is a major social initiative with considerable resource implications for all the social partners. Yet there is no proposal to monitor whether or not this initiative will be effective in improving safety in the construction industry. A systematic evaluation strategy needs to be developed urgently.

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