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.

A variety of methodologies were adopted in order to reflect the different aspects of construction sites and to reflect overall project objectives. A pilot study was carried out and the necessary amendments were made to the instruments before the main research started.

The pilot study was conducted in one large construction site. The safety compliance measure was tested using several independent ratings and criteria for ratings were agreed. The questionnaire and interview methodologies were also examined with samples of managers, workers and a safety representative. Adjustments to the procedure for administering these were made to ensure effective data collection.

The four methodologies used were:
  • Site management interviews
  • Analysis of documentation
  • Systematic site observations
  • Operative surveys
The Observational Study

Duff et al. developed a 41-item safety audit checklist for assessing safety and health performance on construction sites as part of a safety management intervention program carried out in 1993. This tool was chosen as it had been validated in Duff et al. study and it most closely resembled the objectives and conditions preview in our research.

The safety audit checklist was piloted on a large Dublin construction site. Based on this pilot study, a modified 18-item safety audit checklist was produced covering site safety situations and behavior encountered under the general headings of Housekeeping, Scaffolding and work platforms, Access to heights, and Personal protective equipment (see table 8 below).

Housekeeping Item 1 Unguarded Openings
Item 2 Rubbish on Access Routes
Item 3 Storage of Materials
Scaffolding and work platforms Item 4 Rubbish on Scaffolding
Item 5 Missing Scaffold Boards
Item 6 Trapped Scaffold Boards
Item 7 Missing Toeboards
Item 8 Missing Guardrails or Edge Protection
Item 9 Missing Baseplates
Item 10 Misuse of Scaffold
Access to heights Item 11 Ladders Too Short
Item 12 Ladders Incorrectly Tied
Item 13 Safe use of Ladders
Item 14 Defective Ladders
Personal protective equipment Item 15 Hard Hat External Use
Item 16 Hard Hat Internal Use
Item 17 Protective Footwear
Item 18 Viz Vest Wearing
Table 8: The 18 safety items that were observed for that research.

All 18 items were rated on a percentage scale of compliance with recommended site safety practice. The procedure for the observational study carried out on each site visited was as follows:
  • A generalized description of the site including size, number of site personnel, stage of construction and weather conditions was carried out.
  • The researcher then surveyed the site and recorded all information on the safety audit checklist. In recording the information three responses were possible and recorded in specified ways:
  • Unsafe conditions or behaviors were recorded as percentage of items or operatives on site not conforming with recommended practice. Hence, the percentage of noncompliance was recorded.
  • Safe items were recorded as ‘zero.'
  • If the situation or behavior was not seen, a ‘Not seen' was recorded.
All safety items on the safety audit checklist were completed for all the 18 sites surveyed. The only exception to this procedure occurred on site 10. Due to heavy rain encountered during the observational survey period, there were no workers on site. Due to time pressures in rearranging access, it was decided to record site conditions observed, and use them in the study. Site operative behavior was recorded as ‘Not seen.'

The Operative Survey

A total of 244 questionnaires were completed across 18 sites. At the beginning of each site visit the number of operatives and subcontractors on site was sought. It was decided to sample approximately 20% of all operatives on site (including both company operatives and subcontractor operatives). Two researchers were involved in administering the survey. Each researcher approached an operative, outlined the aims of the study and asked if they would be interested in participating in the survey. On each site a representative sample of both the company operatives and the subcontractors' operatives were covered as well as all areas on the site. Completion of the survey took approximately 15-20 minutes.

An important purpose of the project was to explore the safety antecedents at the individual level. The main agents to report on safety in the workplace at that level are those people working in the ‘front line', which means the operatives.

As the literature and statistics highlight the category of falls from height as accounting for the most frequent and severe accidents in the construction sector, the instrument was developed to explore this category. Three aspects of working at heights were identified as being particularly of high-risk. These are working on scaffolds, using ladders and working on roofs. From these situations our final behavioral protocol was developed. This was made up of nine high-risk situations. A brief description of the situations chosen follows:

Front-line workers (they will be referred as ‘operatives' in this report) were interviewed following a structured interview protocol. A selection of nine high-risk situations was presented. Each participant was requested to give his opinion about perception of risk, frequency and preferred behavior in the face of risk for each of the situations presented.

Situation 1: Working on scaffolds not totally boarded.
Situation 2: Working on scaffolds with missing guardrails.
Situation 3: Climbing up or down a scaffold when a ladder has not been provided.

Situation 4: Using a ladder not tied or secured.
Situation 5: Using a ladder broken or somehow defective.
Situation 6: Using a ladder shorter than 1 metre above landing place.

Situation 7: Working on fragile roofs without crawling boards
Situation 8: Working on roofs without edge protection (and not harness provided).
Situation 9: Working on roofs with bad weather.

For each of the nine situations, the operative was requested to analyze them on three levels. They had to:
  • Offer an evaluation of their perceived level of risk of each situation (low risk, medium risk or high risk).
  • State the frequency at which these situations occur in the construction sector and in the present site (rare, usual or frequent)
  • Predict their probable behavior if the situation occurred on site today (report it, fix it yourself, stop working/not use the material, or use it/ continue working).
In order to determine their level of experience operatives were asked about the frequency at which they worked on scaffolds, with ladders and on roofs. Only those operatives who reported working in the specific areas sometimes or often were allowed to answer questions on the three specific situations in the relevant categories.

Workers' attitudes and perception of the organizational system were also assessed through a 20-item questionnaire. Workers were required to agree or disagree with each of the questions in a Likert-type scale with four possible anchors from ‘Strongly disagree' to ‘Strongly agree' with each item.

Safety Management Interviews

A total of 59 structured interviews were conducted across 18 sites with a range of managers and personnel responsible for safety. The sample included Company Directors, Contracts Managers, Site Managers, Engineers, Safety Officers, Project Officers, Safety Reps and Foremen. Table below provides a breakdown of how many of each personnel were interviewed.

Personnel Type Interviewed
Site Manager
Contracts Manager
Safety Officer (company)
Safety Officer (site)
Safety Representative
Project Manager
Company Director
Architect (external safety officer)
Human Resource Manager
Quantity Surveyor
Table 9: Breakdown of managers and safety officials interviewed.

At the beginning of each site visit relevant personnel were identified and asked if they were willing to take part in the interview. Two researchers conducted each interview, one asking questions and the other taking notes. Each interviewee was briefed on the research objectives.

The safety management system was the target of the interview, and the following areas were explored:
  • Safety Plan
  • Competence and Training
  • Monitoring system
  • Communication system
  • Assumption of responsibility for safety
  • Cooperation
However, each interviewee was also asked for personal and professional information:
  • Background information (e.g. age, length of time in construction, safety training, etc)
  • Suggestions for improvements of the safety management system.
Each of the areas of work explored also had a corresponding quantitative measure that was completed by the researchers at the end of each interview. The interviews lasted between 20 and 40 minutes.

All managers' interviews were transcribed, and a content analysis was carried out on each of them. A single and comprehensive description of the safety management system was then generated from the content analysis of all the interviews in each site. Each interview protocol had also several quantitative measures built into the protocol. These measures were intended to translate the qualitative impressions gathered after each interview into measurable rating scales. The final ratings should be considered relative to the participant sites, rather than as an evaluation of their level of safety in absolute terms.

Analysis of Safety Documentation

The management interviews established the type and availability of safety documentation on site. After completing the interviews on each site, one of the researchers conducted a general assessment on the site safety documentation. This assessment consisted of verifying the availability of documentation.

All site safety documentation was inspected using the following assessment criteria:
  • evidence of a documented site safety plan,
  • evidence of documented site risk assessments,
  • whether these risk assessments were site specific for identified site activities,
  • evidence of a documented site accident logbook,
  • evidence of documented site safety meetings,
  • evidence of documented site safety audits,
  • evidence of site safety training,
  • overall general assessment of site safety documentation.
HSA/HSE Interviews

A group of inspectors were approached for interview. The HSA and HSE selected and provided the inspectors. In the case of the Republic, the HSA wanted to provide those inspectors with more experience in the field, while in Northern Ireland, all the inspectors in the HSE were interviewed. The sample of inspectors was not intended to be random due above constrains.

Six inspectors from the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and four inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Northern Ireland, were interviewed. The interviews lasted from 40 minutes to an hour. Interviews with inspectors were conducted following the completion of data collection across all sites. A semi-structured approach was taken which covered the following topics:
  • Background information of inspectors
  • Site selection procedures
  • Procedures used during site inspections
  • Site safety
  • Suggestions for improvement

The objectives of this study were to examine compliance with safety requirements, to investigate the behaviors, perceptions and attitudes associated with safety, to investigate management practices and associated documentation, and to establish what factors are significantly associated with safe behaviors or safety compliance. There was a particular focus in the behavioral ratings 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. 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 and safety documentation on site was examined. Finally, a sample of inspectors were interviewed.

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