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.

Background information

A total of 244 surveys were completed across the 18 sites. 38.5% of the sample (or 94 workers) were employed by the main contractors, while 61.5% (150 workers) were employed by subcontractors.

It was found that the average age of the workers was 31 years, with 25% of the sample being younger than 23 years, and 50% younger than 29 years. That highlights the relatively youth of the population working in the industry.

Most of the workers had a good deal of experience working in the construction industry (for example 60% of the sample has worked in the industry for an average of 11 years). However, when considering the present job, 25% of operatives reported having worked for less than one year and 50% having worked less than two years in their present job. This finding also highlights the relatively lack of experience of the sample in terms of their job position.

It was also found that 47% of the sample were unionized, while the majority of the sample reported not being linked to any union organization.

Safety Training

It appeared that very little time was dedicated to safety training across all sites. In 50% of the cases this training was incorporated into their safety induction courses, which ranged between 10 minutes and 1.5 hours. 39% of operatives said that they had not received any safety training from the main contractor. Another 11% of the sample reported they had received more extensive safety training than induction training (e.g., longer than one day). As represented in figure 11 below, safety training in site can be lacking effectiveness either because it is not provided or because it is rather general and short and incorporated into the induction training at commencement of work.

figure 11
Figure 11

When operatives were questioned about training received through their subcontractor companies, almost 67% replied that they had received no safety training, while 22% of the sample received limited training of between one hour and a day (see figure 12). As with safety training provided by main contractors, 11% of operatives received more extensive training that lasted one day or longer. Again, it is evident here that the majority of subcontractors are rather negligent in providing safety training.

figure 12
Figure 12

Experience working in high-risk situations and perception of risk

Workers in the sample reported a relatively high level of experience working on scaffolds (around 90% worked on scaffolds sometimes or often) and using ladders (98% used ladders sometimes or regularly). In relation to roofs, 50% of the sample reported working on them sometimes or regularly.

In general, all situations regarding working on scaffolds, using ladders and working on roofs (see methodology for more detail about these situations) were perceived as of high-risk. The operatives perceived working on fragile roofs and using defective ladders as being the most risky of the nine situations presented. Using short ladders for accessing upper levels was the situation that was perceived as the least risky of all nine situations. However, even this one was evaluated as being of medium risk. Three questions were asked about these nine situations -how risky the situation was, how frequently it would be found in the construction industry in general, and how frequently it would be found on the site. Figure 13 shows the average perceived risk and the perceived frequencies of these risks in construction and on site.

figure 13
Figure 13: Perceived level of risk and Frequencies of risky situations for the nine situations of the research, in a scale from null/no risky (1) to very frequent/highly risky (3)

Even though the nine situations were generally perceived as high risk, the reported frequency of these situations actually occurring in the construction sector, as well as in site, was quite low. Those situations occurring more frequently were
  • Scaffolds not totally boarded,
  • Roofs without edge protection,
  • Climbing up and down scaffolds in an unsafe way,
  • Working on roofs with bad weather.
Consistently, the frequency of these risky situations was rated lower on the present site than in construction in general.

An interesting finding concerned the perception of risk by 3-5% of operatives in each site. Those workers reported a low perception of risk to the following situations:
  • Working on fragile roofs without crawling boards,
  • Working on roofs without edge protection,
  • Working on scaffolds with missing handrails,
  • Accessing scaffolds by climbing them up and down,
  • Using ladders not tied or secured
  • Using ladders too short for the landing place
The findings on risk perception for these critical high-risk situations outline that the majority of operatives do not have a misperception of the risks associated to these situations. However, there is a small percentage of workers that do misperceive them and so could be exposing themselves to risks due to this misperception.

Preferred behavior to handle high-risk situations

When operatives were asked how they would behave in relation to those situations, their answers indicate that their preferred behavior depends more on the actual situation than the perceived level of risk. In six out of the nine situations, operatives were more likely to report the situation to site officer, site manager or specific trades as scaffolders. These situations were:
  • using defective ladders (61% would report),
  • working on scaffolds not totally boarded (54%),
  • working on scaffolds with missing handrails (58%),
  • climbing up or down a scaffold (55%),
  • using ladders too short for the landing place (46%),
  • working on fragile roofs without crawling boards (46%).
In the situation of working on a roof in bad weather, 52% of operatives were more likely to stop working as preferred behavioral option.

In the situation when operatives find ladders not tied or secured, they would either report it (39%), or they would fix it by themselves (37%), In the situation when operatives has to work on roofs without edge protection, 36% reported that they would stop working while 16% reported that they would continue to work anyway.

Figure 14 gives a graphic representation of the percentage of operatives that reported any of four possible behaviors as their probable pattern of action if facing the situations presented in our survey.

In general, we can conclude that operatives appear to have an accurate perception of risk in relation to the target situations highlighted in our research. The preferred way of dealing with risky situations is to report them. However in the case of those working on roofs their first reaction is to stop working.

However, a minority of operatives reported that they would continue working in those risk situations. The responses varied from 10% in those situations where scaffolds were not totally boarded or where handrails were missing, to 22% that will continue work on roofs in bad weather and 28% that will continue work using ladders too short for the task carried out.

figure 14
Figure 14: Preferred behavior in the face of danger reported by workers

Safety attitudes

With regard to attitudinal aspects, five variables were selected to check different attitudes to safety. Three of the items were presented in such a way that agreement with them would represent a positive attitude toward safety and/or safety related aspects, while the other two were presented in a way that agreement would represent a positive attitude toward risk and/or disregard for safety.

In order to establish whether there was a natural grouping of these items in the way they were responded to, a factor analysis was performed. Two factors were identified. The items of positive attitude towards safety loaded in the first group, while the items of positive attitude towards risk loaded in the second. Accordingly, the factors were titled as so. Table 16 describes the attitude items grouped in their factors.

Factor 1 of attitudes
  • PPE is useful in a hazardous situation
  • It is everybody's duty to ensure safety in what they do
  • Safety would improve considerably if unsafe behavior was penalized
  • Factor 2 of attitudes
  • I find working with a certain amount of risk exciting
  • I can do my job perfectly without so many safety rules
  • Table 16: Factors and items measuring safety attitudes.

    In general, there was a good attitude towards safety on all sites. Sites 7 and 17 showed a slightly more positive attitude in comparison with the other sites. On the other hand, operatives appear to have a relatively negative attitude toward risk taking. However, operatives on site 14 appear slightly more prone to risk taking than others do.

    Figure 15 below represents the site means in both factors, one against the other. Original mean values have been transformed to graphically display positive and negative directions accordingly to the disagreement-agreement scale used in the research. Overall it is expected that sites with better attitudes towards safety will show more positive rankings (agreements) in this factor and more negative ones (disagreements) in taking risks.

    figure 15
    Figure 15

    When looking at the attitudes across sites it can be observed that workers tend to agree with the positive items reflecting positive attitudes towards safety. However, they show rather ambivalent opinions when questioned about attitudes towards taking risks. Distributions for this factor are close to a neutral point than to the negative pole expected.

    Safety Climate

    Safety Climate concerns the perception of the organization and situation with respect to safety. Fifteen variables were selected to check the perception that operatives have about their job context, especially those aspects related to safety. Some of the items were selected to collect information about the management system of each site, the level of risk of the site, and other aspects that could be affecting the safety of the workplace. Table 17 below shows the climate items in this survey grouped in their empirical factors, following a factor analysis of the data.

    Factor 1 of climate: Management commitment to safety
  • Site managers regularly remind the workforce about safety standards
  • Working safely is top priority for site managers
  • Managers respect safety standards and procedures
  • Site managers are strongly committed to follow all safety standards
  • Site managers regularly remind the workforce about safety standards
  • Site managers take the breaking of safety rules very seriously
  • All equipment and materials needed to work safely are available at all times
  • When site managers become aware of a safety problem they quickly take action
  • All equipment and materials supplied to work safely are in good conditions
  • Factor 2 of climate: Variables affecting safety in site
  • It is difficult to be aware of hazards in my workplace
  • I am so familiar with my work that sometimes I forget to take precautions
  • The demands of my work make me forget about safety
  • It is just a matter of time before I find myself involved in an accident
  • Factor 3 of climate: Level of risk of the construction sector
  • Construction sites are dangerous places
  • My job carries a considerable level of risk
  • Table 17: Factors and items measuring safety climate

    In general, operatives perceive a moderately good management commitment towards safety. It appears that management commitment is perceived higher on site 7 while on site 18 perception of management commitment to safety is somehow lower. A graphical display of the factors shows that operatives agree that managers are committed with safety; however that perception is of a middleweight. A high management commitment is agreed in relatively few sites.

    figure 16
    Figure 16: Management commitment with safety

    A second group of variables gave information on the difficulty of being aware of hazards on site and the influence of work demands and familiarity on the level of safety. In general, operatives do not perceive those variables as affecting their safety on the job. The figure below represents the site means in the scale of disagreement-agreement used in the research. The line of mean values is clearly in the disagreement area. However it can be also appreciated that, overall, values tend to a neutral point.

    figure 17
    Figure 17: Perception of sources of risk influencing safety in site

    In relation to the idea that construction sites are dangerous places, operatives tend to agree with that assumption. Figure below shows the results per site.

    figure 18
    Figure 18: Perceived level of risk in site and industry

    In conclusion, it seems that there is a relatively high perception of management commitment towards safety among the construction companies in the sample. There is also a high perception of risks in the industry, although the perception of this factor is much more variable among the eighteen sites. In relation to how a group of variables could be affecting safety on site, the perception is rather neutral across the sites, although with a tendency towards perceiving that those variables do not affect safety in a significant way.

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