Construction Safety Compliance & Management: Getting Ahead of Hazards

Proactive job-site safety and compliance requires careful planning, strong leadership, and worker buy-in

Despite significant advances in safety equipment and training, construction sites still rank among the most dangerous work environments. A thorough and proactive approach to safety compliance is key to avoiding the suffering, costs, and disruption of accidents and injuries — while enhancing productivity, industry reputation, and employee retention.

The statistics are sobering: More than 21% of all US worker deaths are construction-related, according to a 2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report — despite construction workers only comprising about 4% of the labor force.

Beyond the human toll, accidents and injuries are expensive: American companies pay more than $1 billion per week in workers’ compensation for disabling and non-fatal injuries. And the indirect costs of injuries stretch 2.7x higher, including property damage, lost productivity due to work stoppages and investigations, and training and other expenses associated with replacing injured workers, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

Traditionally, construction safety management is often reactive. Major concerns are addressed after an injury occurs, a new standard or regulation is published, or an external inspection uncovers an issue.

But finding and fixing job-site hazards before they impact workplace safety and health is significantly more effective. In a study of small employers, an OSHA report states that implementing a safety compliance management program dropped the number of workers’ compensation claims by 52% and the cost of claims by 80%.

Let’s examine the best practices for building a proactive framework for safety — leveraging worker participation, wise investments, and smart strategies to establish a program that works for construction firms.

Construction safety management: Why it matters

Understanding OSHA standards, job-site risks, and the best ways to prevent accidents is a top priority for most construction businesses. But knowledge isn’t the same as compliance.

Several changing construction industry conditions have increased the importance of proactive safety compliance management. For example, there was a 7% increase in preventable deaths amidst the pandemic — the highest of any industry. And steep penalties await construction companies that don’t implement and enforce OSHA safety standards.

Here are some other evolving industry factors to consider:

  • As the construction workforce becomes more diverse, teams are increasingly comprised of people from various backgrounds and cultures speaking different languages, making communication challenging. For example, while the overall number of construction-related fatalities decreased by more than 8% between 2019 and 2020, the number of deaths among Hispanic/Latino workers increased by nearly 2%.
  • Amidst the ongoing labor shortage, contractors are expected to comprise nearly half the workforce within the next decade. Unfortunately, temporary workers bring varying degrees of safety knowledge, training, and experience that make it harder to manage workplace safety. A Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) study found that workers with less than a year’s experience filed nearly half of construction workers’ compensation claims.
  • New construction materials, equipment, and techniques require ever-evolving safety-compliance measures.
  • An aging workforce increases the risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. And BLS data shows that worker age in the construction industry is rising faster than all US industries combined. The average construction worker age is 42.5, and 40% of construction workers are 45-60.

Construction supervisor and worker

5 best practices for achieving construction safety compliance

Safety compliance management in construction isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Job sites may be large or small. Some exist for short durations; others stretch over years. Some projects experience frequently changing conditions, and others rarely change.

Nevertheless, all sites require practices tailored to the needs of each construction company and work environment. And there are some common threads found in the most effective programs: emphasizing top-level ownership, worker participation, a proactive approach to identifying and correcting workplace hazards, and a robust evaluation method for driving continuous improvement.

Here are 5 best practices to guide the effort:

1. Create safety compliance policies and enforce them consistently.

It’s hard to fault employees for making mistakes when they don’t understand what’s expected of them. Creating an effective safety policy and enforcement program — and clearly communicating it to staff — is vital to successful safety compliance management.

  • Provide clear expectations. At a minimum, a safety program must follow legal requirements established by local, state, and federal regulations. Developing a site-specific safety plan is also important for setting worker duties and routines like safety check-ins and equipment inspections.
  • Hold workers accountable with a consistent enforcement program. Employees may be afraid to raise concerns if a firm only addresses safety through a discipline-based model. The most effective programs reserve disciplinary measures for situations where an employee is uncooperative or becomes an impediment to progress. For instance, first offenses or minor infractions may only earn verbal warnings and instruction, while severe or repeated disregard for safety leads to tougher consequences.
  • Be careful that a program doesn’t punish workers who identify hazards, concerns, or injuries. Since workers typically encounter potential issues first, encouraging open communication is crucial. Focus disciplinary programs on behaviors like not wearing required PPE instead of outcomes like injuries, so workers know they can voice concerns and ask questions without fear of reprisal. While retaliation against workers for raising safety and health concerns is illegal (as specified by Section 11(c) of the OSHA Act of 1970), establishing a process for anonymously reporting issues can help alleviate hesitation and emphasize a commitment to safety.
  • Monitor onsite behavior. Assigning a frontline person or group to lead the safety program effort is invaluable — making plans, coordinating activities, and tracking progress.
  • Recognize positive behavior that meets or exceeds safety and health goals, such as reporting close calls, attending training, and conducting inspections.
  • Create an ongoing process for identifying and assessing emerging hazards. Failure to recognize job-site hazards is a root cause of construction injuries and incidents. Despite initial assessments, any changes in project timelines, new sequences of events, or the fast pace of many projects can trigger unanticipated hazards. Conducting frequent site inspections; immediately investigating close calls; and regularly asking the team to identify activities, pieces of equipment, and other materials that concern them are key to finding and fixing safety shortcomings.

Construction hard hat and other PPE

2. Lead by example.

Safety compliance starts at the top. The voice, buy-in, and actions of your firm’s management team are essential to creating a workplace culture that prioritizes safety and health.

When executives make it clear that worker safety matters as much as productivity, profitability, quality, and customer satisfaction, employees feel empowered to make smart decisions on the job. Creating a clear, written policy signed by top management helps communicate the company’s commitment to safety and health. But words are empty if they aren’t backed by action.

Establish realistic, measurable goals for improving safety — assigning tasks and responsibilities, setting deadlines, and determining resources needed to achieve them. Consider safety compliance in every business decision, from project bidding to vendor selection and scheduling.

Finally, make sure every manager sets the right example. Wear appropriate PPE on job sites without exception. And continue to allocate money and resources for safety training, equipment, and innovation to keep up with evolving needs.

3. Facilitate worker buy-in.

No safety and health program can be effective without meaningful staff participation. For instance, providing top-notch PPE matters little if your employees don’t wear it consistently and correctly.

Employee engagement is key to an organization’s ability to meet OSHA regulations and safeguard against risk. From full-time staff to contractors, all workers should have opportunities to help establish, operate, evaluate, and improve a safety program.

Providing a comfortable means of communication and easy access to the information and resources employees need to participate are fundamental to success. For instance, while it’s easy to pigeonhole non-compliant workers as disobedient or lazy, consider other reasons they may disregard safety rules. Is PPE uncomfortable? Does it get in the way of their work? Are there better options?

Identifying and addressing employee concerns fosters a more successful program, incorporating valuable insights into safety compliance management. Involving workers in decisions for purchasing PPE and other equipment can also go a long way toward ensuring they use it correctly.

Construction safety training

4. Offer effective training.

A good training program sets the stage for employee buy-in — closing the gap between rules on paper and in practice. Of course, it also helps employees work more safely and productively.

For instance, 84% of construction workers injured on the job were not wearing hard hats. Safety compliance relies on helping workers understand the risks of neglecting PPE and providing in-depth instruction for properly wearing, inspecting, storing, and caring for this equipment.

Training people to identify and control hazards at their job sites also increases compliance. And some OSHA standards require employers to make specific types of safety information available, including Safety Data Sheets, injury and illness data, and the results of worker exposure monitoring.

Remember that hands-on training is more effective than any video or lecture. Use actual equipment and people to demonstrate concepts, followed by having employees replicate proper procedures. There are also valuable ways of empowering workers to take ownership of safety, such as putting them in charge of demonstrating various skills during toolbox talks.

Time and attention spans are limited — so training topics should be thorough but relatively brief and relevant to the current situation. For instance, educating staff on the signs of heatstroke in the middle of January is a pretty good way to lose an audience.

Continuously evaluate training effectiveness by assessing worker knowledge and monitoring work habits. If glaring gaps emerge, a refresher or retraining may be warranted. These efforts are also wise whenever new equipment, hazards, or tasks are introduced.

5. Safety compliance programs require regular evaluation and improvement.

Once a safety compliance program is implemented, regular evaluations are necessary for continued success. At least annually, take a step back to assess what is working and what is not and whether the program is on track to achieve its goals.

  • Proactively seek feedback from managers, workers, supervisors, and other stakeholders on opportunities for improvement.
  • Consider whether changes in materials, equipment, staff, or work practices trigger a need for updates.
  • Assess whether measurable performance indicators and goals are still relevant. If not, determine how they can be updated to drive improvements.

Creating a safety compliance checklist for an audit helps ensure nothing is missed. It also provides documentation that proves appropriate precautions and regulatory adherence were observed, potentially safeguarding a company against liability.

Staying on top of new safety developments within the construction industry is also important, from innovative PPE to pending regulatory changes to hazards that triggered incidents at other job sites.

Monitor how well a program performs after any adjustments. And be sure to share and celebrate results to drive further success.

Collaboration is the key to effective safety compliance management

Construction companies have an ethical and legal responsibility to protect their employees — providing proper safety training, PPE, and other equipment and ensuring compliance. Construction safety management also makes financial sense: the National Safety Council estimates that every prevented injury saves employers $44,000, and each prevented fatality saves $1.3 million.

Creating a proactive safety compliance program can feel daunting. But following the best practices above gets workers and managers collaborating to identify and solve issues before they occur. And it builds the foundation for protecting a company's most valuable asset: its people.

Are you interested in learning more about construction site injuries and protective equipment? Check out the Hard Head Veterans blog for a look at hard hat design requirements, a  close look at hard hats and brain injury, and more.