How a Culture of Safety Can Neutralize Common Construction Site Threats

Look beyond corporate policy to mitigate the most life-threatening hazards on a construction site

Construction remains a pretty dangerous line of work. Decades of new safety rules, technology, and management practices have made the industry much safer, but hazards continue to impact workers and their families. Fortunately, implementing a dedicated culture of safety can mitigate many of these risks.

This effort involves cultivating attitudes and behaviors driven by a top-to-bottom commitment to everyone’s well-being. Combined with the right resources—like well-maintained personal protective equipment (PPE)—a safety culture can minimize the impacts of the most life-threatening hazards on a construction site.  

Falls, struck-by injuries, and other construction hazards hurt or kill workers at roughly the same rate they did 10 years ago

As of 2019, the US construction industry employed more than 11 million workers. That year, job sites saw more than 1,100 fatal injuries, the highest overall figure since 2011. Much of that growth was due to a rise in the number of workers, however. Over the past decade, fatality rates plateaued, staying roughly between 9 and 10 fatal injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers (FTEs).

Head injuries, for instance, remain a major construction hazard. While recent trends point to a decline in the overall number of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), rates have remained relatively high. Studies have found that construction workers are more than three times as likely as other workers to be killed by these TBIs, with falls, slips, and trips largely to blame.

Research from the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), a nonprofit offering a variety of programs to make the industry safer, points to a few key facts about the most life-threatening hazards on a construction site:

  • Almost two-thirds of fatal injuries were caused by the “focus four” hazards: falls to a lower level, struck-by injuries, electrocution, and incidents where workers were caught in or between objects.
  • The proportion of deaths caused by falls increased 25% from 2018 to 2019, while others in the focus four remained stagnant or fell. Roofs outpace ladders and scaffolds as potentially fatal construction hazards.
  • Most fatal injuries are experienced by workers who are at least 45 years old, with workers over 65 dying nearly twice as often as their counterparts.
  • A large minority of struck-by fatalities involved vehicles, whereas collapsing materials overwhelmingly caused injuries involving catching or crushing.

Construction loader

Incidents involving vehicles (like this loader) are leading contributors to construction site injuries—both deadly and not. Image source: Bob Adams via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Notably, while deaths fell in 2019, non-fatal injuries climbed significantly. So in some sense, deadly injuries haven't been eliminated but instead mitigated through better practices and equipment. And in the non-fatal category, “struck-by” injuries (along with falls, slips, and trips) lead the way.

The risk posed by construction hazards varies greatly with company size; injury rates among establishments with 11 to 49 employees were five times higher than those seen at companies employing 1,000 or more people. And a few specialties face far higher than average risks: Framing workers, poured concrete and flooring workers, and drywall and insulation laborers all had injury rates at least 30% higher than the industry overall. 

Treating safety as a value rather than a set of rules creates a “culture” that can reduce injury rates

We've written previously about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the 2010 catastrophe that left 29 people in a small Virginia town dead. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) explicitly laid the blame on the company’s corrupt safety culture in an extensive report. Investigators found that management intimidated miners, announced inspections in advance, under-trained workers, and concealed hazards from enforcement agencies.

A lack of managerial commitment or employee investment can lead to unsafe workplaces, both in egregious cases like the one above and in more subtle ways. The Health and Safety Executive (in essence, the United Kingdom’s OSHA) writes that in the absence of a sincere commitment to safety, “employees will generally assume that they are expected to put commercial interests first.” Workers may downplay injuries to avoid punishment or simply side-step rules they see as unnecessary.

In contrast, a dedicated culture of safety bridges the gap between the rules and real reductions in injuries. There’s a lot to it—some describe a safety culture as a sum of behaviors, attitudes, and skills that create a top-to-bottom commitment to safety and health. But generally speaking, companies with a strong culture of safety do something like the following:

  • Establish a vision that treats safety as a core value.
  • Educate upper management on safety and safety leadership.
  • Promote and train those who show a commitment to safety.
  • Empower and encourage workers to voice concerns without fear of retaliation.
  • Create a healthy overall culture that supports all of the above.

In short, organizations with a strong safety culture place worker well-being on equal footing with concerns like productivity, giving front-line workers every reason to act cautiously.

Safety culture is widely embraced as a way to control construction site hazards

In 2016, Dodge Data and Analytics, an intelligence firm serving the North American construction industry, examined the role of safety cultures in construction. Survey respondents included more than 250 general and specialty contractors, with a near-majority composed of companies with 10 to 99 employees. (Smaller businesses represent about 1 in 10 participants; larger ones make up the remainder.)

The research showed that an increasing number of construction firms see investments in safety culture as a win-win, making workers more willing to report construction hazards while increasing project return on investment (ROI). More than 80% had already adopted approaches such as:

  • Open-door safety reporting (expressly permitting workers to voice safety concerns to upper management)
  • Including front-line employees in safety planning and policy development processes
  • Developing site-specific safety and health plans

Two other things, say contractors, are increasingly important: job-site workers’ involvement in safety and strong “safety leadership” abilities among front-line supervisors. When asked about the essential aspects of a “world-class safety program,” these two items (along with things like regular meetings, clear communication, and ongoing access to training) top the list. Roughly 90% of those surveyed report that supervisors on at least some jobs are required to have basic safety training and safety leadership training.

The survey points to the importance of safety as a value rather than just a set of practices. Companies with a greater commitment to it are more likely to rank concern for workers as a reason for adopting these practices—more often than concerns about productivity or potential liability.

Safety culture confronts the construction hazards hidden in near-miss incidents

Many companies are well on their way to creating solid cultures of safety that reduce the impact of construction hazards. There are areas for improvement, however. The Dodge report suggests that many more organizations could embrace measurable safety goals, for instance, or conduct pre-work safety analyses.

But perhaps the most significant step is developing programs for near-miss investigations. Construction sites are full of events that, under slightly different circumstances, cause serious accidents, and a culture of safety recognizes that these near-misses are almost as informative as real injuries. Each points to a series of organizational failures that can be diagnosed and remediated before they cause harm down the road.

Rescuers saving a construction worker from a trench collapse

Firefighters in Palm Beach County, Florida, extract a construction worker from a trench collapse. Accidents like these likely involve a series of failures: Poor planning or training, workers’ failure to report concerns, and so on. Image source: Capt. Mark V. Carr via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.5)

Instead of dwelling solely on accidents, firms can prevent injuries with careful attention to the overlooked construction hazards that near-miss investigations uncover. Factors worth considering include:

  • Failure to wear or maintain personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Poor understanding of safety laws and procedures or inadequate training
  • Failure to follow legal guidelines or policies
  • Unexpected but preventable developments (e.g., a slip occurs due to leaking oil from machinery)
  • Cultural problems, like horseplay or throwing and catching objects on the job
  • Poor equipment maintenance
  • Poor hazard communication

When near misses pile up, accidents aren’t far away. Attending to each incident (and looking for patterns) can help employees develop a greater awareness of the most life-threatening hazards on a construction site. Supervisors, meanwhile, can get a better idea of where to focus their efforts in training, mentoring, and leadership.

Maintaining and discussing PPE is an essential part of a construction site safety culture

Nearly 1 in 4 construction firms view enforcing PPE use as the single most effective safety practice. (Providing functional PPE, meanwhile, is ranked first about half as often.) More than 90% of companies enforce PPE use, and 87% say they provide functional PPE.

Only 73%, however, report encouraging inspections of PPE before use—an oversight that, in some cases, may lead to non-compliance. OSHA requires workers to be provided with reliable PPE, meaning items that deliver their original level of protection. Thus, inspections are an essential part of assuring that reliability when equipment is reused rather than replaced.

There are other good reasons to inspect PPE: When it comes to hard hats, for instance, defects that look superficial may point to severe problems. A hairline crack or peeling paint on a shell may indicate that the helmet won’t provide the same level of protection during a fall or struck-by injury. In the case of hard hats, the list of inspection-worthy flaws is long and includes items like cracks, sun damage, worn suspensions, and an old date of manufacture.

Companies with strong safety cultures make these inspections routine—say, part of a morning meeting—and keep a steady supply of replacements handy. Firms aiming to double down on vigilance and encourage the use of PPE can also:

  • Involve workers in PPE selection, asking about factors like comfort and appeal
  • Choose equipment that’s easy to inspect and maintain
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of PPE use in specific contexts

In short, good communication, daily inspections, and occasional cleanings can make a big difference in outcomes—and cultivate stronger attitudes toward safety.

An overall culture of safety is key

While the rate of non-fatal injuries has risen recently, many construction hazards are far less common than they were decades ago. And the widespread adoption of safety culture principles—open communication, dedicated leadership, and a sincere interest in worker well-being—suggests that more improvements are on the horizon.

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