April 9, 2018 / Scott Schneider

Safety Is a Human Activity

Almost 50 years ago when OSHA was created, safety was a rules-based activity. OSHA set minimum standards and cited companies that didn’t meet them. Safety directors were hired to make sure that workplaces met those standards, and safety was determined by measuring whether those standards were met. OSHA standards and their enforcement made a huge difference, yet workers continued to get injured and killed—almost 5,000 workplace fatalities were recorded in 2016.

Many companies have pushed to do better, to go beyond compliance with minimal rules. They have a vision and goal to make sure no workers are killed or severely injured in their workplaces. In striving to achieve that vision, they have come to understand that safety has to be more than just setting and following rules. Safety is a human activity engaged in by people who are not

perfect and make mistakes. The goal is to make sure those mistakes are not fatal or serious and can be checked by backup measures and redundancies. To have a safe work site, we, in essence, have to become anthropologists, studying how people interact and how we can encourage them to interact in a positive manner, which will result in safety. This area of safety is often referred to as “safety culture” (and culture is clearly something that anthropologists study).

Last year, the AIHA Construction Committee and the AIHA Management Committee joined forces to develop a guide for companies that wanted to improve the safety “climate” on their work sites—in other words, create an atmosphere (hence the “climate” moniker) in which their workers feel comfortable raising safety issues with the knowledge that they will be listened to and actions will be taken to address the problems. This guide, “How to Improve the Safety Climate on Your Construction Site” (PDF), was posted on the AIHA website last May. It presents steps employers can take to improve safety climate on their sites and contains eight sections:

• Worker Participation

• The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work

• Close-call Reporting and Analysis

• Safety Leadership by Supervisors

• Subcontractor Prequalification and Oversight

• Integrating Safety as a Value

• Owner Involvement

• Measuring Safety Climate

The primary goal of this guide is to help employers build trust between workers and management, so when managers say “Safety is really important to our company” workers will actually believe them. Safety directors and managers will no longer have to be “safety cops” walking around the jobsite telling people to put on their PPE. Trying to regulate worker behavior is a losing proposition. Safety directors and even supervisors cannot watch everyone all the time. The only alternative is to empower workers to stop work if there is a dangerous situation and fix it before someone gets hurt.

The Construction and Management Committees hope this guide is helpful to those of you who truly are striving for a safe workplace.

Scott Schneider

Scott Schneider, CIH, FAIHA, recently retired as director of Occupational Safety and Health for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America.


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