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“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” ~ Albert Einstein.

Following a construction safety incident, it is not uncommon to examine the event and conclude that the cause of the incident was simple and preventable. Countless prior investigations have confirmed that roughly 90 percent of construction-related accidents were preventable, as opposed to an act of nature.

This reality is disconcerting given the construction industry’s goal of incident-free work areas, and the amount of time and money spent on evaluating risks and identifying safety gaps to achieve this outcome. It is also problematic given that employers have a legal obligation to identify and control risks to worker safety and may face consequences when a “preventable” incident occurs. This raises the question of how, despite robust risk assessment and safety programming, safety gaps and preventable incidents continue to occur, and what employers can do to better protect their workers from harm and their companies from legal exposure.

One key to objectively evaluating the gaps in a safety program requires understanding the role of project “complexity” as a cause of process safety failure and workplace accidents. A construction site is not static. To the contrary, construction sites are dynamic and unique, because the site changes dramatically on a day-to-day (or even an hour-to-hour) basis. The number of workers and types of trades on a site fluctuate, work operations and sequences evolve, the weather changes and the site conditions change as a structure goes up. Cost and schedule pressures may impact work decisions as all of these conditions unfold at the same time. This constantly changing environment creates a situation where entirely new risks or safety gaps may emerge after the initial site risk assessment and safety program are developed. When faced with increased project complexity over time, an employer may be operating in a very different job environment than originally conceived.

For example, imagine a job is bid based on specifications for straightforward work. The risks of the work are assessed and a program is installed to control those risks. Later, an environmental issue arises adjacent to the site. Numerous agencies and regulators begin to access the site to perform inspections and impose site-specific protocols, resulting in changed operations, and increased costs and delays to the contractor that is attempting to control evolving risks. Unbeknown to the employer, on one particular occasion, an employee is confused and takes a work directive from a regulator to perform an activity, such as operating a piece of equipment without training, and an incident occurs. The employer now faces an OSHA investigation and legal claims. In this case, while the immediate cause of the incident may be “simple” (operating equipment without proper training), the real, underlying cause that led to the failure was more complex.

One way for employers to objectively evaluate safety gaps in the face of increasing complexity is to perform scheduled site safety reviews and audits with personnel who are not directly involved with the project. This “fresh eyes” approach increases the likelihood that the program will be reviewed “as it really is” at that point in time, as opposed to how project staff “thinks it is.” Project participants may not always be able to objectively see incremental changes in site conditions resulting from complexity. Gaps in the safety program that may not be clear to project personnel may be readily apparent to third-party auditors. This approach provides a wider risk assessment for which controls can then be implemented. And, if an incident occurs, the performance of an audit by non-project personnel and responsive remedial action could help demonstrate that the failure was not due to an inadequate program, and thereby would protect the company from potential legal exposure.

Along those lines, having scheduled program reviews by competent persons from other geographical markets may result in greater objectivity. Construction markets differ, and what may be standard or best practice in one location may be ahead of the curve in another. Seeking different viewpoints and control strategies mitigates the “it’s just the way we do it here” justification for decisions. And, including the trades in risk assessments also would increase objectivity in identifying safety gaps. The people who actually perform the work that exposes them to risk may see gaps the home office safety staff does not see. This two-way communication and active involvement of all participant layers encourages a culture of reporting potential safety gaps.

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