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The ongoing construction labor shortage is taking a toll on the industry—and the pandemic has made things worse. 

In Q4 2021, 52% of contractors rated the labor shortage as the pandemic’s second-worst effect. A shrinking workforce negatively impacts project capacity and time to completion. But there’s another concern to consider: workplace safety. 

New hires can’t rely on experience to safely operate equipment and machinery, so they need explicit safety training. However, with fewer people on site overall, workers may feel pressure to prioritize speed over safety. 

Your workforce needs to make safety a priority every day, no matter the size of each crew.

#1: FOCUS ON COMMUNICATION

Construction sites have several different types of workers—and between masons, electricians, engineers and carpenters, safety practices vary. It’s the foreperson’s job to make sure everyone’s following the same standardized safety procedures. 

Forepersons also need to create a healthy environment for asking questions. In construction culture, there's often a stigma against asking questions, which is a problem for new workers. When people don’t ask questions, they’re more likely to operate using poor safety practices, which can cause injury or death. But when those in charge help workers feel comfortable speaking up, they can take steps toward creating a safer workforce. 

#2: STRENGTHEN YOUR ORIENTATION PROCESS

It’s easy to assume that new workers know about safety. But here’s the thing: whether they tell you or not, many employees have limited construction experience. The safest practice is to avoid making assumptions. 

During new-hire orientation, ask questions such as:

  • Who’s worked on a construction site before?
  • Who’s worked a forklift before?
  • Who knows about fall safety procedures?

After asking, test everyone’s knowledge. For example, a worker might have forklift experience, but do you know how often they’ve used one? Using a forklift once doesn’t mean they’re an expert—and assuming they are can lead to unsafe practices. You shouldn’t rely on the experience listed in a resume. Instead, get visual proof that your workers can safely operate each piece of equipment. That means confirming that they’ve both received proper training and can demonstrate practical usage.

#3: DON’T TOLERATE SHORTCUTS

When there’s a smaller crew on site, people have to do a larger share of the work—and they have less time to complete each task. Workers often choose to cut corners to stay on schedule. For example, in an effort to save time, it could be tempting for a worker to roll a compressed gas cylinder by hand rather than walking across the site to get a cart.

Here’s the problem: cutting corners like this can cause major safety hazards. Rolling a heavy cylinder by hand could cause an explosion—and might even create a sitewide domino effect. That puts everyone at risk. 

To avoid dangerous outcomes, foremen need to make corrections on the spot. Instead of yelling, focus on educating. A foreperson could remind their worker that the gas cylinder is pressurized, and it can explode if the valve comes off. This way, the worker knows it’s not worth risking an explosion—it’s better just to find a cart. 

#4: EDUCATE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

When it comes to safety, knowledge is power: safety education is one of the best defenses against workplace hazards. 

Learning about safety won’t happen overnight, though—it takes time and repetition to make an impact. Brief toolbox talks are a tried-and-true way to drill safety knowledge into the minds of your crews. These talks typically take place every day or week, depending on your crews’ needs.

You might not think you have the time for toolbox talks, but your crews’ safety should come before everything else. Remember: your crew members are human, and it’s unsustainable to overwork them, even in a labor shortage. Before each shift, your workers should feel comfortable pausing to think about the impact of workplace hazards. 

Here are a few safety topics you can discuss with your crews:

  • How to move compressed gas cylinders
  • Forklift safety procedures
  • Fall protection

In addition to toolbox talks, your workers might also need a reality check to reinforce the importance of workplace safety. When educating crew members, remember to emphasize how safety impacts:

  • Individuals. Poor safety practices can cause injuries or death, directly affecting people’s families, livelihood and stability at home.
  • Crews. Injuries and fatalities cause emotional damage and hurt productivity. 
  • The company. Injuries and fatalities delay project completion, which will frustrate clients.
#5: HIRE SPECIALTY CONTRACTORS WITH SAFETY IN MIND

When tasks require expert knowledge, forepersons often work with specialty contractors. But they shouldn’t just check each contractor’s skillset before hiring—their safety record matters, too.

When looking for specialty contractors, your management should ask each candidate:

  • What’s your experience modification rating?
  • What is your Days Away Restricted or Transfer (DART) rating?
  • What does your current safety program look like?

Even with their highly specialized knowledge and training, specialty contractors may still cut corners to meet project demands. And if they have a history of taking shortcuts, they might do the same on your site, putting themselves and their crew mates at risk. 

On the other hand, safety-minded specialty contractors can be a good influence on your crews. Every worker needs a role model, and when specialty contractors put safety first, your workers might be inspired to follow their lead. 

USE EVERY TOOL AVAILABLE TO BUILD A CULTURE OF SAFETY

Creating a safe workplace requires all hands on deck—and you’ll need every tool available to make it happen. A full suite of educational materials, communication tools, and structured trainings can help keep safety top of mind. With smaller workforces, it might also be worth investing in tech tools that can efficiently educate your crews. 

The right approach can help your company build a culture of safety that instills confidence in your workers. When your crews feel like safety is a priority, they’ll stick with your company and help you weather the labor shortage.

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