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New approach needed for bigger return on safety programs

by correspondent  Peter Caulfield

A Vancouver construction safety expert says the industry needs to change the way it manages workplace safety if owners and contractors are to increase the return on investment (ROI) from their safety programs.

Jeffery Lyth, director of corporate health and safety for ITC Construction Group and regional safety co-ordinator with the B.C. Construction Safety Alliance, said many safety programs are ineffective in reducing work place accidents to a minimum.

“Many owners have told me, ‘This is frustrating. I’ve been doing all of the things I’m supposed to be doing, but still there are accidents. So what’s the return on having a safety program, other than keeping me out of trouble?’” he recalled.

Lyth said one of the reasons why the construction industry has plateaued on the ROI from safety programs is that many companies regard them as onerous nuisances that are mandated by an outside agency, which in B.C. is WorkSafeBC.

“When you look at safety that way, naturally you’ll want to do the bare minimum, to obey the letter of the law, rather than the spirit,” he said.

Lyth said the construction industry needs to re-think the way it does safety training and education.

“Many construction companies think of safety as peripheral to their core business, but in fact it’s central,” he said.

“To excel at workplace safety, they need to focus on all the little details that are often overlooked, but when done right, add up to a more efficient operation. They need to make safety part of how they do business.”

Nathan Stone, managing partner of Odessa Ventures Inc., a Chilliwack-based builder-developer and general contractor, and president of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of the Fraser Valley, said he has made safety one of his company’s business tools.

“We don’t put safety into a separate container. It’s part of the way we do business,” he said.

“For example, at our weekly safety meetings, we encourage our workers to tell us about any safety-related concerns they have. Those discussions usually segue into talking about other, business-related aspects of the job.”

Another example is jobsite tidiness.

Keeping a jobsite clean and tidy is a WorkSafeBC requirement, but it’s also a good marketing tool to impress customers.

“Customers realize that if you pay close attention to your work site, you’ll also pay close attention to all other details of a project and will do a better job for them than another company that isn’t as neat and tidy,” Stone said.

Stone added that he’s not a safety zealot.

“I just want to create a corporate culture of excellence,” he said.

“And, I know that if I make safety a part of the company culture, my staff will automatically pass that on to the trades people who work for us.”

Stone said Odessa’s safety program has paid off for the company.

“We’ve had a formal safety program for a couple of years,” he said.

“The cost of putting it together was minimal – a few thousand dollars. Its main value is that it focuses everybody’s attention on the details of what happens in the workplace and how focussing on those details makes for a better business.”

Michael McKenna, executive director of the BCCSA, said an effective safety program needs buy-in from owners, workers and their supervisors.

“It has to start at the top,” he said.

“When owners see the benefits of a safety program and make it part of the way they do business, they pass that on to foremen and the workers, who answer to them because workers listen to their peers.”

Lyth said that to achieve better compliance, many of the workers, who are promoted to foremen, need more training in the communication skills they need for the position.

“The industry needs to help workers to transition upward and become effective leaders as foremen, by teaching them the skills of situational leadership, motivation and communication,” he said.

Lyth said today’s workforce is different.

“Modern-day workers need to be led and managed in ways that are consistent with their high expectations and their high uncertainty about the future,” he said.

“Their foreman – their direct supervisor – needs to be a clear and credible leader, who makes the workers feel comfortable in their jobs. To do that, supervisors need to have great interpersonal skills.”

Lyth said that how construction workers are led determines how they feel about themselves, their employer and their co-workers.

“Good leadership at the foreman level can transform your business,” he said.

Source: Journal of Commerce

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