According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 969 construction workers suffered fatal injuries while on the job in 2008, almost one-fifth of all U.S. workplace fatalities that year. Another 314,000 workers suffered non-fatal injuries. When four construction workers die every weekday, it is clear that the industry needs to improve its safety practices. Too often, however, companies take measures that treat the symptoms of the problem but not the problem itself.
Suppose a particular company is having frequent job site injuries. Management decides that workers need additional training on safe work practices. After the training, their loss experience improves, causing management to shift its attention elsewhere. Gradually, though, the losses begin to mount again. This time, management decides to invest in better tools. Loss frequency declines again, and again management focuses on other things, but eventually the injury rate climbs back up.
Management is baffled, so they decide that the problem is sloppy, inattentive work, and they lay down the law. Managers will make unannounced spot checks on job sites and discipline employees caught performing work unsafely. This puts the fear of God in the workforce, but it produces results: Injury rates dip again, though a few skilled workers pay for transgressions with their jobs. Satisfied that a firm hand has fixed the problem, management moves on. Sure enough, the injury rate bumps back up.
Managers are livid. “Maybe, they snarl, we should do away with your bonuses so we can pay for the higher Workers Compensation bills we’re getting.” Management instituted these bonuses to encourage workers to increase profits by doing more jobs in less time and spending less on each individual job. Now the workers are angry because they’ve busted their tails to finish as many jobs as possible but have failed to satisfy management. Management is angry because training, equipment, and threats did not solve the problem. What none of them see is that the bonuses are the problem.
The bonuses give workers a financial incentive to work as quickly as possible. If they finish early and move onto the next job, they get nice checks every quarter. However, speed, power tools, ladders, and a group of human beings are often not a combination conducive to safe work. When workers rush, they cut corners, lose focus on the task at hand, and get careless. The guy working on the roof who will get an extra $1,000 in the fall if the company finishes two jobs in July will knock himself out (sometimes literally) to finish the roof on Wednesday instead of Friday. This can lead to him hammering his fingers instead of the roofing nails. Management can buy him a nicer hammer and give him weeks of safety training, but if that extra $1,000 will cover the college tuition bill, none of those things will stop him from rushing through a job.
When confronted with risk management problems, construction firms need to look beyond the symptoms — banged up hands, sprained ankles — and look for the underlying cause driving the behavior that leads to these injuries. When they treat the problem (perhaps by creating new financial incentives for loss prevention), they will see lasting improvement.