Examining forepersons’ safety leadership and other indicators of safety climate

2017 Nachemson lecture focuses on leading indicators of safety climate developed for construction jobsites

Published: February 15, 2018

Back in 2012, when Dr. Linda Goldenhar looked around for research on safety climate and safety culture, she and her colleagues were surprised to find that these concepts had not been widely researched for use in the construction sector.

In other high-hazard industries such as aviation and nuclear energy, it had long been recognized that efforts to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic events needed to go beyond engineering solutions, she noted. The safety values embraced and practised at the workplace were crucial to such efforts.

That was why Goldenhar and her colleagues at CPWR—The Center for Construction Research and Training based in Silver Spring, Md., set out to learn what the indicators of safety culture and safety climate are in the construction industry. They invited construction stakeholders to a workshop to help them in their quest.

At the workshop, participants defined safety culture as the safety-related beliefs, attitudes and values espoused by an organization, and safety climate as employees’ perceptions of the consistency between what their company espouses and what is actually practised on the jobsite. Participants also agreed that, compared to safety culture, a positive safety climate is more likely to result in positive change. So that was where Goldenhar’s team focused its efforts.

Construction, as you can imagine, is more complicated than other industries. That’s because multiple safety climates come together on any one jobsite. And each is influenced by local conditions, the project owner and the project manager, said Goldenhar, CPWR’s director of research and evaluation, speaking at the 2017 Alf Nachemson Memorial Lecture.

The lecture, hosted annually by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), took place last November in Toronto. A slidecast of Goldenhar’s lecture, as well as other past Nachemson slidecasts, can be viewed on IWH’s Nachemson web page.

In addition to the definitions, workshop participants agreed on what they believed are the eight leading indicators of safety climate on construction worksites (see sidebar). Does management demonstrate a commitment to safety? Is everyone at a jobsite held accountable for safety? Are workers involved in safety-related planning and encouraged to discuss potential hazards? Do supervisors have the skills to lead by example and show how to create and maintain positive safety climate at the jobsite?

The team developed a practical workbook that includes individual worksheets for each indicator, with descriptions and activities to help workplace parties assess the maturity of their organization’s safety climate.

For example, with respect to demonstrating management commitment, users are asked to reflect on whether managers frequently come to the jobsite and seek out interactions with employees. Do they conduct safety audits only when someone is injured, or do they actively participate in audits and use the results in their own performance evaluations? In addition to the descriptions, each worksheet contains ideas for improvement that workplaces can implement in the short, medium or long term.

Another tool Goldenhar described at the lecture was one aimed at improving supervisors’ safety leadership, one of the eight leading indicators. With funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Goldenhar and her team developed a training module for supervisors.

The 2.5-hour training module, called Foundations for Safety Leadership (FSL), is designed to give construction forepersons and lead workers the critical skills they need to become effective safety leaders (see sidebar). The FSL training program defines a safety leader as someone who has the courage to demonstrate that s/he values safety by working and communicating with team members to identify and limit hazardous situations even in the presence of other job pressures such as scheduling and costs, said Goldenhar.

This training program was recently integrated, as an elective module, into the U.S.’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration 30-hour training that many companies and unions require their new forepersons to complete. It can also be taught as a freestanding course. All materials, including the training and leading indicators workbooks, can be downloaded free of charge from CPWR’s website.