Is Safety the First Budget Cut?

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Tuesday, July 21st, 2015
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The construction world ebbs and flows with the economy, changes in government, the weather and a number of other factors. We all know that it’s part of the industry. The question is, does the fickle nature of the construction industry and the way companies handle it have an effect on safety?

If we look at a few broad examples, we can start to see a common theme based around a concept that all construction managers should be familiar with.

The Boom Times

We all love this time – money is flowing, jobs are good and the feeling is upbeat. Unfortunately this also brings with it greed. Now I’m all for making money, but every company must know its capabilities and limitations. Greed makes companies think they can handle five jobs instead of the normal three, so things get pushed and stretched and twisted to fit. Because no one sees a boom time coming, it’s not pre-planned, so there is no capacity for the rapid expansion.

Naturally, the first thing to suffer is safety. I’m not saying people stop working safely, but they start working differently. Once you exceed capacity, the system is under pressure and people make different decisions. You start to hear things like, “I had to get it done” or “just this one time, I was in a hurry” or “the bosses are putting pressure on me to get this done.” This kind of talk is a dangerous sign for safety.

The Down Times

We have all been through this…layoffs, no new jobs and shrinking pay packets. Unfortunately, this brings with it the flip side of greed: survival. This is an instinctual, almost primal, feeling; we need to do whatever we have to in order to make the company survive until the next boom.

This survival instinct makes a company think it can handle two jobs with only enough staff for one, which actually sounds like the same problem as greed. People start multi-tasking, the supervisor has a Cert IV in WHS, so he feels he can look after safety and manage two work fronts. He doesn’t complain because the job scene is bad and he has a mortgage. He works hard but simply doesn’t have the experience he needs to manage safety properly and he is already stretched over two work fronts. Again, this is a dangerous sign for safety.

The Transition Times

Then there are the other times when the company is either growing quickly to play a larger role in the coming boom or contracting quickly to maintain viability. In these times, things are in a constant state of flux and there is no certainty or predictability. Without solid structure and well defined processes, again, safety starts to suffer. The capacity of the system is changing, usually quite rapidly and rarely in a manner that is well-planned. Yet another dangerous sign for safety.

I can hear you saying, “well that’s all the time then.”

That’s right – there is always an underlying concern and it’s one of capacity versus capability. The two are always linked, particularly in terms of safety. It’s no good increasing your capacity if you don’t have the capability to handle it, and on the flip side, why have the capability if you don’t have the capacity? It’s a balancing act that every construction company must address carefully on a constant basis. It’s dangerous for safety because both the capacity and capability part of the equation are directly related to safety outcomes. Capacity is the first thing cut in the down times and the last thing increased in the boom times. Capability comes from training and knowledge, which those in construction don’t always have time for.

There is an old saying: ‘Proper planning prevents poor performance’ and this is never more true than in construction safety. If your capacity meets your capability, then safety has the best chance of success. If they are out of balance, then you have potential for disaster.

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