The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy, 2012-2022 identified the construction industry as a priority industry for work health and safety.

While much is known about work-related injuries and illnesses in construction from the national workers’ compensation dataset (NDS), less is known about work health and safety attitudes and perceptions. Yet it is attitudes and perceptions that have the greatest influence when it comes to improving work health and safety.

In February, Work Health and Safety released a report titled Perceptions: Construction Industry that sheds important light on the subject. Specifically, the report demonstrates that there is a gap between what an employer perceives as the success of a Workplace Health and Safety Strategy and what an employee perceives. It is this gap that must be closed to achieve improved work health and safety.

Almost all construction employers reported that they make work practices safe, remove hazards as much as possible and use personal protective equipment in the workplace. Workers and employees had high levels of agreement that these safety practices were used in their workplace.

However, workers’ level of agreement was less than that of their employers. Of some concern was the finding that only four in 10 employers indicated that their workplace reviewed incident reports and statistics. If reports and statistics are not reviewed regularly, then it is unlikely appropriate solutions are implemented.

While employers in medium and large construction businesses appeared to provide their employees with some safety training, 45 per cent of employers in small businesses did not provide any training. This could be due to the burden of time and cost:

“In 2012 the most costly compliance activities for construction businesses were the replacement of plant and equipment in order to ensure compliance with work health and safety laws, the employment of an additional worker or engaging an expert with skills specific to handling work health and safety matters and the hiring of a lawyer for work health and safety matters,” the report reads.

However, compliance activities should not be viewed as onerous and expensive for small business owners. Rather, it is an investment in good business. The cost of hiring a lawyer after an incident, and paying any associated fines, is far higher.

What are your employees saying?

The quickest, most cost-effective way to review all your Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) is to ask your employees and contractors their opinion of them working in reality. The report bears out this necessity: 90 per cent of construction employers felt there was good communication in their workplace about safety issues and that safety information is always brought to the attention of workers. Yet the proportion of workers who agreed with these statements was lower. In terms of consultation, construction workers generally had lower levels of agreement that various consultation activities occurred in construction workplaces compared to employers.

Almost one third of construction workers agreed that conditions in their workplace stopped them from working safely, which was much higher than reported by employers. While workers and employers were equally likely to agree that risks are unavoidable in their workplace, employers were much more likely than workers to agree that they never accept risk taking even if the work schedule is tight. One quarter of construction employees indicated that they accepted risk taking at work.

One quarter of construction employers felt risk-taking was a main cause of injury. Perhaps more concerning, one in five employers felt that not having the right equipment was a main cause of injury, while 17 per cent of employers felt that the use of alcohol or drugs was a main cause of injury.

All three: risk-taking, having the right safety equipment, and the use of alcohol or drugs are causes that can be addressed with a commitment to safety. Random drug and alcohol testing. Investing in safety equipment. Education about risks and taking a zero-tolerance approach to risk-taking.