Why Safety on Construction Sites is Paramount
by Daniel Green
Construction is the most easily accessible dangerous job we have. Sure, we’re not getting shelled by artillery, lumberjacking in The Rockies or salmon fishing near the Grand Banks but one little white card and you’re in. One $80 half day course and you’re walking around amongst suspended loads, past trenches, near HV cabling and open penetrations.
WARNING: TOUCHY FEELY STUFF AHEAD.
I’ve been working in construction in one form or another for a decade. In that time I have seen more incidents than some, less than others. One of the more serious ones was in 2015 when I was a Moxy operator on CSG projects out near Roma, Qld. We were building gas plants for the resource sector on a 21/7 FIFO roster. One beautiful sunny Tuesday morning the entire site was shut down and we were sent back to camp with no explanation. We knew something was up when a medevac chopper touched down on the main pad and took off a few minutes later in the direction of Roma airport. Later in the day we learned that a scaffy had fallen three stories and was in a critical condition. The mood in the camp was somber to say the least. The next time we actually went to the site was Friday where a meeting of the entire workforce had been called. Three thousand construction workers sat as HSE detailed the event and how the gentleman would never walk again. Men cried. Some hurled abuse. Others remained silent. The ensuing investigation discovered that part of the scaff had failed due to improper assembly. The company was found at fault because the scaff had been signed off. Chain of Responsibility dictated that the Scaff Sup, the CM and HSE were also at fault. It was a horrible incident with a terrible ending.
Safety in construction is paramount because when there is an incident it strikes at the heart of our core emotional needs. These aren’t wants, we don’t want them – they’re needs, we need them. They are fundamental, universal and non-negotiable.
- Safety, stability and acceptance.
- Autonomy, competence and a sense of identity.
- Freedom to express valid needs and emotions.
- Spontaneity and play.
- Realistic limits and self-control.
When one or more of these needs aren’t met then we feel inner turmoil – anger, frustration, sadness, depression, anxiousness, rage. Safety incidents at work can do just that, and the bigger the incident – the bigger the turmoil. Which is why those men reacted the way they did upon hearing the news of the scaffolder’s paraplegia.
But we need to go deeper.
When you break it down, there’s really four parties that can be identified when there’s a workplace incident.
- The victim. The person who the incident happens to. The person who carries most of the ‘cost’, whether physical, mental or financial.
- The bystanders. The people who were there or who were first to learn of it or were first on scene.
- Those responsible. The person or business at fault – whether immediately at fault or later found to be at fault.
- The business. The entity running the operation where the incident occurred. This includes the director/s, managers and workforce.
There’s also costs, although these aren’t all financial. Depending on their level of involvement all parties will pay some ‘price’ from a workplace incident.
- Health. This includes both physical and mental, both short term and long term.
- Effort. The work required during the incident as well as afterwards, sometimes long afterwards.
- Time. The time it takes to attend the incident as well as the time to deal with the fallout.
- Money. The hard financial costs.
- Other. The myriad of factors that sometimes can’t be quantified.
Let’s revisit the case of the scaffolder and call him James. James has a co-worker, let’s call her Lia. Lia saw the incident as she was working beside James atop the scaff. The company can be O’Malley’s Contracting. It’s headed up by a guy we’ll name Mitch McDeere. Mitch signed off the scaff.
There is so much to unpack here but let’s begin with the bystander, Lia. Post accident how could she possibly feel in terms of her core needs?
- Safety, stability and acceptance. Would she feel physically safe going to work here? Will she trust that the scaff will be properly signed off? How will she feel about Mitch signing scaff off in future? What if Mitch was a close friend?
- Autonomy, competence and a sense of identity. How would she feel about working alone now? Would she want to? Could she potentially question her own work and judgement? What if she assembled the scaffold that resulted in James’ incident? Would she now be questioning her very identity?
- Freedom to express valid needs and emotions. What if Mitch threatened her into silence to protect them both? What if her place as a female in a male dominated environment meant she didn’t feel like she could properly express her grief?
- Spontaneity and play. Could an incident like this take the fun out of her work? For the short term – or forever?
- Realistic limits and self-control. If there was even a sliver of doubt about her involvement in James’ paraplegia, could she now want more limits placed on her in terms of her work? Impractical ones? Could she subconsciously get herself demoted to avoid having to be put in that situation again?
And what about Lia’s costs?
- Health. How is Lia’s health going to be affected? Her physical health, her mental health? Are her coping mechanisms to bury the pain, meaning it will come up later of its own accord? Will she revert to an old vice to help her through?
- Effort. Does she have the fight to not let this define her or is it too big a cross to bear? Was she in a place of strength before the incident?
- Time. What will she pay in terms of time? Time spent helping out investigations? In counselling? Depressed or anxious?
- Money. Could she have to bear financial costs? If she is at fault will she have to pay reparations? Even if she’s not – will she have to hire a legal team?
Would Mitch have his own questions about safety, stability and acceptance? Do you think he would feel accepted by his staff? By the industry? Clientele?
Would he trust himself to be as autonomous as before the incident? Would he feel confident in his abilities as a scaffolding business owner? In himself? What kind of person would he be if he signed off scaff that wasn’t safe? What about other scaff he’s signed off all over the state? Is that now compromised? If he calls all his clients to get them to check their scaff, will he lose everything?
As the guilty party, would anyone let Mitch express his feelings? Would you?
How much fun is Mitch going to want to have at work now?
Like Lia, will Mitch now want to introduce overbearing controls that prevent an efficient operation to prevent an incident like this happening again?
We could ask the same questions about Mitch’s costs. Some will be the same as Lia but others will be different. Because it’s his company, financially speaking Mitch potentially has a lot more to lose.
And James. Unfortunately, James has more time to ask these questions than anyone.
SITE SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT THAT TO OPERATE WITHOUT IT IS TOTALLY CATASTROPHIC.
TO THE JOB, THE BUSINESS AND MOST IMPORTANTLY – THE PEOPLE.