Driving home from a family vacation in Central Oregon, safety culture was the farthest thing from my mind. A construction zone funneled westbound traffic into a single lane on the western slope of Mt. Hood. The fairly heavy mid-summer line slowed to the posted work zone speed limit.
A 100-yard gap formed between the two cars in front of me. A road maintenance worker saw the gap as an opportunity to dash across the lane of traffic. My first thought was, “Bad idea, buddy.” When he stumbled and fell, I braked hard enough to feel some shuddering from my antilock system.
Thankfully, the car in front of me braked quickly enough to allow the worker to recover and scramble out of the way without harming anything other than his dignity. His co-workers who witnessed the event were gesturing wildly at him when I passed by; whether in anger or something else, I couldn’t be sure.
Most people probably wouldn’t give the matter much thought. But suddenly safety culture was all I could think about, since I work for a company that manufactures products that help keep workers safe and productive in challenging environments. So I started wondering…
- What kind of safety culture existed with that crew?
- Was the crew employed directly by the primary contractor or were they subcontractors?
- How far up the chain would this incident be heard?
- Who would have been responsible if the worker hadn’t been able to get out of the way?
What is safety culture?
Safety culture is the “attitude, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety in the workplace.” To paraphrase, it’s also known as “the way we do things around here.”
In a company with a healthy safety culture in which every employee is engaged, “any worker would feel comfortable walking up to the plant manager or CEO and reminding him or her to wear safety glasses.” In a strong safety culture, everyone is responsible for safety and aware of safety protocols. Training, regular safety briefings, and open communication are the basis for a process of continuous improvement that fosters a seamless safety culture.
For contractors, safety culture relates directly to to worker loyalty, keeping the job site up and running, and an improved risk profile.
When subcontractors break safety culture
In companies with a strong safety culture, everyone is responsible for safety. In the legal world, risk exposure is more complicated. Owners, general contractors, and superintendents can be held liable for subcontractor safety incidents. In the end, they’re responsible for maintaining a safe work zone.
If contractor and subcontractor are not aligned on safety, then injuries, shutdowns, and lawsuits can result. Some recent examples:
- Ohio Department of Transportation shuts down major construction project because contractor and subcontractor don’t have proper safety signage
- Property owner, general contractor, and subcontractor named in lawsuit after laborer falls from a catwalk
- Contractor, subcontractor, and OSHA disagree on safety standards for paint scrapers’ exposure to lead
If you have a safety culture that you’re proud of, then it’s a business imperative to extend it to subcontractors.
How to extend safety culture to subcontractors
The Construction Industry Institute has found that general contractors have a “significant influence on the safety performances of their subcontractors.”
Scott Schneider, Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health, wrote an article that outlined what contractors must expect from subcontractors prior to awarding them the project, including:
- Submit a written safety plan specific to the project.
- Provide safety personnel or identify someone responsible for communicating safety measures to the general contractor.
- Document safety training.
- Conduct regular safety inspections.
- Describe incident investigation protocols.
These templates are a good place to start building your own safety checklist:
- Harry Grodsky & Co., Inc. – Subcontractor Safety Orientation form
- Hoffman Construction Company – Subcontractor Safety Plan Checklist
- Andersen Construction – Subcontractor Safety Exhibits
While documentation and due diligence are important, leading by example is the most effective way to include subcontractors in your safety culture. Hold morning safety briefings. Reward safety practices and those that speak up. When a subcontractor feels like a valued contributor rather than a whistleblower when drawing attention to a potential safety risk, then you know you have a strong, healthy safety culture.
Haste makes risk
Sure, all of this makes sense in theory. But what about in practice? Even as a small general contractor who hires multiple subs for a home remodel, shouldn’t you expect all of your subcontractors to accept and follow safety requirements?
Incidents are neither fair nor forgiving. By skipping safety culture in favor of saving time or money, you’re shifting the burden to your insurance coverage. Nine times out of ten, that road worker recovers and dives to safety. But the one time he or she doesn’t could cost you your business.
It will take time to get comfortable including safety culture in your subcontractor bid process. But once you’ve begun and as you improve, you’ll be a more cohesive unit that works faster, smarter and safer. And you’ll reap the rewards in more satisfied customers, loyal workers and subcontractors.