New industry research shows that while many large U.S. construction firms have created and maintained effective safety cultures, a high percentage of smaller firms are lagging behind in making critical safety investments and adopting formal procedures. That can add to risks on projects because these smaller companies provide much of the jobsite labor and equipment.
A safety study conducted by Dodge Data & Analytics explores these differences through a unique safety-culture spectrum. To rate the level of engagement, Dodge analysts used the spectrum, which uses 33 leading indicators of a safety culture, as reported by the 263 general and specialty contractors that participated in the study.
These metrics include the level of management commitment to safety, worker involvement in jobsite safety, company communications on safety and the degree to which safety is treated as a fundamental company value. The full range of these scores provides a spectrum of a firm’s safety culture, which Dodge divided into three, roughly equal tiers: low, moderate and high.
One hallmark of a robust safety culture is how consistently safety is considered fundamental to decisions at all levels of the company. One of the most important findings of the study is that companies in the moderate and high safety-culture tiers are more likely to engage in a greater number of safety practices. They also report a higher degree of benefit from their safety commitment.
The safety-culture spectrum reveals specific ways that small and large safety leaders—construction companies in the moderate and high levels of the spectrum—are developing strong safety cultures. The spectrum also identifies trends that others can emulate.
Use of Safety Practices
While smaller companies, which often have fewer resources and less-formal processes than their larger competitors, demonstrate a high level of engagement with some critical safety practices, the data show significant gaps in their use of others.
In general, small (less than 50 employees) companies in the moderate and high tiers of the safety-culture spectrum report using the following safety practices as frequently as large (500 or more employees) companies: providing personal protection equipment (PPE) and enforcing its use, inspecting equipment for functionality, installing safety protection (such as guardrails), and maintaining an open-door policy for workers to report hazards and other safety concerns.
However, large companies tend to use several key safety practices more frequently than small companies, even when all the firms are at moderate or high levels in the safety spectrum.
Some of those notable practices (see chart, next page) are summarized below.
- The first three—establishing site-specific training programs that include jobsite workers in the safety process; conducting jobsite safety-hazard analysis; and job hazard analysis before construction begins—are all among the top-five safety practices considered most effective, according to the overall study. Thus, in order to improve their safety programs, small companies should invest first in these three areas, even though at least two of those practices can be resource-intensive.
- True improvement is often built on data and information, but small companies are less likely to conduct prompt and thorough investigations, gather data on near-miss incidents or develop measurable safety goals against which to apply the data. Also, far fewer respondents from small companies cite these practices as essential to a world-class safety program, suggesting that they do not recognize the need for better safety-related data.
- As a policy, small firms would benefit from making PPE inspections part of fundamental requirements for on-site workers. Unlike other practices, this does not require significantly more resources or more-formal policies.
When comparing small companies to large ones, Dodge research revealed patterns similar to its previous safety findings on building information modeling. For example, small companies are less likely than large ones to experience positive benefits from BIM. While the percentages of large companies that report strong safety engagement are comparable to those that also report experiencing benefits on critical BIM metrics—for example, project budget, schedule and quality—small firms lag in that area to a degree that is strikingly similar to the degree of their safety engagement.
Staffing is one area that may become a more critical concern for small companies moving forward. The recent growth in work in the construction industry has made recruiting and retention of staff far more important than in the recent past. Small companies must be able to compete with large ones for limited workforce resources, and that may pressure them to make sure their safety programs are competitive.
However, respondents from small companies did have one advantage over those from larger firms. More than three-quarters could attribute a specific impact for key factors, such as project budgets, schedules and return on investment (ROI), to their safety investments. In addition, they saw an average of 3% to 6% improvement for those three factors.
On the other hand, just over half of respondents from large companies could attribute a specific impact for project scheduling and ROI, and less than half could attribute a specific impact for project budgets. Those that did see a positive change said it tended to average between 2% and 3% for each factor.
The differences in the averages may result from the benefits of safety being more prominent in smaller projects, but this may be a critical driver to help support greater safety investment by smaller companies.
Safety Investment Drivers
Many of the most influential drivers in the study—including client demand, improved productivity and concerns about liability—were reported by an equivalent percentage of respondents from large and small construction companies on the moderate to high end of the safety-culture spectrum. However, there are a few notable differences.
- Despite their high position in the safety-culture spectrum, small companies still regard regulatory requirements as a very influential driver, far more so than large companies.
- Given the fact that more large companies report a positive impact on project ROI from their safety investments, it’s not surprising that this drives the safety investments they have made thus far, more so than for small companies.
- Factors such as competitive advantage and the desire for industry leadership also are critical drivers for large companies but less important for small companies.
Large and small companies also had similar levels of respondents who said they expect future influences from increased client requirements and more regulations. Lower insurance rates, though, are far more influential for small companies, perhaps because insurance payments on smaller jobs may be a bigger share of the overall profit from those projects.
On the other hand, over half of large companies believe that wider industry adoption of risk analysis and mitigation would lead them to invest more in safety, compared with just about a third of small companies. The concern reported by larger companies about their standing in the industry may be a bigger influence on this factor.
The research findings can be examined in depth in “Building a Safety Culture: Improving Safety and Health Management in the Construction Industry SmartMarket Report,” available for free download at construction.com/resource-center. The report was produced in partnership with CPWR and United Rentals, along with support from Autodesk, Clicksafety, Procure, PCL Construction and the National Institute of Building Sciences.