Contractors that embrace lean construction principles in the name of reducing waste and enhancing value often discover other facets of their operations that are ripe for improvement. By using lean’s emphasis on a company’s cultural mind-set to gain insights into not only the “hows” but also the “whys” of a process, contractors can uncover better ideas for doing things that might otherwise never have been considered.

Vogel Bros. Building Co., Madison, Wis., is among the firms that believe safety is one of those improvements. If lean is about increasing value for customers, then internal customers—employees—merit the same level of attention as those the company serves, suggests Mark Rounds, Vogel’s vice president of corporate development.

“And value for employees is a safe, healthy work environment,” Rounds says.

When it comes to safety, Rounds believes that most companies are behavior-based—that is, an employee’s action is the cause of the accident or injury. However, by addressing a safety incident as the outcome of a process, “we look at the factors that caused that behavior to happen and see what can be done to change how employees act,” Rounds says.

When an incident occurs, this mind-set means applying root-cause analysis and 5S methodology to find facts, rather than fault.

Seeking Honest Answers About Training

Citing a recent forklift rollover incident, Rounds says the operator jumped out of the cab, rather than stay within the safety of the roll cage. Luckily, the worker was uninjured.

But rather than simply chalking the incident up to operator error, Rounds brought together the employee, worksite superintendent, safety chief and area president to reconstruct the potential contributing factors.

“The worker had been hired as a general laborer,” Rounds recalls. “A situation arose where we needed someone to operate the forklift, and he said he could do it, when, in fact, he hadn’t had enough training.” Rounds added, “The problem was not so much an untruth on his part  but that we created a situation where someone felt he couldn’t be totally honest with us, and we accepted it.”

As a result, Vogel has instituted an operational check for workers who seek to operate forklifts.

“We have a training session for all workers who are expected to operate forklifts [and] verify if the worker is indeed qualified,” Rounds notes.

A similar investigative approach to other incidents found a correlation between safety lapses and project supervisors’ schedule or productivity demands. Vogel doesn’t want employees taking risks, Rounds says, but it is incumbent on the firm to create an environment that discourages such behavior.

“If they’re doing it because of a productivity or schedule issue, for example, we need to look at why the project is falling behind,” he adds.

Using lean to address safety as a problem that needs to be solved, rather than as a statistic that needs to be improved, makes perfect sense to Todd Brink, president of Milwaukee-based Lean Culture Group.

“Basing safety on metrics means you do the same things over and over, without getting the improvements you want to see,” Brink says. “If your goal is to lower a building’s construction cost, you can do it by using plastic hinges—but you won’t have a better building.”

Cynthia Tsao, director of lean strategy for Consigli Construction, Boston, adds that just adopting lean is a major step toward improving jobsite safety. Many of the same management measures designed to improve productivity—from daily stand-up meetings to staging materials on wheeled carts—provide a double benefit by reducing hazards.

“If you’re studying processes for ways to improve them, you’ll likely also find ways to make them safer,” Tsao says. “Well-planned, predictable work is also inherently safer because you’re reducing exposure to hazards when workers avoid comebacks because they are able to install work as planned.”

Making Lean Safety Happen

Lean construction practices may offer some intriguing ideas that benefit safety, as well as other processes, but it won’t prove successful as a stand-alone solution.

“You hear a lot of companies talk about using Last Planner or Pull Planning,” observes Blake Wentz, professor and chair of the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s civil, architectural engineering and construction management department. “They’re just using the toolbox. With lean, culture shift is the biggest obstacle.”

Noting that lean and safety go hand in hand, Andi Schoppa, a senior risk engineering consultant in construction specialties for Zurich North America, says the practice thrives best in a company culture that’s fully committed to it.

“It’s important to have an environment that fosters continuous improvement, worker input and collaboration,” Schoppa says. “Everyone works together on solving problems or preventing them.”

Yet even processes specifically aimed at improving safety often involve learning something new or changing work habits honed through decades of experience—requirements that not everyone follows through on.

For example, long-range task planning may be anathema to project managers and site superintendents who are reluctant to give up the flexibility that allows them to move people and tasks around as needed—a practice Tsao calls “firefighting.”

“Many contractors pride themselves on being able to solve problems on the fly, even seeing it as a routine part of the job,” she says. “What they don’t always realize is that constantly changing the work plan may generate chaos instead. So, workers will end up being unproductive and more prone to safety hazards.”

Telling craftspeople to do things differently also changes the things that define who they are, Brink adds.

“Managers must be there to support them and be willing to make changes themselves,” he says.

Rounds notes that Vogel has readily embraced lean safety’s lead-by-example facet. “It’s not just the front office saying, ‘Do this,’ and that’s it,” he says. “We’re looking for ways to improve everywhere, including administrative functions, such as accounting.”

Schoppa suggests that a focus on behavior is a good starting point for making lean principles work for safety. “Once workers see the benefits, you’ll get the buy-in. Other parts will fall into place,” she says.

Wentz agrees, saying, “Many companies are driven by front-end costs. When they start to consider the cost of an accident, this is really low-hanging fruit.”

Along with cultural changes and commitment, patience may well be lean safety’s key success ingredient. “We don’t expect everyone to do to this right the first time,” Rounds says. As with mastering a new tool, individual workers will adapt their thinking at different rates.

But Rounds has no doubt that the safety improvements will come. “We’re confident they’ll start connecting the dots,” he says.