Psychological Health and Safety in Construction

Written by Susan Eick, CEO at Refinery Leadership

The recent construction tragedy in Kelowna, British Columbia that claimed five lives in July is a stark reminder that even mandatory safety training cannot completely mitigate critical safety incidents.

In today’s changing environment, it is widely acknowledged that the construction process is increasingly complex as a result of the interaction between various factors with dynamic and uncertain properties, including the level of scientific knowledge required, the environment in which construction occurs, the resources employed, and the number, and interaction of different elements in the construction process.  Add to this the new safety factors brought to work sites by COVID-19, and you can see that standard safety practices of the past may not keep up with the industry’s current construction boom  environment.

As a result, we see that safety in the construction industry is getting worse, and it’s costly.  Released April 27, the 2020 Report on Work Fatality and Injury Rates in Canada indicates 1,027 workers died of work-related causes in 2018, marking an increase of 76 from 2017.  Specific to the construction industry, WorkSafeBC reported a 13 per cent increase in serious injuries between 2014 and 2018, and a 17 per cent increase in time loss claims for the period.   Comparatively, the manufacturing sector reported a decrease of 8 per cent in serious injuries and a decrease of 9 per cent in time loss claims for the same time period.

What this means is that in relative terms, the construction industry is getting less safe for workers in Canada.  At the same time, there is a lot of time and money being put in to prevent workplace injuries; there are a variety of systems in place to try and prevent these accidents, including compulsory safety training programs.  Many companies, though implementing and reiterating their safety protocols, still experience a rise in critical safety incidents and fatalities.

Safety incidents can significantly affect the bottom line.  In addition to affecting a company’s ability to win bids, they can also have long lasting impacts on a company’s reputation and investment viability.  This is something that Canadian construction companies can’t afford as the competition for skilled workers is fierce, causing a skills gap in the sector.  Also, at the forefront of conversations amongst construction companies, is the importance of ESG – environmental, social, and governance – which is a formula being widely discussed and used as the baseline for the re-evaluation of safety, ethics, and overall culture within organizations.

According to a March 2020 article in Digital Builder, Construction Culture: Why it Matters & How to Build it’, addressing physical safety issues in a construction workplace is only part of the answer when trying to build a strong safety culture.  “Psychological safety, when employees feel comfortable to show their authentic selves without fear of repercussion, is equally important,” the article states.  So, what exactly is psychological safety?   And how do you know if you have it in your workplace?

Psychological safety in the workplace as defined by Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” At Refinery, we have added an additional context to this definition: (Based on the work of Timothy R. Clark, author of ‘The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety’):

Psychological safety is a condition in which human beings feel:

(1) Included;

(2) Safe to learn;

(3) Safe to contribute; and

(4) Safe to challenge the status quo – including the right to not engage without the need to explain.

An absence of psychological safety in these environments can be a major contributor to the increased levels of stress, anxiety, and poor communication.  Failures in communication make for a more hazardous workplace overall, and down the road can lead to employees who are less engaged in safety, which as we all know, can be catastrophic.

In a 2019 research study conducted by a team of engineering professors and students from the University of California, Berkely, it was concluded that “psychological safety is proven to be a driver for learning behaviours as it allows workers feel confident about asking questions to get clarity on their work, asking for help, or speaking up when errors occur on site to avoid repeating mistakes.”  (An Active Caring Approach Through Psychological Safety in Construction Projects, Gomez, s. et al, 2019).  In the study, conducted with 100 construction workers on an active construction site of a new 12-storey building on the UC-Berkley campus, surveys were given to the construction workers with questions probing into their perceptions of psychological safety with their co-workers and their supervisors.  The study found that, while the survey respondents generally felt safe speaking with their co-workers about safety issues at their site, there were several indicators that the workers did not feel this same level of psychological safety with their managers.  In particular, low scores were given to the statements around supervisors:

  • role modeling safety behaviors on site, 
  • being open to new ideas,
  • being understanding and helpful when mistakes are made, and 
  • listening to feedback about safety concerns on site.

At Refinery, we have found that good leadership and a positive team climate are the most important drivers of psychological safety at a work site, and are most likely to occur when leaders are supportive and consultative with their employees rather than dictatorial and punitive.

Creating and sustaining a culture of safety in a construction organization calls for an approach that combines solid leadership practices as well as both physical and psychological safety practices.   First, figuring out if your organization has a culture of psychological safety is a necessary step.  One simple way to do this is to simply observe a work site. How do team members talk with each other?  What is the tone of communication?  Observe team meetings—do they typically consist of a supervisor calling out mistakes, or is there opportunity for open dialogue and questions?  Do people feel safe to point out safety issues, or are they encouraged to keep quiet to not get their co-workers in trouble?  Is there evidence from past safety investigations that there may be communication issues between supervisors and front-line workers?

Once you gain a full understanding of where your organization stands regarding psychological safety, you can come up with a plan of action to mitigate these issues.  Bringing in a third party of professionals that deal with identifying psychological safety issues and developing solutions can make the process easier and more effective by eliminating subjectivity, minimizing bias and most importantly, increasing the level of safety for those invited to provide confidential feedback about the environment they work in.  Taking action will ensure you remain a stand-out among your competition for talent and ensure that your organization will continue to grow sustainably with the safety of your employees as a top priority. 

Susan Eick

About the Author

Susan Eick is CEO of Refinery (www.refineryleadership.com) , a global leadership development firm that specializes consulting in a variety of industries.  Refinery has offices in Canada as well as Santiago, Chile.