Safety in the workplace is a rather large and very important topic. In these days of lawsuits, large insurance premiums, and malpractice, people are concerned about safety, if not for the humanitarian reasons, then for the monetary ones, the “bottom line.” That’s what it all comes down to, the ‘mighty’ dollar. In my research I attempted to address a side of safety in the workplace that I feel is often overlooked, namely, the worker’s attitudes towards safety. I will concentrate on the workers who do not always follow the rules and guidelines that have been instituted for their own benefit.
In my experience, I have seen great evidence of workers’ and management’s viewpoint of safety. I work as a Safety Engineer for a General Contractor on a NYC Transit Authority project, and have been working on construction sites for over 3 years. In addition to the normal dangers inherent to any construction project, on the project I am currently on, there are the dangers associated with working on a subway system. It has been my experience that workers are often upset or annoyed by having to follow safety guidelines. Much time is spent on a construction site making sure that workers wear a Hard-hat, one of the most basic of protective gear. Everyone realizes the obvious dangers of having a heavy object, such as a 5 lb. brick, fall on your head from 40 feet above you, but still you must tell a worker to wear his hat. As a worker once told me, “It messes up my hair.” Could it be something as trivial as that? Sometimes, I believe, the reason could be, but many times it is misinformation, or misconception. When discussing fall protection, one of the workers expounded on his view of wearing a Harness, which is an OSHA rule when working near any fall of 8 ft or farther, where there is no barricade to prevent one from falling. He explained that the harness could actually do more harm than good, explaining that the harness limited mobility, and freedom of motion while working. Here is an obvious demonstration of misconception about a safety procedure. While a harness does limit motion to some extent, it restricts a person from falling, which could save a person’s life. Time spent completing a task or task is a major concern on any project. Safety measures are often ‘unseen’ acts, especially on a construction site. No one notices the erection of scaffolding, but they see the brickwork that is left behind. Often the workers are striving for the praise of their superiors, which comes by accomplishing a job as quickly as possible. The time saved by not taking extra safety precautions, means more praise. Workers would many times build unsafe scaffolding, for example, putting themselves at risk to a fall because of the need to, “just get it done.”
Specific interviews were done with two individuals both construction workers. The first was a laborer in his line of work for 9 years, to those unfamiliar with this line of work, a Laborer accomplishes most of the brunt work on a construction site. A Laborer’s duties can entail cleaning, demolition, movement of materials, etc. The second interview was with an Electrician working for 21 years. The Electricians are often referred to as the “prima donnas” on a construction site, I mention this because it is relevant to this topic. Electricians are known to be sticklers for safety, more importantly watching out for themselves. Both individuals belong to their respective Unions. No strict guidelines were followed for the interview, it was just an informal conversation about each one’s viewpoint on safety.
The Laborer felt satisfied in his day-to-day work environment. He claimed the only dangers he encounters are the workers who “don’t know what they are doing.” When I asked him how this affects his safety, he explained that an “inexperienced guy,” does not know how to work safely and can make mistakes that can injure himself or others, while an experienced worker, “such as myself,” knows how to work safely. Here we see a demonstration of the misconceptions that are ever present in workers. Statistics show, and I can personally attest, to the fact that more often than not, the worker new at his trade, or new to a certain job environment, is much less likely to get injured than one who has been working for a long time in a field. This doesn’t seem to make sense? Human nature is one of laziness, humans avoid work, so the worker doing his job for awhile has the tendency to “let his guard down,” and not be as alert to new and different dangers that are encountered every day on the job. I asked him if he has ever taken risks to get a job done quicker. He told me yes, when asked for an example, he described working over a span on two planks each of six inch widths. I asked him why he worked like that, he told me the harnesses were all the way back in the office, a five minute walk away, but that he was “very careful.” Here we see an example of the unsafe behavior that can be exhibited due to laziness.
My interview with the electrician went a little differently. The electrician had in common with the Laborer, his feeling that inexperienced workers are much more susceptible to an accident than the “old-timers,” as he referred to himself. “Have you ever been injured on the job?,” I asked, his reply, “oh yes.” He described an incident, as a third year apprentice, he says he was on the job “long enough to know better.” He had been working on a temporary, movable scaffold, his work extended beyond the platform, and rather than climbing down and moving the scaffold, he climbed on the outside of the scaffold to reach out. The scaffold, not meant to with stand a sideways force, toppled, sending him falling 9 feet. Why?, was my next question. “It was too much trouble to climb down, and it was almost Lunch time.” Here again we see the laziness factor resulting in an injury.
The construction industry is reported to represent only 5% of the U.S. workforce, but it accounts for some 20% of work fatalities and 12% of disabling injuries. The total annual cost (direct and indirect) of construction accidents alone has been estimated to exceed $17 billion. So you can see it is a major issue to any employer in the construction field. So contrary to the “old” days, when the owner and management had no reason to concern themselves with the worker’s well being, we see in our day, there is a definite reason for concern.
Well documented, in much of the literature I read, specifically the Construction Management book, is a phenomenon called the ‘Macho factor.’ This refers to the attitude that originated in men, but is now common to workers of either gender, that is, the need to appear “macho” in front of his/her fellow workers. This explains the attitudes the worker’s interviewed, and many of the ones I often came in contact with on the job. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, defines the word Macho as “having and exaggerated sense of masculinity, an exhilarating sense of power or strength.” It can be interpreted as not “manly” to use safety equipment, by the fellow workers. Thus, rather than protect himself, a worker will take unnecessary risks.
On the whole, the question of Safety is very complex. It is always the common conception that its Management vs. Labor, in that Management only wants to make money and do as quickly as possible, which means cutting corners in the safety area. Labor is always perceived as being mistreated and upset about their own unsafe work conditions. In our day though, I believe there are more sides to the story, yes the classic example I just mentioned still holds true in many cases, but the lawsuits and litigation common nowadays has discouraged employers from disregarding safety. What’s more, because of OSHA, the employer/owner is responsible for the safety in the workplace. A worker cannot be fined by OSHA for non-compliance, the owner will receive the fine for his worker’s non-compliance, and these fines can range up to $70,000 and/or imprisonment. In the past it was argued that the worker was unaware of the risks associated with his job. This problem has been pretty much eliminated by the “right to know” legislation passed in every state in the early 1980’s, making it the employer’s responsibility to train his workers in the dangers associated with his job, especially in the use and exposure to different chemicals. This training must be done through safety training classes, “lunch box” meetings on the job, and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSS) must be readily available to any worker. The MSDS is specific to a chemical, and details the harmful affects of that chemical/material, and the safe handling of it. Thus all information needed to protect him/herself from work dangers, was made available to the worker . All this would make it seem logical, that there shouldn’t be any unsafe conditions in today’s workplace, for it is in the best interest of the worker and the employer to make the environment a safe one. This is not so, and I contend that it is partly because of the individual worker’s own self destructive and unsafe attitude towards his job environment. When it all comes down to it, the last person responsible for a person’s safety is that person himself, only he/she can take the necessary measures to protect him/herself from injury and even death.
Nunnally, S.W. (1998). Construction Methods and Management. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.