Completed Research

Enhancing Safety through Leadership (Completed – 2009-2014)

John Rosecrance, PhD

Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO
[email protected]

Advances in engineering controls like improved fall protection systems, mechanical assists for lifting heavy materials and safer tool designs have helped reduce occupational injuries and deaths in construction significantly over the decades. However, construction workers, who are just one-tenth of the American labor force, still account for an alarming 17% of all job-related deaths in 2012. This project seeks to go beyond the visible elements of occupational health like lifting techniques and tool design to investigate the critical role of psychology – the human factor – in injury prevention.

This Colorado research team brought together psychologists and human factor specialists to focus on the determinants of safe and unsafe behavior. The team concluded that construction employers serious about safety must work actively to develop and sustain a high level of safety culture. Their findings also presented more questions: Owners and managers create an organization’s overarching safety culture, but construction is a field in which workers frequently work autonomously on tasks, having little interaction with upper management. In this context, the day-to-day interactions of the foremen with the production workers – and even the tradesmen and tradeswomen with one another – play an essential role in fostering a safety culture on a worksite. Are workers rewarded or penalized when they point out unsafe conditions? Are they respected for speaking up – or for working while hurt? Does the on-site supervision send a message that production is paramount, or that safety is their top priority?

The goal of this project was to develop, conduct and evaluate a safety leadership program for future construction leaders.  The target audience was 4th and 5th year apprentices involved in mechanical trades, but some apprentice instructors that evaluated the program also felt that apprentices in their 1st through 3rd would benefit from the training program.  The training is designed to build future leaders in construction by working with apprentices to instill leadership qualities that encourage workers to speak up about unsafe practices before an accident occurs. The cirriculum was administered to 180 apprentices in the mechanical trades from three regions around the country and was extensively revised based on the information learned from testing.  It began as a 5-hour program taught in person over 5 weeks but was subsequently refined to a 2-hour program. After the training, apprentices showed greater motivation to lead, increased their feedback giving and coaching behaviors, and also increased how much they motivated others.

Although the apprentices felt the 2-hour training program was useful and increased their knowledge of leadership behaviors, feedback from the apprentice trainers conducting the training indicated that they were uncomfortable teaching apprentices leadership skills and that they felt a video-based program would be more beneficial.  The trainers also indicated that they would then be able to provide their own experiences with leadership that could reinforce the concepts outlined in the curriculum. The end result is a video-based training program with accompanying student and facilitator guides.

A related project from the same research team drew an extraordinary amount of attention from the industry in 2013. It is widely suspected that significant numbers of construction workers who suffer work-related injuries conceal rather than report them. The team surveyed 614 construction workers in the Northwest United States in an exploratory study about the phenomenon. More than one quarter of them acknowledged a work-related injury they had not reported; these workers seemed to consider injuries a part of their job, and many feared employer retaliation if they filed a compensation claim. When “Construction workers’ reasons for not reporting work-related injuries: An exploratory study,” appeared in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics it inspired a flurry of coverage in the trade press, with several magazines – including industry powerhouse ENR (The Engineering News-Record)– doing feature stories on the research.