ASSE 2010: Implementing U.S.-Style Construction Safety and Health Programs in Africa, Asia and Mexico

June 15, 2010
Understanding culture and communicating effectively are key components in establishing safe construction projects in foreign countries, according to John H. Johnson, CSP, of Black & Veatch. In a June 15 ASSE Safety 2010 session in Baltimore, Johnson addressed the challenges and best practices for implementing construction safety and health programs in parts of the world such as Africa, Asia and Mexico.

First, Johnson stressed, safety professionals must be aware that taking a U.S. program and trying to implement it as-is in Asia or Mexico probably won’t work. “Adaptability and flexibility is key,” he said. “We’ll spend a lot of time understanding the culture.”

Culture Concerns

When learning about the safety culture in your host country, consider the following questions: How do they value life? How do they value construction workers – are they viewed as a commodity? How is safety valued? What is the regulatory structure? Can you obtain safety resources in that environment?

Let the client know that you are making an effort to comprehend their culture. Clearly express your expectations and be sure to understand your client’s expectations as well. Collaboration is essential to creating a safe and health work environment, Johnson said. It’s also necessary to understand how your own country may be perceived in your host country. For example, Americans may be perceived as abrupt, brusque or rude.

“Directness is not always perceived as good,” Johnson said. “Once you gain that understanding, you’ll be far more successful.”

The Best of Both Worlds

Johnson also covered the following key points of implementing construction safety and health programs in foreign countries:

Developing the Program – Establish a solid understanding of the regulations in region. Solicit local expertise by finding consultants or, in some cases, regulators. Be sure to include any regulatory information the client already has. “Learn what’s important to them,” Johnson said. “Take what works for you and marry it with what they do best and are proud of – [so it’s] truly a collaborative effort.”

Contractors –Develop a vetting process with the client and hold pre-bid meetings with local/regional contractors to set expectations. “This is important,” Johnson said. “[If you] put safety on top, that lets them know what you expect. If you spring it on them later and don’t disclose it up front, you will have issues.”

Johnson pointed out that in some parts of the world, the culture creates an uphill battle for certain types of PPE compliance. “We can incrementally work on that,” Johnson said. “You’re working to set the culture.”

Labor Considerations – Gather information from local experts to understand the political climate of labor in the host country. Learn the client’s history with labor, either good or bad, and consider working with local/regional contractors and labor organizations. “If you do not do this, you will learn later, and you will learn the hard way,” Johnson stressed. “Labor’s part of it, whether you like it or not.”

Safety professionals must pre-plan for issues, such as walk offs, work stoppages or labor unrest. Develop and practice evacuation procedures and communicate these plans with staff. Develop criteria for the client, contractor, construction manger, etc., and hold each other accountable.

Project Indoctrination – Develop some “golden rules” for the most serious safety infractions and also create rules for general project work, security procedures, medical/first aid, emergency procedures, hazard reporting process and incident reporting. “This is their first impression of you and the project, so do it right,” Johnson said. Make it a clean, comfortable and orderly environment. Use a systematic process that doesn’t waste time and keep the meeting positive, friendly and professional.

Communication Barriers – “If you don’t communicate correctly, you’ll never be successful,” Johnson said. Language barriers affect projects at all levels. Arrange for competent personnel that speak the language(s) to conduct training, and make sure that both parties understand the communication. Johnson recommended having the client or worker regurgitate your statement to be sure it was fully understood. Do the same for them – clarify what you heard. The client will likely appreciate that you took the time and effort to understand.

Reward Success – Johnson suggested setting milestones with the client, and when you reach those milestones, celebrate them. “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t celebrate success in [other countries],” he said. “Celebrate it.”

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