Creating a Culture of Construction Workplace Safety Around the Globe

June 1, 2009
At Skanska USA, workplace safety is more than a motto or a mantra and more than a set of rules and regulations on the company intranet.

Inadequate fall protection continues to rank at the top of the list of OSHA citations in the United States. Of the 1,200 construction fatalities in 2008, approximately 500 were caused by falls from height. What does this tell us? It says issuing citations does very little, if anything, to make the workplace safer. Does it also mean construction sites cannot be accident free? Absolutely not!

Construction is a dangerous business. On any given day at any jobsite, there are numerous occasions where workers can get hurt: in slip, trip and fall accidents; through exposure to hazardous materials; or in lockout/tagout incidents. Having numerous subcontractors working on a site at various stages of a project doesn't make things any easier. It only increases the possibility of miscommunication and culture clashes that create fertile ground for accidents. So how can management effectively address the need to make the work site safer?

Effective accident prevention is all about leadership. Traditionally, many leadership activities took place at the corporate offices and safety records were confined to company files. At Skanska, we believe in communicating performance both on accidents and on those activities that prevent them. We think the key is to be transparent with our work force and subcontractors. The more insight we share with employees and contractors about what we should be doing in terms of scaffolding, tools or work equipment, and the more we inspire each worker to comply with the rules and regulations because they recognize the reasons behind them, the more likely we are to achieve our goal of zero accidents.


Work safety has to be more than a motto or a mantra and it has to be more than a set of rules and regulations on the company intranet. In order for a zero accident culture to come into being, leadership genuinely has to believe that being injury free is possible. It has to think in a way that transforms organizational behavior by inspiring and fostering a cultural shift towards safety.

Needless to say, given the complexity of the construction industry today, it would be impossible to foresee every potentially unsafe condition or anticipate every possible scenario on a job site. That's why it is important to create an environment that encourages peer intervention. A casual and friendly reminder from a co-worker to put on a helmet, secure the off switch on heavy machinery or watch out for oncoming traffic effectively can counter the bravado factor that can be present on construction sites.

Making sure that the pre-task planning process is not merely an obligatory completion of paperwork at the office, but an actual onsite discussion with everyone involved — including subcontractors — is another way of communicating to everyone that safety is a genuine concern within the organization.

One of the ways Skanska supports employee safety is by starting every workday with “stretch and flex” group exercises. This may sound silly, but working out together every morning does contribute to safety consciousness among workers and creates a team spirit that encourages workers to watch out for each other's safety. It's only 10 minutes a day, but it can make a world of difference.


Of course, one fatality is too many and unacceptable. But the construction industry in the United States can take pride in the fact that it operates in one of the most evolved regulatory environments. OSHA and its UK equivalent, the Health and Safety Executive, have been in place since the early 1970s.

Behavioral-based training and culturally based safety concepts have become mature systems. It is accepted that leadership is the key driver to safe work practices. Rules alone have little effectiveness until behavior is altered to inspire each worker to comply with the rules and practices that insure they go home every day uninjured.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in many other parts of the world. In several eastern European countries, while regulations do exist, the level of compliance tends to be relatively low, especially among subcontractors. In many cases, the lack of enforcement is the result of a lack of technical knowledge. That's why it especially is important for global firms to make sure their company-wide safety procedures apply equally at all work sites regardless of geographical location.

Skanska's Global Safety Stand Down policy (GSSD) that was instituted almost a year ago is a case in point. The GSSD program enables Skanska to put a focus on lessons learned from any fatal accident around the world. The aim of the GSSD is to ensure that learning from any fatality is communicated in a timely manner throughout the organization in an effort to eliminate fatalities and raise awareness among employees, subcontractors, suppliers and the general public. It also is designed to pay respect to the deceased individual and recognize the trauma experienced by those who are left behind.

A GSSD briefing includes a letter from the CEO, information about the accident and the individual whose life has been lost and a set of learning and discussion points. This information is distributed within 30 days of the accident (to ensure a comprehensive investigation has revealed root causes) and a short brief read out loud to employees at the company's office and project locations. A discussion of any implications the incident might have on business policies, processes and safety strategy is followed by a minute of silence in respect of the deceased and his or her family. This briefing is presented at every job site and office around the world, meaning that nearly 200,000 workers have opportunity to hear and discuss these critical points.

Feedback to this new policy has been overwhelmingly positive. Employees have commented that the stand downs communicate the importance of “remaining awake at the wheel” and “the senselessness of cutting corners.” Hearing details about avoidable, fatal accidents affects everyone. Yet the real intent of the stand down is to empower everyone in the organization with the knowledge that will allow them to prevent and avoid hazardous or fatal situations in the future.

The construction industry always will remain a dangerous business. Statistics show that despite our best efforts, there still will be accidents and even fatalities. But the numbers also clearly show that through constant vigilance, great strides can be realized. Our ultimate goal of zero accidents only can be achieved if we overcome complacency and dedicate ourselves to continual improvement in safety practices.

Hendrik van Brenk M.S., CSP, LEED AP, is the chief environmental health and safety officer for Skanska USA Inc. He is responsible for developing and maintaining the strategy and action plan to elevate the visibility and drive the effectiveness of the company's health and safety vision. He has over 28 years of experience in the construction industry, with an extensive background in environmental health and safety and corporate risk management. He holds an M.S. degree in system management from the University of Southern California and a B.S. in computer science from National University. He can be reached at at [email protected].

Global Safety Stand Down Briefing (GSSD)

In January, 2009, a Skanska employee was stuck by a truck in reverse. The incident generated the following learning and discussion points:

Skanska Learning Points

  • Organize the site so that pedestrians only cross roadways at designated crossing points.

  • Pedestrians will be separated from vehicles.

  • Materials and work areas are to be placed away from the roadway

  • Eliminate the need for vehicles to reverse; if this is unavoidable, provide a trained flagman to assist vehicles to reverse.

Work Site Discussion Points

  • It is imperative that everyone at a work site remains aware of all activities in his or her work area or travel zone.

  • Communication between different contractors at a work site needs to be a coordinated effort.

  • Pre-task planning often deals with hazards to the work crew; it also needs to acknowledge that other crafts or contractors may impact conditions at a work zone.

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