All construction companies worth their salt hold safety as a top priority. But what if there was a better way to instill safety values than the standard, processed-based approach? Ahead of her presentation at the 2018 National Construction Equipment Convention (NCEC), we caught up with trainer and safety consultant Deborah Keep, Owner of Deborahkeep.com, to talk about a human-centred system for safety that creates accountability from the inside out.

Over the last 16 years, Deborah Keep has collaborated with leaders, teams and individuals to change habits and create strategies for optimal performance. Since turning her sights on safety in the civil construction industry, her multi-level analysis of safety cultures has highlighted key issues that can arise when a work site lacks a unified vision for risk-minimisation.

“The unique challenge of civil construction is the multiple contractors and therefore multiple micro-cultures you often have on site,” Ms Keep said.

“This can present an issue in creating consistency across the board when it comes to safety practices and culture, and can exacerbate common safety problems such as complacency and shortcut-taking.”

Humans over checklists

To understand how to improve safety performance, it helps to distinguish between two different methodologies: safety that’s primarily process-focused, versus safety that’s constructed with actual human needs and psychology in mind.

“Typical safety processes are built around compliance and making sure boxes are being ticked,” Ms Keep said.

“These systems may look good on paper, but the reality is that workers become reliant on supervisors for risk guidance and fail to develop individual accountability.”

Human-centred practices, on the other hand, derive from understanding mindset and behaviour.

“Optimally effective safety practices are driven from the inside out, from beliefs held by the employees themselves, not outside in, from management and higher-ups,” Ms Keep said.

In other words, it’s vital for each person on site to have a keen sense of personal responsibility about safety.

So, how does a site manager go about inspiring this type of change — especially when old attitudes about safety are firmly ingrained? According to Ms Keep, you need to start with the team.

“Team accountability and buy-in is imperative to break bad habits and replace them with better ones,” Ms Keep said.

“Knowing the why, believing in it, and then actioning it as a collective unit — that’s what’s needed, along with positive reinforcement and reward along the way.”

Breaking bad habits

A successful human-centred safety program starts with a top-down approach, with clear support from all levels and a lead-by-example mentality within management.

“The team needs to know that they’re not isolated and that they have the full commitment from the company,” Ms Keep said.

The real challenge of implementing a new safety strategy often comes not in the commencement, however, but in the determination required to see the change through to completion.

“From my experience, the hardest parts are patience, perseverance and practice,” Ms Keep said.

“Patience, because it can take time to shift behavior and culture. Perseverance, because not everyone is sold from the very start and different people peak at different times. And practice, because human-centred safety has the peers themselves running the safety modules, and learning how to train others gets easier with repetition.”

Sustaining change

For companies who do commit to integrating human-centred safety practices, the results can be immediate.

“You can start to see improvements as soon as you initiate the conversations and open up the channels of communication,” Ms Keep said.

“Some teams that I’ve worked with have seen pretty dramatic changes just within the first week.”

Sustaining such changes, however, is a practice in itself.

“Changes can happen immediately, but in order to maintain them as a company fluctuates and different staff and contractors come through, it needs to be an ongoing conversation.”

Encourage dialogue

While process-focused safety can feel depersonalised and does little to encourage discussion, a human-centred strategy helps facilitate continuing dialogue by empowering individual supervisors with the tools to train and maintain their own teams.

“My role is to train the trainer,” Ms Keep said.

“An organisation sends me 15 of their chosen supervisors and senior operators, and then they each go and roll it out with their 15 teams.

“You’re changing culture one crew at a time. You’re working with teams, as one unit, and then because the programs are team-run and team-owned, the members design and create their own culture. That then has ripple effects into all the other crews they work with, and into the whole site itself.”