Building a Safe Culture in the Masonry Industry
By Zach Everett
When we talk about building a safe culture in the masonry industry, it is necessary to know what is all this rhetoric about “safety culture” anyway? I think most people get the general idea, but let’s make certain of what we’re talking about when we use the word “culture” in reference to the construction industry.
We understand that the world has different cultures – traits, habits, rituals, customs, foods, speech and general lifestyle of people from other parts of the world. I have had the privilege of visiting Africa a few times. You’ve heard the term “culture shock.” Just trying to drive around can be shocking, especially the first time. If you’ve been to a third world country, you have an idea of what I’m talking about. There are virtually no traffic signals or even signs, and in areas of gross traffic congestion, like in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, it’s dog eat dog.
My first morning there, I woke up, stumbled to the sliding glass doors that overlooked a conglomeration of streets coming together in a signal-less group of intersections, and stood in awe of the carnage that was sure to ensue at any moment. I grabbed my camera and snapped some shots. There were cars, small trucks, large trucks, vans, buses, donkey carts, people-drawn carts and pedestrians everywhere. And not to belabor the point, but they just don’t use traffic signals. I heard a continuous barrage of honking from every vehicle in sight. The donkeys may have even been honking.
To best describe what the traffic is like there, it looks like you took a huge ant bed and stirred it up. Yet it works pretty well. I didn’t see many more accidents there than I see here. That incessant honking would cause no end of road rage here, but there, it’s simply an announcement of a lane change. Just point your front bumper where you want to go, honk, and start to drift. If you hear squealing tires, breaking glass, or crunching metal, you drift back some. It’s part of the “culture.”
It’s the same with safety on our jobsites. There is an accepted norm, but what is that norm? Is taking unnecessary risks the norm? Is taking the guard off a tool acceptable? Is leaving a handrail or two off of a scaffold thought of as no big deal? Is it normal for the fork lift operator to not wear his seatbelt or for a construction worker to not use a fall arrest system? Are new hires put to work without any safety training? Is it the attitude of the supervisor that safety people are just nitpicking? If any of these attitudes or actions are so, it is an indicator of an unsafe culture. Unsafe actions are the norm, therefore, the culture.
What we want when we talk about a safe culture in the masonry industry is the opposite. When someone attempts an unsafe act, we want everyone on the job to stop and stare at him like a cow looking at a new gate. The culture that we want to build is one in which safety procedures are the norm. When hazards are seen, they are immediately removed. When someone attempts an unsafe act, his co-workers stop him and explain, “We don’t do that on this crew; someone could get hurt.”
That is a safe culture in the masonry industry. The traits, habits, customs, speech and general lifestyle of the crew focus on safety, even if it trumps production. On many masonry jobs, if the supervisor were to talk about extreme safety every day, it would seem the norm. This is what we must start building. It’s not easy to change, but it is possible, and it pays dividends in the future.
Here is one suggestion that can help in building a safe culture in your company: Focus on your supervisors. They are the pivotal point of true culture transformation. We can try to work this backward, focusing on the employees, but things really won’t change until the supervision is changed. When supervisors are converted, the crew will be converted by them. If there are no consequences to supervision, but we are hardnosed toward the crew, it will be viewed as hypocrisy. Building a safe culture in the masonry industry is not a goal, but a journey. It means never-ending change where needed and continuing to try new ways to build that safe culture.
Zach Everett, CSHO, SHEP, is corporate safety director for Brazos Masonry in Waco, Texas. Zach is dedicated to providing a safe working environment, not only for our employees, but to all personnel on site. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.