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  • Writer's pictureLeverage Safety

Building an Excellent Safety Culture in Project-Based Workforces

Updated: Jul 19

Improving a safety culture is a challenge for any organization, but it becomes even more daunting when dealing with project-based workforces that come together for a limited time.

Leaders of these temporary groups often struggle to find the right approach to achieve excellent safety performance. The need for safety excellence is driven not only by their own aspirations but also by client organizations that demand world-class safety performance from their contractors. Failing to prioritize safety not only jeopardizes worker well-being but also puts future project bids at risk.

Traditional safety approaches that work well for permanent workforces don't always yield the same results for project teams. Moreover, typical safety culture improvement methods often take too long to impact short-term projects. Recognizing these challenges, organizations have tried to tackle them by increasing efforts and introducing new programs or processes. Unfortunately, these attempts have proven less effective than desired.

However, successful contractors and project managers have discovered that rethinking some basic assumptions about safety can lead to significant improvements.

The first assumption that needs reconsideration is the idea that changing thinking is the best way to change behavior. Organizations often try to convince workers to prioritize safety through orientation, training, and supervision. While emphasizing safety is important, this approach often falls short of expectations. Successful organizations have found that it's easier to change behaviors first, with a change in thinking usually following suit. Just like teaching a child to swim, sometimes you have to get them into the water first to overcome their initial reluctance. It's easier to behave your way into a change in thinking than to think your way into a change in behavior.

The second assumption is that safety is solely about knowledge and compliance with a lengthy set of rules. This assumption leads to overtraining, overwhelming temporary workers rather than making them safer. Expecting project-based workers to absorb a vast amount of safety rules and procedures within a short timeframe is unrealistic. Successful projects focus on the most common safety issues, reinforcing them through meetings, training sessions, and interactions with supervisors or management. They prioritize interaction among workers to further reinforce the focus. Project teams have found that concentrating on the most prevalent risks tends to increase awareness of other risks as well, making extensive training in risk awareness unnecessary.

A rules-and-compliance approach can also lead to excessive micromanagement of workers during projects. In many project environments, achieving the level of supervision necessary to prevent worker errors is nearly impossible. Over-supervising is an admission that rules-based training alone won't be effective. Instead of attempting to prevent unsupervised autonomy, organizations should focus on preparing workers for it by instilling the necessary skills and mindset.

The third assumption is that an effective safety culture can be developed within the duration of a project. Culture is shaped by a complex interplay of influences and individual characteristics that exist before workers join a project. Trying to mold desired characteristics within a temporary group often results in frustration rather than success. Effective organizations concentrate on a few key competencies and ensure they become common within the project team. By prioritizing the formation of these key safety norms, they address the most impactful safety issues first and address other issues if time permits.

Temporary project work moves quickly, so it's crucial to establish the most important cultural norms upfront.

Some organizations have found innovative ways to leverage their experienced workers on multiple projects. Timing projects back-to-back, finding interim work between projects, or prioritizing the best workers for future projects can help ensure continuity. Unions may also allow workers with specific expertise to move between projects as needed. Experienced workers can serve as mentors to short-term employees, bringing advanced knowledge and expertise to the team. Although utilizing the same workers is not always possible, when feasible, it helps mitigate the challenges associated with project-based workforces.

One common mistake when managing project-based workforces is treating them like any other workforce, ignoring their unique characteristics. Every issue within a project team is critical, and goals must be achieved quickly to address the challenges at hand.

Onboarding and new-employee orientation should be more robust than in permanent workforces. Mentoring efforts should be concentrated during the initial days of work, and short-term employees should be easily identified to prevent supervisors from unknowingly assigning them complex tasks.

Recognizing the project's scope and realistically addressing the most important aspects of safety and culture are the keys to success. By acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges of project-based workforces, organizations can make significant strides toward achieving excellence in safety performance.

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