I have clearly identified the area where most onsite hazard communication tends to fail and control is lost: middle management.

For the past several years, I've been writing safety and health articles for Roofing Contractor, addressing safety issues of concern to roofing employers and related industries. Concurrently, I have continued safety and rescue training for workers in the building trades and emergency services as well as auditing and consulting with contractors throughout the Northeast. I have interviewed hundreds of workers and their managers, asking them to critically estimate their successes and failures in workplace safety. As a result, I have clearly identified the area where most onsite hazard communication tends to fail and control is lost: middle management.

Murphy's Law of Construction Scheduling has three guiding rules: 1) Whenever the schedule changes, time allotments are inevitably reduced, never expanded; 2) Whenever an unforeseen problem occurs, it will always be on a short-man day; 3) Most accidents occur at the worst possible time in the schedule, location on the job site and meteorological conditions. A chain of unrelated accidents may occur next.

These are symptoms of leadership decay. Well-meaning and otherwise capable personnel on various crews will attempt to correct the course of their job as they see it, but without the overall plan and knowledge credited to the project manager, they often miss their goals or create tasks that may delay or conflict with the project. It is the middle manager's level of personal competency, capacity for multi-tasking and skill at communication that will be tested each and every shift.


The best method to understand the syndrome of middle mismanagement is to identify some of its symptoms. The site is usually disorganized with every obscured area filled with debris and waste. Non-serious and unrelated accidents and near-miss events begin to occur with increased frequency. The efforts to deny and obscure them by the workforce as signs of their incapability increase until lost-time and possibly hospitalization can occur.

There is also a palpable disregard for the value of materials and the replacement cost of tools and equipment repairs. Equipment handling techniques and material storage facilities are haphazard rather than pre-planned and carefully executed. Workers on a mismanaged site tend to isolate themselves into smaller sub-groups, even subdividing within a single employer's workforce. Nothing substantial is ever transferred through these barriers. "No one said anything to me" is the phrase most often heard.

While not always irreversible, the damage to the safety culture of the project can be devastating. There's no time for denial. While none of the following actions will exclusively turn around a derailed project, they each may contribute in some part to its recovery.

1. Project Management Training

Get some. Satisfactory management results are not achieved by everyone simply assigned to the position because they deserve a promotion after so many devoted years of service. Willfully taking the steps to lead your workers toward pride in a job well constructed and safely completed is a learned procedure. The employer has the only effective means to this end at his disposal. He should comprehensively TRAIN his middle managers to be leaders in excellence. If your employer is unwilling or incapable of providing project management training, get it on your own. And the training never stops, so plan refresher training regularly.

2. Leadership

Leading pre-empts managing. While some believe it is a false premise, leadership is a learned skill and should not be reactively practiced. Experience is the only resource that cannot be trained. Spend a few years in the middle manager's saddle and you'll either grow with each project or remain static and retire early. Leaders are never reluctant to change their mind or their tactics. As a project manager, I sometimes think of myself as the sheriff on the project. My intent is to deputize everyone else on the site to act in my behalf. It may sound self-serving but it reminds me of my responsibility to lead rather than manage the work.

3. Time Out

Take time out of production with your workforce. Ignore the phone, fax and files for a shift. Take the time to talk and listen. Brief, random appearances regularly during the week will demonstrate your commitment to Zero Tolerance for accidents.

Establish your priorities (Safety, Quality, Productivity) and paint them on the side of your job trailer if necessary. Once your workforce sees that you mean it, it will immediately reinforce your effectiveness and eventually convert even the most noncompliant, risk-taking employee. Bottom line: Saving lives, property and corporate resources (in that order) is the only way to save a project.

4. Tunnel Vison

Here's the hard part: Eight to 12 hours a shift managing a hundred workers often leads to a myopic view of the project. Instead of visualizing the finished structure with all final, integrated functions operating, you may be overwhelmed by the minutia (i.e., there are 650,000 connecting bolts on this building). One of my favorite superintendents (a former Sea-Bee) referred to it as the "fog of war." He said he'd learned to take a seat in the row behind himself and carefully watch himself work until he'd taken in as much of the material, labor and equipment peripherals of the job as he could see. He'd notice how quickly new problems appeared to fill the voids created by earlier solutions. He soon began to detect material shortages, misallocations of labor and potential equipment failures before they occurred. Then, figuratively, he'd stand and take a seat in the next row back. He'd watch the job from there until he understood how his subs, service vendors and suppliers entered the picture and where their coordination difficulties and miscommunications would soon arise. This exercise is not hard to do, but it will take time. Do it anyway.

5. Out-of-Service

Immediately tag defective equipment and tools "OUT OF SERVICE" when discovered. Give each employee an "Out Of Service" manila tag in his pay envelope every week with a note: "My tools and equipment and your safety go hand-in-hand. If it's defective please don't use it. When in doubt, always tag it out first and bring it to your foreman's attention as soon as possible." Remember, a two-cent tag may ultimately avoid a thousand dollar OSHA penalty as well as save a life. The ability to take tools and equipment out of service will also put the control of personal safety back in the hands of your workers where it belongs.

6. Checklists

One of the best ways to evaluate your safe work performance is by creating a simple, single-page pre-shift safety checklist. Utilizing the plans, specifications and schedules, list the items and conditions you should inspect before the workday begins as well as end of shift. Not only will this put safe performance and conditions foremost in your mind each day, but also, most importantly, signing and dating the bottom of the form gives you the hardcopy documentation that OSHA looks for from a competent person.

7. First Impression

What does a client, visitor or an OSHA compliance officer first see when stepping onto your jobsite? If you have set up the jobsite properly, there will be a defined barrier at every entry point on your project limit line. At this point signage will clearly (and in multiple languages if necessary) identify your firm (including emergency telephone number) your commitment to safety (including personal protective equipment required on site) and direct them to sign in with your foreman at your trailer, gang box or plan table. There they should find prominently displayed: fire extinguisher; first aid kit with biohazard clean-up kit; emergency phone numbers and evacuation route; employee list of assigned responsibilities; right-to-know center; corporate safety program; and posters or banners declaring your safety obligations. You've invested in all that equipment and training so presenting it professionally is only a logical choice. Nothing ever changes a first impression.

8. Housekeeping

If there was just one jobsite issue that could save you money in the budget in the short and the long run, prevent accidents and improve morale, it would have to be good housekeeping practices. A clean worksite also promotes a strong and confident first impression. Often the most overlooked safe work practice, if not performed regularly poor housekeeping can also be a drain on your productivity and profit margin. It's been shown that when everyone takes five minutes at least twice a day to straighten up the tools, restack the materials, empty the cans into the dumpster, sweep up the debris and keep walkways and doorways well lit and free from obstructions, not only is it easier to get the job done, but there are fewer slips and trips, minor eye and struck-by injuries on record.


Project mismanagement is not a rare condition. In my opinion, it reflects a universal tendency for all jobs to self-destruct without leadership. The project manager should understand the nature of his job and keep an eye open for symptoms of schedule decay and hazard accumulation. This way he may take advantage of that small window of opportunity to correct course and re-establish project control.