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.
SymptomsThe 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 TrainingGet 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. LeadershipLeading 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 OutTake 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.