June 06, 2014
I spoke with JMJ co-founder Jay Greenspan about construction safety and the state of safety in the construction industry. This interview came on the heels of the First Annual Construction Industry Safety Week, where 31 national and global construction firms gathered to help cause an industry wide safety transformation. In this interview, we explore the state of safety in the construction industry today, why incidents and injuries must no longer be acceptable, and what is possible for the future of safety in the construction industry.
JWF: How would you describe the state of safety in the construction industry as you see it today?
JG: Safety in the construction industry is significantly different than it was some years ago. That’s not saying a lot, because it used to be absolutely abysmal. Now it’s just slowly getting up to speed, but it’s moving in the right trajectory.
It has traditionally been an industry, like lumbering or fishing, where people were expected to get the work done and it was allowable that they get injured. That is changing now, and it’s changing rapidly. Some places are a little slower than other places, but it is changing. People are starting to seriously question the way things have been, and seeing that it does not necessarily have to be the way it has been.
JWF: What do you see as possible for safety in the construction industry moving forward?
JG: Here’s exactly what I see: I see that it stops being acceptable that construction workers will be hurt or killed in order to earn a living doing construction. It becomes no longer acceptable in the design of the work, in the cost analysis of the work, and in the delivery of the work that it could even be considered tolerable that those people would get hurt or killed.
It’s at a point, an inflection point, where if you were to think of a different industry like banking or the insurance industry, or advertising or retail (in many cases), it would be crazy to imagine you would have 90,000 bankers injured every year in America in order to earn a living. We couldn’t even imagine this—or stockbrokers or professors or doctors or any profession like these.
Think of store clerks checking out food at a supermarket—if 90,000 of them got injured, more than 700 of them died checking out food—it would be like, “What? Madness, absolute madness!”
So what’s possible is that this industry shifts into that way of thinking: “What? No, that’s not it anymore. There’s no way we’re going to run this company or run this project that way. This site will not hurt anybody, absolutely not.” There will be the same level of absoluteness you have when someone goes into an office or they go into a store or they go into a restaurant. They’re not expecting that the workers could get hurt or killed that day as part of the job. That’s what I see is possible.
JWF: What do you think needs to happen for us to get to that point?
JG: I think a couple of things need to happen.
I think that the leadership of the large, medium and small firms in the construction industry need to take a stand that in their company, it shall not pass that they’re willing to hire people and put them at such great risk that their health, wellbeing, livelihood and lives are in jeopardy. That tolerance for any risk at all is an unacceptable level of risk tolerance for injury, and it won’t be in their company. That’s critical.
The second major thing I think needs to happen is that the insurance companies need to reward the companies doing a good job, rather than just average out the good and the bad to get a rate. If you do a good job, your rates should go down. If you do a bad job, your rates go up. It’s not currently that way, so the financial incentive to do a good job is not there. That could change and needs to change and should change.
I don’t think that the challenges happen at the workforce level—I think the workforce level would be happy not to get hurt or killed. The big change needs to happen in the leadership of the organizations and in the financial structures that allow those organizations to be profitable or not.
JWF: When you’re saying we wouldn’t stand for cashiers or bankers getting hurt at the rate that we do for people in construction, there might be some skepticism that you’re talking about a very different kind of work—that construction is more inherently dangerous. How do you respond to that kind of skepticism?
JG: If you just look historically at manufacturing jobs, hundreds or thousands of people were killed. These numbers have been seriously reduced. There are only a few vestiges left of any type of work in the world where injury and death are tolerated. I would stay it’s still prevalent in four major industries: lumbering, fishing, mining and construction—construction having, by far, the greatest number of workers affected.
The construction industry is the most significant player in that domain of work where people still get hurt. The tolerance is still there.
There used to be a tolerance for injury in manufacturing jobs. It used to be that you could hire children to work, and that became unacceptable. You could look back to a time when it was said, “Well, that’s just the way it is. That’s just dangerous there.” It eventually became unacceptable to have foul air in factories or black lung in mines or asbestos in products, but at the time that it was happening, you hear, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”
It’s only the way it is until someone says it’s no longer the way it is. The time has come for that to happen in the construction industry. It’s time in the lumber and mining and fishing industries as well, but the big number, if you’re going to go for the largest number of people at risk, it’s definitely in the construction field.
JWF: As you’re pointing out, this is an industry-wide issue. What could an individual leader reading this do?
JG: I would ask them to really seriously consider that what I’m going to say is a game changing possibility for them in their organization. Not hurting people and eliminating incidents is obviously a good thing to do, and probably the right thing to do. I think it would be very hard to have a serious argument that it’s not the right thing to do. However, it’s not just the right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do. If any company, large or small, were to do what it takes to not hurt people and to not cause incidents to property, they would then be doing those exact things that it would take in order to run the job or the site or the project profitably, effectively and, by all metrics, successfully.
It’s a two for one: you don’t hurt people and you’re more profitable. You don’t hurt people and the job’s better. You don’t hurt people and your brand gets enhanced. You don’t hurt people and the schedule gets pulled in. You don’t hurt people and you can reduce your costs. You don’t hurt people and all of a sudden you start to get their discretionary contribution, their innovation. You get that part of them called their voice and their thinking, not just their hands, put to the task of the project.
The quality of your company is hugely improved, so it seems like it’s not difficult to buy into this. It would seem like it would just make cold sense from every domain that you look at it.
That’s the message I would give to individual leaders. Please look at those jobs that have run without incident and injury and look at the financials attached to those—the quality, the brand, the schedule—every metric you measure by, see if there’s a correlation and I will tell you that in almost every case there is.
JWF: Final thoughts?
JG: I have one other thing that comes to mind that I’d like to add. To do what it really would take to not have people hurt in the construction industry is a great deal of work. It’s not just a simple thing. It’s going to take quite a bit of effort and it’s going to take a lot of attention. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take commitment. All of those things are precious commodities.
Before anyone puts those to the task, I’d like to thank them on behalf of a group of people who they’ll never hear from. Those people won’t know to thank those leaders, those managers, those foremen, those project executives. I’d like to thank them on behalf of the families of the workers who will not get hurt because of what you will do. It will just look like their lives continued on with no interruption, so they won’t know to say thank you for all that effort and energy and attention and money and time that you will put into making this thing happen. They won’t know to say thank you because nothing will look like it changed.
It will look like the person went to work in the morning, had a good day at work, had fair pay, came home, they had dinner, they watched some TV, they went to bed. Nothing will look like it had changed. But if it had not been for all that you will do, their lives would have been permanently changed, because that person would have been seriously hurt, or worse.
So, on behalf of all those families for the simple thing of letting their loved one come home tonight, thank you so much for what you did.