Towards a more effective safety culture in the construction industry

Towards a more effective safety culture in the construction industry


Safety Culture appears to be the new buzzword. With increasing global demand for more ethical business operations, everyone from international finance organisations and private investors to governments and regulating authorities are paying closer attention to safety for workers and employees. The spotlight is particularly and appropriately harsh on industries which have traditionally had poor records of safety – such as the construction industry. But are safety cultures at organizations truly rising to the challenge?

Increased scrutiny, stalling progress
Despite the renewed scrutiny, little – if any – significant progress has been made in reducing accidental deaths and injuries in most workplaces over the past few years. An incredibly welcome global downward trend in fatal and non-fatal worker injuries over the last decades has stalled to a plateau in recent years. For example, the official construction statistics for Great Britain cited 59,000 non-fatal injuries to construction workers, averaged over the three-year period from 2019 till 2022, stating that “the rate for the latest period…was not statistically significantly different from the previous period.”
Such assessments are particularly discouraging when one considers just how many safety approaches and “innovations” have been publicly proclaimed. While well-intended, most of these gimmicks – such as “zero harm workspaces” or “injury-free incentives” – are not tried-and-tested interventions backed by accurate safety research. Still, these approaches seem to have launched new trends in the safety industry – trends that are followed without due investigation into their validity and effectiveness. The problem is that these approaches may have unintended consequences – for example, by making workers more reluctant to report workplace injuries.

A silver bullet?
Of course, and unfortunately, no silver bullet has been discovered to provide a quick fix to safety problems in the workplace. Safety gimmicks – including safety posters, training sessions, and other similar efforts – have been bought into as quick-fix solutions. But too often, employees and workers view those as a pain in the neck or a necessary evil, and any results are often short lived.

The only winning formula for preventing accidents is an active safety culture – not an add-on, nice-to-have, rosy view for the cameras, but an integral fact of life, incorporated into business operations all-day, all-night, year-round and most especially when no one is watching. Only with such a culture can construction managers prevent accidents before they occur and keep workers safe.

As an award-winning health and safety consultant, Dar has worked with contractors around the Middle East and Africa to achieve millions and millions of safe working hours for construction workers. Our end-to-end safety by design approach aligns with strict international standards of safety and brings multidisciplinary teams and stakeholders to implement the little steps that truly embed safety into a project, from its earliest stages and throughout its lifecycle. In this article, Jason Haig – the highly experienced health, safety, and risk specialist who leads Dar’s HSE unit – discusses forging the path to a safer construction industry.


  1. The myth of the “safety-first” culture and the importance of regulation and oversight
    Safety first. A catchy, inspirational motto, thrown around far too often. And in many cases, no more than a myth. In reality, what comes first in construction and business, for most? Money. Profits. Production. Employee attendance, dedication, and outputs. Return on investment. Tonnage. Number of units. Quality. More competitive products. Money. Greater and greater profits.

    Laws and regulations protecting people and planet are essential for reining in this capitalist impulse and enforcing safety ethics. Fortunately, most countries have some form of safety, health, and environment regulation – which offers a basic platform of safety stability that should be complied with.

    Moreover, investors, international financing institutions, and even consumers are showing greater focus on a company’s ESG (environmental, social, and governance) performance. And safety performance is a key metric in all corporate sustainability reporting standards and systems. In today’s climate, organisations that do not comply face real reputational harm. Such an environment is essential because it brings worker safety and environmental performance to the forefront, offering practical incentives for delivering projects that serve people and planet first.

  2. A top-down, 24/7 safety culture
    The single greatest test for a company’s safety culture is determining just how that company behaves with respect to safety when no one is watching. Safety culture is not a cursory commitment to promote safety at all costs – a commitment anyone can make. Safety culture is not a way to define the outcomes of employee behaviours. Safety culture is not a “quick-fix safety solution,” which does not exist anyway.

    Safety culture is a proactive commitment to integrating safety management into the heart of an organization and its workplaces. The board of directors, managers, and employees all commit to an ongoing, structured process dedicated to constantly identifying and eliminating workplace risks and emerging threats.

    That, in turn, can only be achieved by implementing and maintaining a best-practice-based safety management system (SMS). That system would be risk-based, management-led, and audit driven, with checks and balances, procedures, and standards and with well-defined management and employee realms of authority, responsibility, and accountability.

    Safety culture is made up not of great sacrifices or gestures but of the compilation of meticulous planning, research-backed actions, and preventative measures – tiny steps – that collectively and quietly have an incredible impact on worker safety.

  3. Shifting focus away from “harm outcomes” to accident precursors
    One of the latest safety mottos to emerge is the “zero-harm workplace.” While the idea is well-meant and well-intended, it drags focus to the end result of the accident chain: the harm itself. What about near misses? What about property damage incidents? Those also have the potential to cause harm and should never be ignored.
    A dynamic safety culture recognises these near-miss incidents as warnings as well as opportunities. Employees should be particularly encouraged to report these incidents so that action can be taken before they recur, perhaps this time with disastrous results.

    Not only will an organisation be addressing what are, in many instances, accident precursors, but it will also create a communication network from employees directly to key decision makers, perhaps including the chief executive officer. The same reporting system can be vital for reporting high-risk situations, including lack of proper equipment, machine failure, or other hazards.

    This communication channel, in many cases anonymous, is one of the key factors in forging a positive safety culture.

  4. Overcoming the fear of reporting
    One of the greater challenges to introducing safety culture changes, preventing accidents, and designing effective safety interventions is overcoming the fear most workers have of reporting incidents. For a safety system to work, hazards, accidents, near misses, property damage accidents, and other safety issues have to be reported and addressed. Employees, however, are often reluctant to report such issues, because they fear consequences – either challenges to their performance or even the possibility of being held accountable and losing their job. Root causes of this fear must be identified and eliminated in order to introduce a positive safety culture.

    For a safety culture change intervention to be successful, there must be a climate of trust between employees and management. This includes declaring a truce and moving the focus away from injury blame fixing and fault finding to a safe space where injuries can be reported without fear of reprimand, a space where employees' safety concerns can be freely expressed. This amnesty is the only way to create a climate where old, embedded safety habits and beliefs can change for the better.

  5. The effective type of positive reinforcement
    Of all the efforts and functions carried out by leadership, positive behaviour reinforcement is likely to have the greatest effect on the success of the safety system and consequent culture change. Managers and employees need to be recognised, especially when they do things right. Safety professionals have a history of catching people doing things wrong and issuing punishment accordingly. This has yet to help progress safety.

    However, positive reinforcement needs to be carefully thought out or it may backfire. For example, the promise of a hard-cash incentive for being injury-free has nothing to do with working safely. Such injury-based incentives may even drive workers to conceal injuries for fear of losing their “safety bonus.” Instead, recognising employees for adhering to safety rules and for participating in the safety processes reinforces their involvement and encourages them to take action for safety.


At its core, safety culture is a commitment to a continuous, evergreen improvement process focused on meticulously reducing risks. If an organisation is willing to change how it has managed safety in the past and if a dynamic leadership team is aligned toward integrating safety into normal operations as a value, the effort will succeed. It will not be grand or glamorous, but the outcomes will be incredible.