Building a Culture of Safety

Raymond O’Brocki

July 22, 2021

After 20 years of visiting and evaluating fire safety measures at construction sites, I’ve learned to quickly identify projects led by those who take fire prevention seriously and those who simply do not.

For example, during a recent project visit I noticed how some personnel had either one or two “Xs” painted on their safety helmets. When I asked the superintendent about this, he said workers earned an “X,” or a strike, for each violation of the fire safety plan. Additionally, I was told that any crew member earning a third “X” is required to leave the job site for failing to follow expected safety practices. Smoking on the construction site outside the designated smoking area was an automatic “three strikes!” 

A few weeks later, a brief walk through another job site told me all I needed to know about the collective approach to fire prevention at this project. Just minutes into the inspection, I observed countless electrical code violations, improper storage of flammable liquids and no sign of permitting for hot work – just to name a few.

I’ve always believed that every construction site fire is preventable in some way. I also believe that what separates building sites afflicted by fire with those that don’t is a culture of safety that permeates the job site.

In any work environment, it’s up to the leadership team to create a culture of safety, to place a high level of importance on safety beliefs, values and best practices that can be shared and embraced by the majority of those in the workplace. Developing and emphasizing a safety culture creates a series of positive benefits for the entire organization. On construction sites, this translates to taking every possible step to prevent a fire – either accidental or intentional.

In the world of construction site fire safety, developing such a culture starts at the top with the site’s Fire Prevention Program Manager or Site Safety Director. It’s their job to write, execute and enforce the Fire Prevention Plan, which should be uniquely tailored to the needs and challenges of each construction site and project.

But creating a culture of safety is more than just having the right plan on paper. There are a variety of methods out there for creating a safety culture, but to me it comes down to a few key points:

  • Communication/Education: Are workers being trained on the safety plan and understand the expectations? A few years ago, I visited a construction site where workers who were trained received helmet stickers. This sent a clear signal to me about the overall approach to fire safety.
  • Lead by Example: The Site Safety Director and all other supervisors should set the tone, follow all safety policies and encourage employees to do the same. Workers have no incentive or motivation for following safety procedures ignored by supervisors.
  • Reporting: Develop and implement a positive reporting plan. Reward employees who report safety hazards or concerns. A positive safety culture is much easier to build and maintain when employees feel comfortable in the reporting process.

All of these steps can be accomplished without spending a lot of time or resources. In the process, the entire construction team is working together to prevent the chances of a fire posing a risk to lives, communities and property.

Every fire is preventable, and every fire is predictable. A culture of fire safety goes a long way to making sure what is predictable is preventable.