Investigating unsafe acts on a large multinational construction project
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At the top of the hierarchy, construction project managers emphasise that safety is a key priority; and at its bottom, front-line workers do not turn up to work to get hurt. Yet, somewhere within the organisation it goes wrong, as accidents still occur. Research has suggested that unsafe acts contribute to over 80% of accidents, and hence reducing or eliminating unsafe acts should take a significant step forward to improving construction safety. While it has been recognised that the vast majority of accidents are still caused by unsafe behaviour, research has shown that organisational and cultural factors considerably affect unsafe work behaviour. This study aims to provide insights on unsafe acts that were committed by construction mangers and operatives; as well as providing insights on the effects a multinational workforce has on unsafe behaviours. Hence, the content within this thesis has purely focused on ‘unsafety’ rather than safe practices, and there were many good safety practices on the QC (Queensferry Crossing). It is the premise that by concentrating on ‘unsafety’, theoretical and practical insights can be gathered for safety improvements in the construction industry. This investigation explores this problem on a large multinational construction project in the UK, the QC. The contractors of the QC, Dragados of Spain, Hochtief of Germany, Morrison of the UK and American Bridge, represent Forth Crossing Bridge Constructors (FCBC). Adopting an interpretive paradigm, this study used a qualitative approach through ethnographic methods. A moderate participant observer approach was implemented; where the researcher adopted a role as a member of the H&S department and frequented the research setting between one and three times a week for almost three years. The contribution of this research is the in-depth ethnographic insights into the complexity of unsafe acts. The insights revealed that: there was a blame culture, creating an environment that was very difficult to learn from; that some cost-saving strategies appeared to increase safety risks; some H&S rules were viewed as excessive and inflexible by construction workers, and therefore their were times when workers used their own judgement about when to follow the rules; there were communication barriers with migrant workers, and the one in six translator policy used in an attempt to overcome this was far from ideal; and that the different ways of working that foreign subcontractors had meant they were difficult to manage, monitor and adjust. The findings revealed that there were two main underlying themes that were influential in the undertaking of unsafe acts: firstly, the perceived compensation culture and secondly, tight financial budgets. The fear of compensation claims appeared to prompt the H&S rules that were viewed as excessive, and took away ‘common sense’ from some procedures. The operatives desired more of a common sense approach, and felt at times they needed to break the rules in order to complete the job. The fear of claims also appeared to lead to the unconscious adoption of a ‘Person approach’ perspective, which concentrates on individual error and blame, and as far as possible uncouples organisational responsibility from an individual’s unsafe acts. This approach is inextricably linked to a blame culture, where accidents were under-reported, misreported and reported late. The second theme was tight financial budgets. Previous research has explained that the competitive tendering process in the industry can discourage contractors from factoring into bids the cost of performing the work safely. In this research study, there appeared to be additional risks taken for schedule or cost reasons. Directors and senior managers acknowledged there was significant pressure for production, construction site managers believed the budget they were working with was too tight, and construction operatives explained that a phrase used on site was ‘just get it done’. To cope with production pressure construction site managers used undercover and informal reward schemes, referred to as ‘Vegas Time’ in this study. These schemes strongly incentivise production, potentially at the cost of safety. Ethnographic insights also revealed the areas where cost saving strategies appeared to increase safety risks, such as temporary designs, labour shortages, machinery and equipment. One of the most obvious cost-saving strategies was to employ a cheap multinational workforce. However this led to many challenges with communication and different work practices, which was also perceived as an additional safety risk. The theoretical implications of this research work is that to avoid additional safety risks from occurring due to cost-saving strategies, occupational health and safety considerations should be planned and priced for in more detail during the tender stage. Also, the eradication or reduction of the perceived compensation culture would increase the likelihood of adopting the System perspective to unsafe acts, rather than a Person approach, which is inextricably linked to a blame culture.