Moving from Awareness into Action: A Decade in Construction Safety

by Balfour Beatty

In the construction industry, we often mark the passage of time in milestones. Whether it’s a building topping out, becoming water-tight, or securing permanent power, milestones are occasions that inspire reflection upon past successes and planning for the future. 

We recently observed another kind of milestone—the passage of one decade into the dawning of another. It’s a fitting time to assess the industry’s progress when it comes to safety and Balfour Beatty’s journey. 

Just ten short years ago, construction safety policies were largely driven by factors or practices that could impact insurance premiums. Although it seems difficult to believe now, many contractors were resigned to the fact that construction is an inherently dangerous industry, and that they had little power or responsibility to make it safer. Recklessly, attitudes of avoidance and check-the-box compliance prevailed while lives and livelihoods were on the line.

A Global Journey 

In 2009, Balfour Beatty instituted a progressive, global safety program known as Zero Harm. It represented a major cultural and operational shift—both for our business and within the industry at large. Before the launch of Zero Harm in the US, Balfour Beatty tracked job site safety data for our employees but not our trade partners. Since Balfour Beatty does not self-perform a large percentage of work within our U.S. Buildings business, our data set expanded exponentially, positioning our team to become more proactive advocates for the safety of everyone in contact with our job sites. 

Over the past decade, Balfour Beatty has harnessed this data to identify and help prevent the root causes of high potential and other safety incidents. As we became a better learning organization, we made it psychologically safe for people to speak up without the fear of retaliation or judgment. 

This data led to some important discoveries, notably that workers were prone to injuries while using ladders. As a result, Balfour Beatty instituted a ladder policy with requirements that exceed OSHA’s—just one of many such above-and-beyond-safety policies we maintain. Whether it comes to quality, innovation, or especially safety, we believe that a standard based on the bare minimum will yield bare minimum results. It is the difference between lagging and leading. 

Today, Zero Harm is deeply interwoven into the fabric of our company, the DNA of our employees, and the mindsets of our trade partners.

Tapping into the Team Perspective 

Just as Balfour Beatty has evolved our approach to safety, the construction industry has adopted new and more collaborative tactics to become safer such as pre-task planning (PTP). Although the process is not new to the past decade, its widespread adoption as a pre-work practice very much is. During PTP meetings, crews gather to create a work plan, identify hazards likely to be encountered and develop solutions to mitigate or eliminate associated risks. This activity is a great representation of how lean planning practices have positively impacted safety by eliciting a greater and more inclusive involvement of trade partners. 

We have also seen the industry become better at knowledge-sharing. Among leading national general contractors, it is common for safety professionals to routinely share best practices. Beyond OSHA, the industry is leveraging mobile apps, and social media and working with organizations like the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Associated General Contractors (AGC) and the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) to openly communicate ways we can all become safer. 

Collaboration is also proliferating among trade partners. When a trade partner works on a job site with a general contractor like Balfour Beatty that prioritizes their health and safety—and not simply how much work they can put in place—they rightfully expect their next job site to mirror those standards. We’ve also observed trade partners share best practices like Balfour Beatty’s 100% glove policy, and PTP practice and reduction of the use of ladders because they recognize the benefits to their people, productivity and bottom-line results. 

Our Work is Not Yet Done

And yet, despite these positive changes, 1,003 construction workers lost their lives due to workplace injuries in 2018. This devastating statistic represents an increase from 2017 and, most surprising of all, is not very different than the number of fatalities the industry experienced when OSHA was founded in 1971. 

This tugs at the heartstrings of every Balfour Beatty teammate, because at the core of our Zero Harm philosophy is the belief that zero injuries and zero ruined lives are possible—and the only acceptable outcome of doing business. If you are an industry professional, ask yourself what you can do to be a champion of safe work practices on your job site, with colleagues who work for other contractors, or even personally amongst friends and family. Change only happens when we move from awareness into action. 

In 2020 and beyond, technological advancements like off-site manufacturing and other automation are moving work into safer, more predictable environments. Our tools are becoming lighter, faster, and more responsive. Equipment such as battery-powered scissor lifts can now fit in tighter spaces and reach higher heights, reducing the need for ladders and scaffolding. Drones are making it faster and safer to inspect construction activities, especially those at height. Cordless tools are reducing slip and trip hazards. 

Technology will play an increasingly important role in construction safety, but at Balfour Beatty, we believe any successful program must be rooted in the value of putting people first. From a growing focus on ergonomics and reduction in repetitive motion tasks to starting critical conversations about suicide prevention, we are prioritizing the holistic well-being of our teammates and trade partners.
The future belongs to contractors that create cultures of mutual respect and inclusion, where rewarding projects are built by people who genuinely care about one another—on and off the clock.