Construction is a dangerous business — always has been, and likely always will be. But each year a handful of projects create breakthroughs in safety: they work million of labor hours without hurting, much less killing, anyone. Year after year, a handful of companies not only injure fewer people than their peers, they eliminate serious worker injuries. What sets these organizations apart? What accounts for the disparity in results between these organization and the rest of the industry? Money? Systems? Experience? All of these make a difference but none explain the disparity. We’ve worked as a consultant to large capital construction projects for fifteen years, and in our experience, safety is a function of leadership. Leaders of high-performing organizations have learned five lessons that enable their success influencing people and keeping them safe. Lesson #1: It is possible to eliminate worker injury. It is exceedingly difficult, but it can be done — and belief in and commitment to this possibility is necessary to sustain the required effort. Leaders who believe ‘this is dangerous work, and some level of injury is inevitable’ have little chance of making a significant, lasting difference in safety. Lesson #2. Commitment to worker safety is a catalyst for engagement. Eliminating worker injury requires a dramatic increase in communication and interaction with employees; it requires a re-examination of how we work and our assumptions about how people behave. Most importantly, striving to keep people safe demonstrates commitment to the value of individual workers. This is repaid by greater levels of engagement, innovation and discretionary effort from team members. Lesson #3. Safety systems are necessary but insufficient. Ultimately, subjective factors such as workers’ attention, perceptions and mindset determine safety results.  Ironically, attempts to achieve safety through systemic and procedural interventions often undermine employee engagement. A safe workplace includes rules and processes, but in the end, it must also include conversation, reflection and learning by all team members. Lesson #4. Every leadership action influences worker safety. Workers notice what matters to their leaders — and they behave accordingly. Talking about safety for five minutes at the start of a meeting matters little if you spend the rest of the meeting talking about cost-reduction. Hanging safety posters in your office means nothing if the people you promote are known for their success making schedule. Leadership for safety is inseparable from leadership for other matters. Lesson #5. Leadership for safety is required throughout the organization: senior-most executives must be visibly engaged; front-line supervision must actively reinforce desired mindset and behaviors; informal authority figures (“champions”) within the workforce must be developed. Think of the high-performing organizations and companies in your industry: what sets them apart? My experience is that leaders of those organizations have learned, and relentlessly apply these lessons. What about you and your team? Where do you stand on these five lessons?

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