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Prior to the pandemic, the construction industry was experiencing mental and behavioral health stressors and increasing fatalities. The pandemic is contributing to these underlying conditions threatening the safety and wellbeing of the construction workforce:

The COVID-19 Challenge

Many industries have adapted to a work from home model and those employees benefited with more flexibility for their personal life. One example of such a benefit includes managing their children who could not attend school. The construction industry continued working as an “essential” worker with minimal flexibility or benefit in addressing personal needs. As a result, the following phenomena is occurring in the industry.

  1. Distancing restrictions contributed to fewer peer-to-peer interactions. The quality of safety training has either declined or been postponed. This is problematic because employees are not receiving the details and information needed to work safe. Prior to the pandemic, fall fatalities were rising. In OSHA’s 2020 report the duty to have fall protection was the top citation issued. This indicates employers are failing to ensure employees are competent for the hazardous work they perform.
  2. The quality and capacity of the workforce continues to be a challenge for contractors. Many contractors are working under tighter schedules with less manpower leading to burnout, depression and frustration among workers. This increases the likelihood of substance abuse and distress compounding into a decreased mental wellbeing.

There are two strategies to consider implementing to reduce fatalities in the workplace: competency and community.

Competency

Research has shown that people become more self-motivated and self-directed when they feel competent at performing worthwhile work.” Increasing competency through the use of skill training, job education, and mentoring is a great way to provide meaningful purpose for the employee and increase their perceived value to the organization. Consider the following data points, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the three leading causes of workplace fatalities ranked in ascending order are:

  1. transportation incidents;
  2. falls, slips and trips; and
  3. workplace violence or other injury by person or animal.

Quite often, contractors do not think about workplace violence, harassment and the well-being dynamic as being one of the top three causes of fatality on the job. Suicides are typically not counted as a workplace injury. Sharing this data with employees provides an opportunity for discussion about wellbeing. Now is the time to renew a focus that increases the competency of the workforce. Adaptation to the COVID environment can be achieved by using new presentation format ideas such as simulation, virtual or staggered training events.

Community

Recognize that contractors are essential workers with less choice over their work environment. The lack of choice is a self-motivational problem. For example, a construction laborer is rarely involved in the planning process that directly defines their installation means and methods of the job. The lack of planning diminishes their ability to control their personal acceptable level of risk.

High-risk tasks such as working at heights is best reduced by using guardrails or the eliminating the hazard during the design and sequencing of a project. The reality is that planning is frequently focused on schedule and coordination of material and trades. Once the laborer mobilizes to the jobsite there are few options remaining. As a result, fall protection hazards at height are solved by the use of fall arrest; allowing a fall to occur versus preventing a fall from occurring. The disregard of the laborer’s acceptable level of risk and lack of choice increases their frustration and a sense of helplessness in the work environment.

One way to influence the work environment where choice is not in the employee or employer’s control is to increase efforts on community. Community in this context is about having a common interest and fellowship. Employee wellbeing benefits when contractors support an inclusive culture that builds trust—a trust that the employer and coworkers care about each other’s well-being and success, despite the commitment to get the job done. Supportive relationships help promote a psychologically safe and productive workforce. This is demonstrated through empathy and action.

Building trust among workers increases the interdependency of working by looking out for each other on the team, rather than the internal dependency of one’s perceived diminished choice in their work environment. It is this team centric support system that encourages employees to openly speak about wellbeing concerns and present new ideas.

Demonstrating care is one way to build trust. Care can be a manager or leader phone call to an employee recognizing efforts and results achieved during a challenging project. It could also include reassuring job security or talking in a candid manner about the future outlook of the company.

Creative approaches showing care include starting a company newsletter that distributes to their home address monthly. The newsletter could be as simple as showing project progress pictures, reinforcing company success stories, or recognizing employee achievement in and out of the workplace. Engaging the family starts to open up conversations outside of the workplace about the work and risk employees endure each day. This helps the family understand the commitment and achievements their family member is having in an industry, which starts the building blocks of an external support system that mutually benefits the employee and employer.

Ultimately, we cannot change how someone feels or the challenges of COVID-19, but we can influence the work environment experience by focusing on community and increasing competency. Both strategies can help contractors address the increased stress among the workforce from the pandemic. Likewise, building both competency and culture can help contractors reduce the risk of workforce fatalities.

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