Human factors can affect any worker in any industry—so much so that they might be the most universal influence on injury risk. But the specific permutations can vary from one industry to the next, and there’s nothing quite like construction sites for their bewildering blend of human factors that all seem to be in play at the same time.
All of which is to say that managing human factors in the construction industry can be a real challenge. Because construction projects are constantly evolving and the situation is fluid from one hour to the next, it can be hard for frontline leaders to recognize when it’s necessary to take steps to rein in one human factor or another.
Hard, yes, but hardly impossible. For construction folks looking to achieve long-term success at managing human factors, it’s a matter of understanding which human factors are most likely to be present at any given moment. And then, it’s an issue of recognizing the human factors management techniques that can be deployed to put the brakes on incidents resulting from dangerous states of mind.
Common human factors on construction sites
There are plenty of different mental and physical states that can cause construction workers to take potentially unsafe actions. But some of these human factors can be harder to manage or are notably pervasive on worksites. Here’s a rundown of a few of the most common human factors that need to be managed in the construction industry.
One of the most prevalent human factors in any industry is fatigue. Often, fatigue is a result of poor sleep and other habits that affect people off the job. Ask any frontline leader and they’ll tell you that on any given day, at least a couple of employees will show up to work looking tired.
But fatigue isn’t just something that happens when people don’t get enough sleep. It’s also something that can build throughout the workday, especially in physically demanding jobs or for people working outdoors in hot weather—and that makes it an especially notable human factor for construction workers.
A few common features tend to appear in most construction projects. One is that the work can be repetitive and monotonous. And even if a constant stream of tasks will keep workers from getting too bored, the jobs at hand can still leave workers feeling unstimulated. Another is that there’s lots of stuff going on all around workers, all the time.
Both of these features can lay the groundwork for distraction, by making workers more susceptible to being distracted and then parading an endless stream of stimuli in front of them. (Notably, this effect is compounded by ever-present digital distractions.) This means that any attempt to manage human factors for construction workers must include an effective way to rein in the dangers of distraction.
Confusion and ambiguity
These two human factors are less well-known than the others discussed above. And if they continually fly under the radar, they’re liable to wreak havoc on construction sites. This is especially true for larger construction projects or teams.
Larger construction sites typically have plenty of workers all carrying out different tasks, alongside and, at times, in conjunction with one another. They can often also have a lot of task-switching and changes of pace throughout the day. This leaves lots of room for people to be confused about what they’re supposed to be doing or to misremember the instructions they were given. These effects can be exacerbated by supervisors giving unclear communications or ambiguous instructions. This can lead to The Ambiguity Effect (decision-making skewed by a lack of information). When workers are confused or uncertain about what they’re supposed to be doing, all sorts of unfortunate outcomes can arise, from wasted time and material to the increased risk of injury.
Other human factors
It’s true that the mental and physical states discussed so far can play a notable role in injuries on construction sites. But they’re hardly the only factors at play. When it comes to managing human factors in the construction industry, safety leaders need to be aware of the multitude of factors that could crop up, from frustration and complacency to illness and stress.
On a busy construction site, there’s no such thing as zeroing in on a single human factor, because there are so many different states at play. This is true even if a single human factor or type of incident stands out on injury reports, such as back strains caused by workers rushing as they move material or equipment around a construction site. Instead, safety managers need a solution that will help workers spot all the major human factors and then adjust their actions accordingly.
To that end, here are several ways to help construction workers protect themselves from injuries resulting from human factors.
Managing human factors in the construction industry
There are several methods to help you manage human factors on construction sites. Keep in mind that none of these are silver bullets, and each of these will work best when deployed in conjunction with the others. This is to say, managing human factors in the construction business requires a multi-pronged strategy.
Toolbox talks on human factors
One of the easiest ways to begin managing human factors on construction sites is through toolbox talks. Because supervisors and crew leads often already run some sort of tailgate talk or pre-shift safety chat, it’s a relatively small step to take to begin integrating human factors into the conversations or, to take it further, to begin holding occasional human factors toolbox talks instead of the usual conversations.
These can be a great way to help supervisors monitor workers’ attitudes towards human factors, as well as workers’ personal awareness of the physical and mental states that could cause them to get hurt. It’s also a low-cost opportunity to highlight key human factors (like the ones outlined above), which in turn will improve individual workers’ ability to manage the potential for human error.
Make everyone a part of human factors management
Everyone has a part to play in managing human factors. Obviously, it’s crucial for the person in charge of safety to have a good grasp of how human error affects the likelihood of injury, as well as the steps that can be taken to mitigate the risk.
Frontline leaders also have a key role in managing human error in the construction industry. Supervisors can heavily influence workplace safety outcomes, and it’s important for frontline leaders and site managers to be able to help workers recognize and respond to human error.
Another meaningful yet often overlooked contributor to managing human factors in the construction industry is the safety steering committee. These committees can be stretched thin, or even non-existent, especially when it comes to construction projects. But if there is a safety steering committee and its members are well-versed in the value of human factors management, then they’ll be more likely to ensure workers have the support they need to properly manage human error.
And most importantly, construction workers need to have a practical understanding of what human factors are, how they work, and what they can do to help keep themselves safe from the effects of fatigue, overconfidence, and other physical and mental states. There’s no shortcut to making that happen—it requires a strong program dedicated to educating workers on human factors.
And if you haven’t yet implemented human factors training then it’s a good time to start looking into it. Because a good human factors training program is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to human factors management in construction.
Manage human factors with training and education
There is no substitution for proper training and education. And it doesn’t matter how strong your safety culture is or how engaging your frontline supervisors are—if workers don’t know how to recognize human factors then they can’t take control of their own personal safety.
Implementing a company-wide human factors management program or conducting practical safety awareness training for every frontline worker and supervisor is a tall order. In most cases, it’s a task best left to the experts with a proven track record. But construction executives have their own role to play—it’s up to them to make the case for human factors training, secure the budget, select the right vendor, and then work with them throughout the implementation.
The construction industry’s long road of managing human factors
All of this is easier said than done, of course. It can take years to implement a good human factors program, get everyone playing their part, and then start rolling out long-term sustainability tactics like toolbox talks that target human factors in construction. But all the more reason to start the journey now, particularly because the destination—fewer injuries, stronger employee engagement, better production—is worth it.
The best way to get started is to become acquainted with a human factors framework. This is the fastest route to understanding how human factors of all types, from fatigue to ambiguity, circulate around a construction site at the individual, small-team and organizations levels.
From there, construction executives will have a strong sense of the issues that are specific to their company, as well as the things they should ask any third-party vendor before partnering with them on their human factors management plan. And at that point, the journey to keeping workers safe from human factors will be well underway.