Can Swiss Cheese Keep a Construction Worker Safe?

As a sheet metal worker, I’ve witnessed many injuries and near misses over the years.  I’ve even been hurt a few times.  Unfortunately, this is not a unique experience. Construction work usually ranks on the top ten list for most dangerous professions.

How do we keep construction workers safe?

Lately, I’ve began thinking about this question in terms of game theory payoffs. The dominant strategy for trades people is to work quickly and productively.  In construction, if you’re quick and productive, you’ll stay working.  If you’re slow, you’ll be cut from a crew. Though maintaining health should be an obvious incentive, it’s payoff simply isn’t compelling enough. Why? To a worker, working safely equates to “working slowly.” See the dissonance?


Scarcity of attention is a concept that typically has been applied to money, but should be applied to worker safety too.  Urgent needs can trump bigger priorities.   This is why people may opt to spend money now and fail to save for retirement or a child’s education.  It reinforces why earning a good paycheck trumps safety.  It also illustrates why a project manager would rather have a winning project versus a safe project.

swisscheese John Cooper

Companies will fail to keep workers safe as long as the biggest responsibility rests squarely on the workers themselves.  A Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation may be a solution. This model identifies four areas that could be the source of an accident: organizational influences, supervision, preconditions and specific acts.  As such, 3 out of 4 domains are typically out of a worker’s hands!

Safety training and awareness should remain priorities for trades people. However, stronger incentives for project managers and other organizational leaders need to be put in place if “zero accidents” is the goal.  Where companies typically monitor incidents and injuries, payoff analysis needs to become a priority even if it highlights organizational shortcomings.

What are your thoughts on workplace safety?

It’s your move.  Make it a great one!



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