From the Top


Management style is critical to a safety culture. 

By Joshua Estrin

With the release of OSHA’s documented increase in 2015 in the number of fatal work injuries – the highest annual total since 2008 – the construction industry, one of the most hazardous of all workplace settings, must approach safety management by not only utilizing pre-existing models, but also by supporting new research and insights into ways in which to keep the worker safe.

Managerial leadership styles play an important role in understanding safety outcomes with the ultimate goal of protecting the worker from unsafe acts, unsafe conditions or a combination of both.

An Unaddressed Concern

There has been no lack of research focused on the goals of how those in charge can utilize time and cost-saving methods, but what about safety? The relationship between culture and climate of safety and the role leadership styles play on job site safety can be both a predictive as well as a reflective analytical tool; yet to date, this correlation has been sorely underutilized.

For decades, the construction industry has focused on applying technologies that support more effective and efficient means and methods regarding the estimating and overseeing of projects; yet in an attempt to fully integrate these mechanisms, it has failed to fully address one of the most significant aspects of our industry, worker safety.

Project management continues to impact the success or failure of a project, but if success is to be defined only on the basis of time, cost or quality performance without making worker safety the first priority, the true impact of the completion of any project lacks an integral dimension, that of the relationship between leadership styles and climate of safety.

Making a Commitment

The complexity of construction safety management and the inclusion of multiple trades and multi-organizational collaboration in the construction industry continue to exist and as such, have a high potential to systemically impede the creation of an effective means of understanding the impact of management styles on the day-to-day activities that comprise a climate of safety. This can be overcome with a commitment by the industry to encourage both managers and workers to engage in simple surveys designed to better understand how the safety information loop, that of a top-down, bottom-up approach is instituted, communicated and arguably most importantly perceived by the frontline worker.

Therefore, the first step is to identify key personnel characteristics and attributes serving to enhance or detract from a strong climate of safety by integrating reliable scales and measures as part of emerging construction safety management research.

Leadership Styles

The examples below offer three general leadership styles that have been recognized across the continuum of all areas of Occupational Safety and Health but have rarely if ever been applied by the construction industry. While some of these leadership styles at first glance might appear more effective, due to the complexity of managing a construction job site, one often governed by a multi-employer model dictates closer examination.

* Autocratic Leadership Style: In this model, there is one leader who has complete command over his/her employees/team. Individual input is not part of this model nor is criticism of the way in which the person in charge decides it best to “get the job done.” While some have argued that the advantage of this style is the ability to make quick decisions leading to greater productivity, safety on the construction job site can be greatly undermined if decisions are not well thought out and driven by pre-planning strategies, especially those safety policies mandated by the contract.

* Participatory Leadership Style: In this model, those in charge foster an environment that encourages a sense of teamwork, with each member, from the top down and bottom up having the ability and responsibility to take part in decision-making process, with the ultimate decisions made by the leader after all opinions and ideas are taken into account. Those in charge direct the workers regarding job tasks and expectations and workers have the freedom to communicate any concerns or suggestions without fear of negative repercussions. The advantages of this leadership style are reflected in an increase in worker motivation and a willingness to accept top down decisions as they feel they reflect their input. Critics argue it is too time-consuming. Yet when worker safety is the priority, planning has proven integral and in the event that a decision needs to be made quickly to avoid immediate hazards, leadership still has the ultimate power to do so.

* Free Rein Leadership Style: Here, the model is built upon complete trust that the worker will perform the job with little to no supervision. In traditional corporate settings, this leadership style works only when the employees are skilled, loyal, experienced and intellectual. While the construction worker can be all of these things, safety is not something that can be left solely to the worker, as top down bottom up leadership often includes certain expertise and access to high-level policies and procedures as well as the construction contract that the worker does not posses.

To that end, the industry has a choice to make as well as an opportunity to embrace should we endeavor to commit to making safety not merely an after thought, but a driving force in all decisions across the construction management continuum.

The research regarding the relationship/correlation between leadership styles and climate of safety is still in its infancy, but it remains integral to the future of construction safety management and the systemic approach to keeping the worker safe, as there is no doubt that by keeping safety systems healthy and responsive they can appropriately adapt to the changing needs of both the workplace and the workforce they are created to protect.

Joshua Estrin is a senior associate at Sarasota, Fla.-based construction forensic services firm Stephen A. Estrin & Co. Inc., specializing in construction safety management support. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected]


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