A Matter of Size

What impact does a company's size and leadership style have on safety?

By Joshua Estrin

While the construction industry is comprised of companies of all sizes, big companies often have large marketing budgets allowing for maximum industry exposure. Yet, while small construction firms (between one to 50 employees) comprise a large portion of the industry, little is heard from them. This begs the question: does the size of a company impact job site safety?

Before this question can be answered, one must also recognize that the leadership styles of those charged with worker safety are an integral part of understanding the obstacles that continue to face the industry. There are three general leadership styles that have been recognized across the continuum of all areas of occupational safety and health but have rarely been clearly articulated by the construction industry: autocratic, participatory and free rein.

Autocratic Leadership Style: In this model, one leader has complete command over his/her employees/team. Individual input is not recognized 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.

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 the decision-making process, with the ultimate decisions made by the leader after all opinions and ideas are taken into account. When worker safety is the priority, this form of input from the worker 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: This model is built upon complete trust that the worker will perform the job with little to no supervision. In traditional corporate settings, this works 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 that the worker may not possess.

Is Bigger Safer?

In a recent study I conducted of 530 workers and managers from 48 of the 50 states, organizational size did not differ in many aspects regarding job site safety. Across all organizational sizes, there was a high level of importance and priority placed on improving safety levels and rules, continuing to work safely when work falls behind schedule, providing detailed safety reports to workers, considering safety when setting production speed and schedule and giving safety personnel the power to do their job. Yet, managers in small companies were more likely to leave workers in charge of their own personal safety with little supervision when compared to their mid- and large-sized counterparts.

Managers, specifically those who adopted a more autocratic or participatory leadership style, were more likely to prioritize safety audits and were more likely to belong to larger organizations. Larger organizations were also more likely to place a higher level of importance on requiring each manager to help improve safety in his/her department. They were also more likely to prioritize investment in safety training and safety-awareness events.

In essence, the research suggests that larger organizations may place a greater emphasis on each manager's responsibility in creating a safer environment because they have a larger number of workers to maintain. They were also more likely to have resources to invest in safety trainings and programs to ensure their commitment to creating a safe work environment. Consequently, larger organizations were more likely to have safety professionals who adopted an autocratic leadership Style, and therefore by nature, were extremely concerned with following the rules and regulations.

A New Awareness

Even with an awareness regarding the importance of job site safety, the construction industry remains both hazardous and dangerous. While it might seem counterintuitive to look to smaller construction companies to find the answers regarding how to solve this problem, smaller businesses are in fact the bridge between outdated modes of measuring and managing culture and climate of safety and the new age of construction safety management.

Building upon the idea of company size and its relationship to culture and climate of safety, the construction jobsite and specifically those safety issues influenced by leadership styles can be seen as not resulting from one single safety act or omission. More specifically, organizational influences, contracts, subcontracts, master agreements, unsafe supervision, preconditions for unsafe acts and unsafe conditions or a combination of all are where the real issue of understanding the problem exists. Therefore, smaller companies are fertile ground for appropriately testing and implementing new safety measurements and interventions. With fewer employees and less organizational bureaucracy, smaller companies have the ability to adapt to change more rapidly, resulting in more readily apparent outcomes which in turn, allow for adjustments to be made in real-time with measurable results that can later be applied to larger companies.

The construction industry can no longer hide from its own flawed truth, one that is highlighted by the reality that construction safety management is systemically defective and as such, the worker is at risk from the moment he/she steps onto the jobsite. Smaller companies appear to hold the answers to the difficult questions that the industry must no longer avoid based on the fact that many of the traditional means and methods regarding worker safety simply do not work.

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

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