How to improve safety in civil construction

Wednesday, 26 September, 2018

How to improve safety in civil construction

Fostering individual accountability through a human-centred safety system fundamentally improves on the standard, process-based safety approach.

This is a view held by trainer and safety consultant Deborah Keep, owner of

Over the last 16 years, Keep has collaborated with leaders, teams and individuals to change habits and create strategies for optimal performance. Since turning her sights on safety in the civil construction industry, her multilevel analysis of safety cultures has highlighted key issues that can arise when a worksite lacks a unified vision for risk minimisation.

“The unique challenge of civil construction is the multiple contractors and therefore multiple microcultures you often have on-site,” Keep said.

“This can present an issue in creating consistency across the board when it comes to safety practices and culture, and can exacerbate common safety problems such as complacency and shortcut-taking.”

Ahead of her upcoming presentation at the National Construction Equipment Convention, Keep said that in order to understand how to improve safety performance, it helps to distinguish between two different methodologies: safety that’s primarily process focused versus safety that’s constructed with actual human needs and psychology in mind.

“Typical safety processes are built around compliance and making sure boxes are being ticked,” Keep said.

“These systems may look good on paper, but the reality is that workers become reliant on supervisors for risk guidance and fail to develop individual accountability.”

Human-centred practices, on the other hand, derive from understanding mindset and behaviour.

“Optimally effective safety practices are driven from the inside out, from beliefs held by the employees themselves, not outside in, from management and higher-ups,” Keep said.

In other words, it’s vital for each person on-site to have a keen sense of personal responsibility about safety.

So, how does a site manager go about inspiring this type of change — especially when old attitudes about safety are firmly ingrained? According to Keep, you need to start with the team.

“Team accountability and buy-in is imperative to break bad habits and replace them with better ones,” Keep said.

“Knowing the why, believing in it, and then actioning it as a collective unit — that’s what’s needed, along with positive reinforcement and reward along the way.”

Keep said that while process-focused safety can feel de-personalised and does little to encourage discussion, a human-centred strategy helps facilitate continuing dialogue by empowering individual supervisors with the tools to train and maintain their own teams.

“My role is to train the trainer,” Keep said.

“An organisation sends me 15 of their chosen supervisors and senior operators, and then they each go and roll it out with their 15 teams.

“You’re changing culture one crew at a time. You’re working with teams, as one unit, and then because the programs are team run and team owned, the members design and create their own culture. That then has ripple effects into all the other crews they work with, and into the whole site itself.”

The National Construction Equipment Convention will run from 15–17 November at the Sydney Showground. With a theme of ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’, the event will feature expert speakers and industry-leading companies discussing the opportunities and challenges in civil construction. To register for the conference, visit

Image caption: Deborah Keep.

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