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  • Writer's picturePrasanna Adhikari

Can Psychological Safety Improve Construction Safety?

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

In the 1990s, a doctoral student at Harvard University joined a team of researchers studying medical errors in hospitals. Her interest was to understand the effect of teamwork on the rates of medical errors. She plunged into her research with the starting hypothesis that the more effective team would have fewer medical errors. After analyzing six months’ worth of data, she discovered that the better team reported a higher rate of medical errors. The results went counter to her original hypothesis and, frankly, counter to what everyone else would have thought. Like any good scientific research, it raised more questions than answers.

Like any good scientist, she did not hesitate to question the correctness of her hypothesis or the limitations of her data. The data was self-reported by the medical teams. Perhaps not everyone reported the data the same way. It could be that the better teams did not make more mistakes but instead were more candid in reporting and talking about their errors. They just reported a larger share of their mistakes, which allowed them to learn from their mistakes and become a better team.

With the new hypothesis, she went back to study these teams again, this time covertly collecting her own data. She discovered that the medical teams varied widely in their level of comfort in reporting mistakes. More importantly, she found, the level of comfort correlated strongly to the actual rates of medical errors. The teams that felt safer reporting errors learned from those errors and avoid them in the future. In the other teams, fewer reports of errors meant fewer opportunities to learn from them and repeat the same mistakes. The doctoral student, Any Edmondson, now a renowned professor of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School, would go on to coin the term “psychological safety” to describe the phenomenon and conduct more than two decades of research on it and its effect in the workplace.

So, what does psychological safety mean? In Amy Edmondson’s own words, “the concept refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns.” In a psychologically safer work environment, people show more willingness to “speak up, offer ideas, ask questions without the fear of being punished or embarrassed.”

Since the introduction of the concept more than 20 years ago, much research has been done on the impact of psychological safety in various organizations. In The Fearless Organization, a book I highly recommend, Amy tells stories of Pixar, Bridgewater Associates, Eileen Fisher, and Berry-Wehmiller and how psychological safety helps them excel at what they do. Add to those stories a highly publicized 5-year study done at Google, and you are left with little doubt that psychological safety plays a significant role in the effectiveness of an organization. The study found psychological safety to be “far and away the most important” of the five different team dynamics studied. But for those of us who are focused on improving workplace safety may wonder, how does psychological safety make a difference?

In her book, Amy narrates several stories of high-profile accidents. In the case of the KLM - Pan Am accident in 1977, the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, and the Asiana Airlines accident in 2013, Amy cites evidence of lack of psychological safey leading up to the accidents. In the case of the US Airways incident in 2009 and the second Fukushima Daini nuclear power in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, Amy cites evidence of psychological safety as a contributing factor in avoiding what could have been more serious outcomes. Granted, these are not typical construction safety incidents, but they illustrate the importance of psychological safety in producing safer outcomes. They also beg the question, how effective can psychological safety be in improving construction safety incidents, large or small?

As the opening story illustrated, psychological safey was proven effective in improving hospital safety. Many subsequent studies have reinforced this direct correlation between psychological safety and hospital safety. And, outside of the healthcare setting, Amy sites example of Anglo American, a South African coal mining company, improved workplace safety where improving psychological safety resulted in a dramatic reduction in accidents. Can these apply to the construction industry? There is no reason to believe that it would be any different in the construction industry. On the contrary, it is reasonable to think that psychological safety can be an essential element for better construction safety.

Like any other workforce safety, construction safety depends on two fundamental factors: the work environment and the behavior of the workforce in it. What makes construction particularly challenging is that both of these factors are constantly changing.

By its very nature, each construction is a constantly changing work environment, and each such change may produce hazardous conditions. As if things are not challenging enough, the construction workforce is also not constant either. Through the life of each project, workers from different trades make a construction site their workplace. Each worker has a different experience, training, risk aversion, and many other traits that affect their decisions and actions. To make matters worse, even their state of mind, which changes each day, affects their decisions and actions. Because of these, despite a safety manager’s constant effort to drive safer behavior through safety training, workers may act unsafely.

Unless these unsafe actions are brought to our attention, we likely never learn about them. And every such action that goes unreported is a lost opportunity to learn from it and improve safety.

Perhaps the most effective method for bringing those to our attention by having our crew on the ground report them when they make mistakes or observe others doing so. However, is the workforce willing to “speak up”? In particular:

  • Can they be candid about their own mistakes or fearful of being reprimanded?

  • Are they concerned about reporting their co-worker’s mistake because doing so may damage their interpersonal relationship?

  • Do they have the courage to report their supervisors’ mistakes, or are they concerned about antagonizing the supervisors?

  • Do they feel confident reporting hazardous conditions they observe, or are they timid about it?

Unless the crew feels psychologically safe, the chances of them speaking up about their own mistake or that of others is very small. They are unlikely to contribute to our collective knowledge to help us improve safety if they don’t see the collective benefit of speaking up and not fear the negative consequences of doing so. The challenge for safety managers and construction executives is to create a psychologically safe environment throughout the entire organization where fearless and candid reporting is commonplace.

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