Tips for avoiding the safety slump amid worker shortage

18 May 2023

Amid a widening worker shortage and ever-increasing capacity demands for both construction and transportation, it’s never been more important to lean into safety awareness and execution. But after three years of constant safety strategy, many CEOs are seeing a drop-off in safety performance as companies and workers try and get back to “business as usual.”

According to a recent op-ed by Jay Greenspan, co-founder of Austin, Texas-based cultural consulting firm JMJ, nearly 80 percent of CEOs he personally interviewed reported that, for the first time in more than 10 years, their safety performance is moving in the wrong direction.

Photo: Traffic Safety Zone

Even more remarkable, said Greenspan, was that all the companies recorded their best safety performance during the most dangerous periods of the pandemic – which they attributed to the intense focus on health and safety protocols.

Perhaps a combination of both exhaustion and relief can be connected to the slump, as many workers decided that, with protocols removed, they could just hit cruise control on safety for a while. Additionally, during the pandemic, “distancing” kept supervisors away from their employees in various capacities, and thus, much of the otherwise in-person health and safety training wasn’t completed in the same way. And now there’s a gap.

As a result of that gap, many workers across industries have not received core safety training in the last few years on critical programs.

Ramping up

Another discovery Greenspan made during his interviews concerned the shrinking labor force. Not only are there less workers to go around, but two things are happening concurrently: older workers who understand the crucial role that safety plays in daily operations are exiting the workforce, and thus leaving a mentorship void in their wake, and younger workers just starting out are learning the way younger workers often do – by making mistakes. Additionally, companies are now beginning to look outside of traditional talent pools for potential workers, and the folks they hire often have little to no experience and/or basic knowledge around the safety protocols required for the job.

As a result, Greenspan pointed out, companies are ramping up their training programs to establish a minimum level of competency and commitment from supervision all the way through to the workforce.

It should also come as no surprise that OSHA Directorate of Construction, Scott Ketcham, recently gave a review of the agency’s focus on the construction industry and stated that, because the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will be injecting a tremendous amount of money into construction over the next seven years, OSHA is ramping up capacity to conduct inspections. Some areas of focus will be construction of roadways, bridges, airports, railways, ports, waterways and power and water systems.

During his speech, Ketcham also noted that there is a disturbing increase in the rate of trench fatalities, and reiterated that, if a Compliance Safety and Health Officer (CSHO) happens to drive by a site and sees an excavation, they are required to stop and inspect.

Effective leadership

Greenspan went on to point out that an already difficult situation has been made worse by a significant decrease in worker retention. But all is not lost, he noted – pointing to two strategies companies can implement right now to both attract quality workers, and make sure the workforce they do have is operating safely and competently.

He emphasized that employers need to encourage mastery of the trade, provide a defined path from apprentice to journeyman and help improve the lives of their employees with benefits and long-term career plans.

Further, he said, it is essential to train supervision on how to effectively lead. This ultimately creates a culture of trust, learning and a safe workplace which people want to work in. At the end of the day, he added, industry needs consistent investment in training at all levels – particularly as construction and other industry-connected companies increase nontraditional hires and address the volume of new hires.


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