- A researcher at Washington State University has received a $174,000 grant to develop a training program to improve psychological safety on construction sites so workers feel safe speaking out, especially when it comes to potential safety oversights, according to a news announcement.
- While the construction industry has focused on physical safety for more than 100 years, Hongtao Dang, an assistant professor of construction management with a Ph.D. in civil engineering, said less research has honed in on how safe workers feel psychologically on jobsites, which can have a big impact on overall safety.
- This is especially true when workers don’t feel comfortable calling out co-workers on potential safety oversights, such as not wearing proper safety gear. “I might be afraid that I will be punished or humiliated, or that someone will be angry with me, or I’ll be rejected, so I won’t share,” Dang said. “If we do root cause analysis, we can often attribute an accident to a human factor or to psychological safety.”
Construction has consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous industries for decades.
Dang will work with construction companies to gather real-world workplace data and information for case studies on psychological safety, and then will develop a set of student and instructor manuals that will eventually be used in training modules, according to the announcement.
Funding for the project comes from the State of Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries’ Safety & Health Investment Projects grant program. The grant will build on Dang’s previous work on diversity, equity and inclusion training in construction.
Before entering academia, Dang worked in the construction industry. He said that experience led him to his current focus on psychological safety, or the degree of interpersonal risk-taking workers feel comfortable with, such as speaking up with a question, a concern, an idea or even a mistake.
“I know what the job site culture looks like — how good or bad it can be,” he said. “From that experience, I think it’s important for me to be a catalyst to potentially transform the job site culture and to make it more inclusive and safer for people to work there.”
According to Dang, the presence of fear in an organization is the first sign of weak leadership and an unsafe and possibly toxic work environment.
News of the grant came on the heels of Construction Safety Week, an annual event in the industry that emphasizes the importance of protecting workers, contractors and others, physically and mentally.
Building a program
Washington State University and Dang are being joined by faculty from Oregon State University, as well as representatives from the Associated General Contractors of America’s Washington chapter.
Each training manual will include a case study based on real work scenarios, according to the announcement. The scenarios will focus on inclusion, diversity and equity; professional development and personal growth; mental health and team success; and active care and suicide prevention.
After being presented with a case study, the workers will have the chance to think about, discuss and share solutions in small groups. The trainer later helps the group understand optimal solutions.
Dang told Construction Dive that the modules are slated to be published after the project ends in November 2024.
Recently, a researcher from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia has secured a grant of approximately US$174,000 to study how psychological safety in construction affects the physical and mental well-being of construction workers.
Dr. Aniko Marussia, a lecturer in the faculty of Built Environment at UTS, will spearhead the 18-month research project with a “construction safety management systems (SMS) framework” aimed at uncovering a construction SMS that preserves both the safety and psychological well-being of construction workers.
Psychological safety refers to a work environment in which workers feel comfortable asking questions, voicing concerns, and taking risks in order to achieve results.
Dr. Marussia said that she was motivated to pursue this project because of the precarious working conditions experienced by many construction workers. She stated, “Construction work is often hazardous, and workers almost always lack access to the same kinds of safety technologies and worksite management strategies that are available to workers in other industries.”
Her research will focus on the psychological safety strategies employed in the construction industry and how they impact worker mental and physical health. Dr. Marussia plans to analyze the existing data on psychological safety in construction and also conduct interviews with workers and safety experts in order to gain insights into how best to protect workers’ well-being in construction.
The funding for the research project has been provided by two unions, the CFMEU and ETU, in an effort to make construction safer for workers. They hope that the findings from this research will help improve psychological safety in the industry and, ultimately, reduce the unintentional injuries and illnesses that plague the construction industry.
Dr. Marussia is hopeful that her research will make a tangible difference in the lives of construction workers all around the world. She said, “I am really looking forward to working on this project and to finding ways to create positive changes in the construction industry.”