A Construction Safety Analysis: The Swiss Cheese Model

September 25, 2019
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What Causes Accidents in the Workplace?

This is a question that all industries have been asking for a long, long time. A man named James Reason once proposed a concept to examine accident causation called the “Swiss Cheese Model”. This model is traditionally used in aviation, medical fields, risk management and engineering. It looks at multi-layered protection and safety protocols which an industry puts into place. The pieces of cheese represent layers of “defence” in the process with the holes representing human error, mismanagement, or unforeseeable incidences. The Swiss Cheese Model attributes accidents to the alignment of gaps in the layered system in which mistakes “slip through” and result in an accident or injury. Construction is not an industry that has used this model to analyze safety incidents and workplace accidents, but it should be. 

The Swiss Cheese Model, as developed by James Reason.

The construction industry has one of the highest probabilities for workplace injury and death. This number is not going down despite the introduction of new safety tech and an increased level of awareness about the hazards on the job. For all the safety talk, the practice of it seems to be a little more subdued than one may believe. There is a missing link between the safety talk and safety walk. Too many hazards are slipping through and becoming an incident. By analyzing the construction industry using this model it becomes clear that the current safety procedures have too many holes.

Construction Safety and Productivity 

No matter what people say productivity reigns supreme in the construction industry. Keeping costs within budgets, handling pressure from investors, and meeting project timelines weigh heavy in an industry that is prey to so many uncontrollable factors. Weather, equipment breakdowns and a shortage of workers are uncontrollable. In most cases, safety is controllable. Despite it being a controllable factor, it is often treated uncontrollable. Safety is important when it is convenient but will be put on the backburner when the extra steps are perceived to slow things down, cost extra money, or impact productivity.

The prioritization of productivity is one of the biggest causes of safety slips, when looking through the lens of the Swiss Cheese model. Lack of training, noncompliance with PPE, and inefficient communication are the more talked-about contributors to safety accidents but even these relate back to the prioritization of productivity. There is no bigger hole in the cheese slices than this.

Despite this, multiple studies continue to prove a positive relationship between safety and productivity. Worksites that promote safety end up being more productive. It is also more economical as workplace injuries cost a lot of money. As the number of on-the-job injuries continues to rise, it may not be surprising that projects being delayed or going over budget has as well. A 2016 study by McKinsey & Company found that large projects that involve multiple asset classes take 20% longer to finish and are up to 80% over budget while financial returns for contractors remain low. Promoting the relationship between safety, economy, and productivity could be important in making the construction industry safer.

Looking Through the Swiss Cheese Lens

When analyzing the current status of safety and productivity through the eyes of the Swiss Cheese model, it becomes clear that the problem is not the holes, or even the specific slices. The construction industry needs to get a completely new block of cheese.

Construction is a hard industry to regulate for safety. On site, contractors come and go as projects progresses and the site environment changes. Giving workers access to safety tech and monitoring on-site movements with drones is not enough to achieve the fundamental level of upheaval needed to truly make the industry safer.

Despite the number of injuries and awareness about the power of personal protective equipment, noncompliance in wearing proper PPE continues to be a problem. Proper training, availability of PPE on sites, and encouragement by upper management to take the time to use PPE is important in encouraging workers to actually wear their protective equipment. “I just forgot” is one of the top reasons for PPE noncompliance. Other reasons are lack of comfort, protection equipment slowing down a workers ability to do their job and a lack of encouragement from upper management.

The Fatal Four: The four most common causes of workplace injury and death in the construction industry. 
Graphic taken from Grainger.com.

As important as it is to make safety a priority at the higher level of construction, safety needs to be a decision made everyday by everyone on the job. In the case of eye injuries for example, 100% could be prevented by using proper PPE. But the “Fatal Four” – falls, electrocution, being struck by an object, and being crushed by equipment – are bigger than PPE. Safety tech and equipment are not adequate in preventing these life threatening incidences. The defence layers need updating and there are too many holes. Instead, the industry needs to completely adjust how it tackles safety. 

A Proposed Alternative

The construction industry has a“health and safety branch” mindset that has been established over many years though management practices and industry standards. It’s ingrained into the nature of how the industry operates. In general needs to challenge this standard and introduce an integrated operational safety system that extends from project conception to completion. Elimination of the “safety step” and the creation of a safety umbrella which covers the entire process will help further the concept of an industry safety culture. Safety should be at the centre of all processes to such a degree that it becomes part of the DNA of all construction projects. No decisions should be made and nothing should ever happen without safety in mind. 

Hammertech recently published a paper called The Future of Safety Management which explores the need to make safety a more integrated process of site management and planning. Hammertech’s paper explores the power of building information modeling (BIM) to foresee safety issues and plan accordingly. From crane placement to adjusting evacuation routes, thinking ahead about potential safety issues can eliminate the problems before they even exist. There should be a safety plan behind every decision made for each stage of a project. 

Safety tech equipment is a great addition to advance on the job safety but the products which integrate safety and productivity are what will truly contribute to how the industry uses safety tech. A product like the Spot-r Access Control doesn’t only promote safety but allows for productivity monitoring and streamlining workflow: Safety and efficiency working hand in hand. 

Spot-r Access Control uses physical turnstyles and electronic passes (the Spot-r Clip) to help control the flow of people and equipment inside a worksite. The tech allows a supervisor to monitor who is where at any time of day. The requirement of tapping the device to unlock access will help to keep unqualified personnel out of dangerous areas, prevent sub trades and contracted workers from entering a site without speaking to the project or site manager first and restricts the entire site from people walking off the street.

Triax is the safety tech company that invented the Spot-R Access Control system and the Spot-R Clip. 
Logo taken from Triax website.

The Spot-r clip developed by Triaxtec has multiple safety features besides access control. The clip can detect falls – the industry’s leading cause of injury and death – with a built in sensor. The clip has the ability to notify the supervisor who you are, how far you fell and where you fell. This allows for instant response which can be potentially life-saving. A panic button on the clip lets any worker signal for help no matter where they are and the same kind of information – who you are and where you are – is immediately received by a supervisor.

This kind of technology shows how the integration of productivity and safety can drive the industry forward. The clip has a practical job function – to access the site – while promoting safety.

This is the kind of tech that contributes to industry change. Safety can work with us to drive productivity levels and does not need to be seen as a hurdle to overcome to reach that desired productivity standard.

Make Safety a Priority Today

Aside from tech tools onsite and BIM for planning, something as simple as daily huddles with those working on site can help to streamline communication and promote daily safety practices. Informing all team members about any new equipment arriving on site, reminding them of safety precautions, and encouraging them to wear PPE and put safety first can go a long way.

Encouraging hazard reporting and supporting workers in advocating for their own safety and the safety of those around them can have an impact. When upper management and supervisors are shown to prioritize safety over productivity then the ones under their leadership should follow. This process mimes the Lean Management concept of continual improvement.

Derived from a Japanese production system and eventually leading Henry Ford’s conception of the assembly line, Lean Management focuses on eliminating processes that do not add value to maximize efficiency. Consistent improval of the process leads to streamlined productivity with minimized risk. Having consistent and open communication between supervisors, workers and operators supports constant improval of safety practices.

Because of the physical side to construction, it is already a more dangerous industry than most. The presence of power tools, building materials and heavy equipment increases on-site risks. Construction safety must be a priority but the current process of safety promotion has not been enough to keep workers safe.

The Swiss Cheese model puts the ownership of workplace injury and accidents on everyone involved. It stresses the need to adjust the planning process, streamline communications and put safety first in all decision making. Fundamental changes to project planning are needed to truly integrate safety into the job.

Take the time every day to put safety first. Try to challenge your own mentality to view safety as a partner to productivity. If you are a supervisor or project manager, walk the talk. Be sure to set the example for your employees by wearing your PPE, implementing morning huddles and safety talks, and recognizing employees for complying with safety regulations. Changing your own verbiage from, “Lets get some work done today!” to, “Let’s work safe today!” can start to strengthen those slices and close up those gaps.

The goal should be to fortify the defence layers and minimize the holes to improve construction safety. Hopefully we can see so much changed that the industry can transform the Swiss Cheese slices into a solid block of American Cheddar.

Kevin Forestell

Kevin Forestell is CEO of DOZR and one of the co-founders. Kevin first got started as an entrepreneur when he founded Forestell Landscaping right after graduating from University. His love and passion for the industry and desire to help solve an equipment problem that contractors faced every day is what brought the founding team to start DOZR. Kevin is proud of the level of efficiency brought to the industry through DOZR and hopes that DOZR will help change the standard way equipment is rented.


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