Canadian Contractor

By Rick Farrell   

Why contractor-worker communication is key to maintaining safety

Canadian Contractor training

What is the main skill successful construction contractors need to have today? Project management perhaps? Practical skills like bricklaying or carpentry? While these are all essential to delivering successful projects, we believe another skill is perhaps even more critical. In this article, we’re going to argue that effective communication is the glue that holds outstanding projects together. Read on to learn more about the importance of workplace communication in the construction sector and discover practical strategies to help establish strong communication channels.

The significance of effective contractor-worker communication

It’s no secret that effective communication in the workplace raises productivity, increases workers’ job satisfaction, and also results in better customer service. Research has shown time and again that open and effective communications benefit employers and employees at all levels of seniority.

Communication for workplace safety

In the construction and renovation sector, however, effective communication serves another purpose. Contractor-worker communications are essential for maintaining workplace safety. Researchers from Australia’s Edith Cowan University reviewed studies to show that inadequate communication played a major role in accidents and incidents as well as contributing to stress-related illnesses.

As the industry continues to lead the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) statistics for workplace fatalities, the need to improve on-site safety has never been greater. In 2021 alone, more than 200 workers lost their lives working in the construction sector. That number is equivalent to approximately one in five of all workplace fatalities across Canada. Implementing effective communication strategies can help contractors increase the level of safety for their crews.

So, how can contractors improve on-site communications? Before working on a new approach, contractors need to understand the main communication challenges their crews are facing. Common challenges include:

  • Working with temporary or seasonal staff who may be unfamiliar with occupational safety and health best practices
  • Coordinating safety procedures between multiple contractors or employers on the same job site
  • Language barriers
  • Inadequate or inappropriate safety equipment

The construction sector has changed over the past few decades. While the industry has traditionally been open to seasonal workers to allow contractors to manage particularly busy times, many companies are now relying mostly on staff supplied by agencies or other short-term arrangements. Although economically sound, this practice makes it harder to establish solid safety protocols across an entire company, project, or job site. Contractors need to recognize this risk and develop strategies to avoid pitfalls resulting from it.

Strategy one: Communicating clear expectations by setting safety guidelines and standards

This point may appear almost too obvious to some contractors, but without setting and communicating clear safety guidelines and standards, you can’t expect workers to comply. As a contractor, it’s a good idea to develop safety guidelines that apply to all your projects and sites.

Using guidelines and regulations by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) can help contractors get started. But be sure to customize these guidelines and tailor them to your niche to ensure they’re relevant for your workers.

Once your guidelines and standards have been drafted, it’s worth discussing them with site managers and other employees to check that they are both viable and realistic. Remember, communication is a two-way process. Allowing employees to contribute to the safety measures designed to protect them is likely to increase compliance in the long term. Plus, listening to feedback from employees will help tighten up procedures and increase their relevance.

Next, you need to make your standards available to workers. Posting them on the company website is one idea, and you can also include them in the induction process for new employees. In most cases, though, it will be more effective to create a series of visual reminders around job sites. For example, posters highlighting safe practices not only jog a worker’s memory but also work in many situations where there is a language barrier.

Strategy two: Using pre-job safety meetings to align workers and contractors on safety protocols

Take a proactive approach to contractor-worker communications by arranging pre-job safety meetings. Depending on the scope of the job, these meetings may start with a main contractor meeting subcontractors to discuss differences in individual approaches and bring everyone on the same page.

Subcontractors can then talk to their crews to deliver information from the initial meeting to every single worker on site. As we mentioned above, it’s important to avoid information being lost due to language barriers or temporary workers being unavailable in this process. No matter how busy work gets as deadlines approach, contractors need to ensure their teams have all the relevant safety information available to them.

Strategy three: Encouraging timely hazard reporting and incident notification

No one likes to talk about things that went wrong. However, incidents and near-misses offer excellent learning opportunities that prevent contractors from running into the same problem.

Encouraging employees to report potential hazards and notify their supervisors about near-misses, contractors need to establish a safety culture on-site. That means putting safety at the heart of everything the company does, and communicating clearly that hazard reporting is not seen as disruption or trouble-making but instead a valuable contribution.

Strategy four: Equipping workers and contractors with safety knowledge through training and education

Have you come across the phrase ‘you don’t know what you don’t know?’ Attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates, the sentence remains just as relevant for contractors today. Not every worker understands the risks they’re facing on a job site. Contractors need to provide the training and education necessary to help workers understand their jobs better.

They also need to provide appropriate communication tools to allow workers to reach out to supervisors and others when they’re on site. Whether that is a cell phone or a two-way radio system, among other options, depends on the site and the nature of the job.

Like the other communication strategies we mentioned, safety education is not a one-off. To be effective, this type of training relies on repetition and regular application for skills and knowledge to be ready to use.

Construction companies, contractors, and their workers are essential to the Canadian economy. The industry’s current safety record indicates that more can be done to keep construction professionals safe. Improving contractor-worker communication is an essential contribution toward that goal.

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Rick Farrell is North America’s foremost expert in improving manufacturing group communication, education, training and group hospitality processes. He has over 40 years of group hospitality experience, most recently serving as President of PlantTours for the last 18 years.  He has provided consulting services with the majority of Fortune 500 industrial corporations improving group communication dynamics of all types in manufacturing environments. 

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