From a Perilous Past to the Safe Present
In the not-so-distant past, workplace safety was often an afterthought, and unsafe practices ran rampant, putting workers' lives at risk. Indeed, in the early 1900s, workplace fatalities and injuries were alarmingly frequent occurrences, with estimates out of the United States indicating 37 deaths per 100,000 workers.
Today, these estimates have declined by 90%, equating to four deaths per 100,000.
The journey of workplace safety evolution is a fascinating one, showcasing how what may seem like common-sense safety practices today were once revolutionary ideas. Simple safety training, for instance, was not a standard practice in the early 1900s when workplace fatalities were tragically common.
From the mistakes of the past to the breakthroughs of the present, this blog post paints a vivid picture of the remarkable evolution that has safeguarded workers and reshaped the safety landscape. We’ll delve into the evolution of workplace safety from the late 1800s to the 21st century, focusing on behaviour-based safety, human factors, as well as Scratchie—an innovative gamified safety tool.
Late 1800s: The Rise of Scientific Management
In the late 1800s, many concerns about workplace health and safety emerged in earnest with the advent of scientific management, popularly known as Taylorism.
It began when Frederick Taylor, an American mechanical engineer, sought to enhance workplace efficiency and productivity. He did so after observing that many workers and organisations were not utilising their resources, including time, labour, and materials, in the most effective manner.
This led Taylor to develop scientific management theory, which aimed to apply scientific methods to analyse work processes and find the most efficient ways of performing tasks. He believed that by carefully studying and standardising work methods, it was possible to eliminate waste, reduce unnecessary movements, and optimise production processes.
Taylor's most famous method involved breaking tasks down into their simplest components and meticulously timing each step to determine the most effective way of completing them.
An Illustration of Scientific Management Theory
To illustrate Taylor’s approach, consider the example of laying bricks. In the pre-Taylorism era, bricklayers would have lacked standardised processes, and each worker would have their own way of laying bricks. There would be little coordination or standardisation in how tasks were performed, leading to inefficiencies.
With the application of scientific management theory in bricklaying, significant changes would occur. Time and motion studies would be conducted to analyse the most efficient way to lay bricks, and standard operating procedures would be established, defining the best techniques and tools to use for bricklaying.
The task of bricklaying would also be divided into specific steps, and each step would be assigned to skilled workers who specialise in that task. For instance, one worker would be responsible for levelling the foundation, another would mix the mortar, while another would lay the bricks. This specialisation would increase expertise and speed up the process.
Overall, Taylor emphasised the importance of cooperation between management and workers. He believed that by identifying the best practices and providing workers with proper training, tools, and incentives, higher productivity could be achieved, and the overall wellbeing of workers could be improved through increased wages, shorter work hours, and better working conditions.
Early to Mid-1900s: Monotony, Fatigue and the Accident-Prone Personality
Although Taylor's new method was intended to increase workplace efficiency and productivity, its widespread adoption led to significant challenges in workplace safety, particularly concerning the rise of monotony and fatigue.
One critical aspect of scientific management was the division of labour—breaking down tasks into specialised and repetitive steps. While this approach increased efficiency, it also contributed to workers performing the same tasks repeatedly, leading to monotony and a sense of psychological exhaustion. This exhaustion led to a subsequent decline in productivity and an increased risk of accidents.
Unfortunately, rather than reviewing the negative, unforeseen consequences of scientific management, factory managers at the time preferred to blame workers rather than taking responsibility for providing safe working conditions. This led to a field of investigation on accident-prone individuals from the early to mid-1900s, which was used to aid personnel selection decisions.
In particular, the work focused on how factors like general cognitive ability and emotional maturity made a person more or less prone to committing errors, but many of these findings were later revealed to be plagued with bias. Nowadays, these bodies of work have largely been sidelined in favour of alternative approaches to enhancing safety that can be applied irrespective of personality.
Post-World War II: The Rise of Human Factors
As the post-World War II era progressed, there was a growing recognition of the importance of human factors in promoting workplace safety. Human factors, also known as ergonomics, is the scientific study of how humans interact with systems, products, and environments to optimise safety, efficiency, and user experience.
This field’s focus was largely driven by the increasing number and complexity of machines in the 1950s and 1960s, prompting research into the role of human factors in automated systems and equipment design to enhance both efficiency and safety. The primary aim was to design equipment that better fit with operator capabilities and limitations, thereby increasing human reliability and reducing system failures.
To illustrate, one example of ergonomics in modern construction equipment is the design of an excavator's operator cabin.
Manufacturers consider factors such as operator comfort, visibility, and ease of control access to reduce operator fatigue and maximise efficiency during long hours of operation. The placement of controls, adjustable seats, and climate control systems are carefully designed to create a comfortable and user-friendly workspace for the operator, enhancing productivity and safety on the construction site.
Overall, the rise of human factors in workplace safety brought a more comprehensive understanding of the interplay between workers, equipment, and work processes. By considering the human element in the design and management of work environments, researchers and practitioners sought to enhance safety and wellbeing in various industries, marking a significant shift from the early challenges posed by Taylorism's unintended consequences.
The 1960s and 70s: Behaviour-Based Safety and Training
The 1960s marked a significant turning point in the field of workplace safety, with the emergence of behaviour-based safety approaches that focused on positive reinforcement and training to enhance worker safety.
In 1966, Brethower and Rummler conducted a pioneering study on safety training for supervisors, emphasising the use of positive reinforcement of correct lifting behaviour. The results showed that when training was coupled with supervisors' positive reinforcement of workers' safe lifting practices, there was a significant reduction in workers' back injuries.
This initial work laid the foundation for the development of behaviour-based safety methodologies, with subsequent research supporting the effectiveness of positive reinforcement for promoting safety-related behaviours at both individual and workgroup levels. This approach proved to be particularly effective in modifying routine tasks, contributing to a safer work environment, and remains prominent in modern approaches to workplace safety, including that underlying our own app, Scratchie.
In parallel, new emphasis was being placed on the importance of adequate safety training with the introduction of new occupational health and safety legislation across America and the United Kingdom in the 1970s. This led to a significant increase in safety training evaluation research, with academic journals across various disciplines reporting a surge in studies related to safety training for all types of safety-related work, including that in the construction industry.
To illustrate, a recent review of 113 safety training studies spanning the years 1971 to 2008 found a connection between worker involvement in safety training and the severity of hazardous events/exposure. The study found evidence that the level of worker engagement in safety training, particularly that involving hands-on simulations, was highly effective for acquiring safety knowledge and fostering safe work behaviour.
The Late 1900s and Early 21st Century
The late 1900s and early 21st century witnessed significant advancements in safety research, with a growing emphasis on a multilevel and systems view of safety. Major and ongoing trends in safety research during this period include:
Safety climate is defined as shared employee perceptions regarding the relative importance of safe conduct in their occupational behaviour. It has gained significant prominence, proving to be a robust predictor of safety performance across industries and countries and surpassing the impact of ergonomic safety management approaches.
The multilevel paradigm in organisational behaviour research led to a shift in the conceptualization of safety climate, acknowledging the simultaneous membership of employees in work groups and larger organisational entities. Studies frequently explore the relationship between organisational- and group-level safety climates, emphasising the importance of managerial practices and decision-making in shaping climate perceptions.
Leaders play a crucial role in shaping the safety climate through social learning processes, gate-keeping, and sense-making activities. For instance, frontline supervisors' leadership qualities (e.g., transformational leadership), have been shown to support increased safety performance in high-risk environments.
Teams and Safety
Research is indicating that team cohesion, cooperation, and communication positively influence safety performance. High-performance work systems emphasising group cohesion and information sharing are consistently being shown to significantly predict lower injury rates across organisations.
Throughout this period, safety research evolved, emphasising the importance of shared perceptions, leadership, and teamwork across multiple levels in shaping safety outcomes. Taken together, these streams of research have marked a significant advancement, leading to a more holistic understanding of safety dynamics in the construction industry and beyond.
Scratchie: The Behaviour-Based App for Construction Teams and Safety Climates
With continuous efforts and advancements in safety measures, significant progress has been made to mitigate risks and protect workers. However, it's essential to recognize that occupational safety remains a critical issue, despite considerable advancements.
Scratchie is an innovative behaviour-based safety tool designed to enhance workplace safety by promoting positive behaviours and reinforcing safe practices among worksite employees. The core concept behind Scratchie is to create a gamified approach to safety, where employees earn rewards and recognition for engaging in safe behaviours, thereby fostering a positive safety climate.
In doing so, Scratchie actively encourages employees to participate in safety-related activities and reinforces the importance of safe conduct.
By providing real-time feedback and rewards for safe behaviours, Scratchie helps establish a shared perception of safety as a priority among employees, enhancing the safety climate within work groups and the broader organisation.
Through its customizable nature, the tool can be adapted to reflect the specific priorities and equipment on a particular site. Most importantly, Scratchie's gamified approach reinforces a culture of continuous improvement and learning, encouraging employees to adopt safe behaviours as part of their daily routines.
Curious to learn more about Scratchie? Join us for our live Procore webinar in early August, and discover the innovative app shaping a new era of workplace safety.
How did scientific management (Taylorism) in the late 1800s impact workplace safety?
Scientific management aimed to improve workplace efficiency but unintentionally led to challenges in workplace safety due to monotony and fatigue resulting from the division of labour. This period saw a focus on individual worker errors rather than addressing system-wide safety issues.
How can behaviour-based safety approaches enhance workplace safety?
Behaviour-based safety approaches promote workplace safety by encouraging positive safety behaviours among employees. By reinforcing safe practices and providing real-time feedback, these approaches foster a safety-conscious culture within organisations.
What role did human factors play in workplace safety after World War II?
Human factors research emerged as a critical component of workplace safety after World War II. Understanding the interaction between humans, machines, and work processes helped design safer and more efficient systems.
How did the late 1900s and early 21st century advance safety research?
During this period, safety research evolved to consider multilevel influences, including safety climate, leadership, and teamwork. The focus shifted towards understanding safety as a complex system.
What is Scratchie, and how does it promote workplace safety?
Scratchie is a behaviour-based safety tool designed to enhance workplace safety by encouraging positive safety behaviours among employees. It operates on a gamified approach, where employees earn rewards and recognition for engaging in safe practices, fostering a safety-conscious culture within the organisation.