The Perils of "Safety First" Thinking: A New Paradigm for the Australian Construction Industry

Discover the dangerous myth of "Safety First" in the construction industry and learn how an outdated mindset can backfire. Explore the evolution of safety thinking, embrace innovative strategies, and find out how Scratchie can support a more holistic, effective approach to safety for a safer and more productive work environment.
April 18, 2023
James Kell
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Introduction – Why Prioritising Safety Can Backfire

Safety has long been a battle cry in the construction industry, and for good reason. With the advent of the Safety First movement, a much-needed focus on worker safety emerged, saving countless lives and preventing serious injuries. As noble as this pursuit was, it is time to re-examine the Safety First mantra and assess its impact on an evolving industry.

The Evolution of Safety

Leading experts on safety thinking such as Dr Rob Long and Gary Wong propose models of distinct ages that chronicle the evolution of safety in the workplace. Here is one such model with four ages:

1. Age of Technology:

Early efforts to improve safety revolved around developing and implementing better equipment and engineering solutions.

2. Age of Human Factors:

With technological advancements came a growing awareness of the importance of human factors in safety, such as ergonomics and workplace design.

3. Age of Safety Management:

Organisations recognised the need for systematic approaches to safety, including management systems, policies, and training programmes.

4. Age of Cognitive Complexity:

The most recent age sees a focus on understanding the complex interplay of human cognition, emotions, and decision-making within the context of safety.

As a result of these developments, the construction industry has made significant strides in promoting safety awareness and reducing workplace accidents. A cultural shift has taken place, with employers and employees alike placing a higher value on safety than ever before.

The Hindrance of Safety First

But progress comes at a cost. As the Safety First mantra took root, it began to stifle innovation and bred a culture obsessed with compliance. Instead of embracing a holistic view of safety, companies became fixated on achieving zero-incident goals. While this may seem commendable, these goals are often unrealistic, and their pursuit can inadvertently create new hazards.

For example, the relentless focus on reducing incident rates can lead to underreporting of accidents and near-misses. Employees may feel pressure to suppress incidents, fearing that reporting will reflect poorly on their performance or jeopardise their job security. Consequently, critical opportunities for learning and improvement are lost.

Developing a Comprehensive Safety Strategy

The time has come for senior leaders in the Australian construction industry to recognise that an exclusive focus on safety is no longer sufficient. A comprehensive safety strategy is needed, one that balances safety concerns with other crucial business objectives such as health and wellness.

This strategy should differentiate between goals and strategies, with the latter being the means by which goals are achieved. Incentives, rewards, and recognition must also play a role in fostering a robust safety culture.

Moving Beyond Traditional Metrics

While measuring injuries were important steps in the right direction, the construction industry has since made further progress in enhancing safety performance.

In the past decade, the industry has begun to focus on exploring innovative ways to improve safety, starting with utilising near-miss data to identify potential hazards and proactively address them before they result in injury or property damage. By encouraging a reporting culture that values transparency, companies can harness the power of these near-misses as learning opportunities.

Another notable development has been the implementation of Individual Coaching Action Plans (ICAPs) for employees with frequent injuries. This approach provides tailored coaching and support, enabling organisations to address the root causes of accidents and help individuals develop safer habits and behaviours.

Today, with a better understanding of the importance of fostering a proactive safety culture, companies are placing increased emphasis on rewarding workers who consistently demonstrate safe work attitudes and behaviours. This not only motivates employees to take ownership of their safety but also encourages a collective commitment to creating a safer work environment for all.

The Need for a New Approach

As we move forward, it is essential to recognise that safety is an emergent property of complex adaptive systems. In other words, safety is not something that can be imposed or mandated from the top down; it arises from the collective actions and decisions of individuals within the organisation.

To foster a truly safe work environment, we must shift our mindset from treating workers as problems to be controlled to harnessing them as solutions to be cultivated. This requires promoting safety heuristics, sharing success stories, and learning from both positive and negative experiences. Narratives play a crucial role in this process, as they provide a deeper understanding of attitudes, behaviours, and the real-world context in which safety decisions are made.

Introducing Scratchie

Scratchie is uniquely positioned to support a more holistic approach to safety. By facilitating collaboration and continuous improvement, Scratchie enables construction companies to transcend the limitations of the Safety First mindset and embrace a more balanced, effective safety strategy.

Scratchie's platform encourages cooperation among team members, empowering them to share best practices, learn from one another, and work together to identify and mitigate risks. By providing the tools and resources necessary for a modern, integrated approach to safety, Scratchie is poised to become an invaluable partner for senior leaders in the Australian construction industry.

In conclusion, while the Safety First movement has undoubtedly made a positive impact on worker safety, it is time to reassess its limitations and explore new approaches. By embracing a more comprehensive safety strategy and leveraging innovative solutions like Scratchie, the construction industry can continue to evolve and safeguard the well-being of its workforce for years to come.


1. What are the main issues with the traditional "Safety First" mindset in the construction industry?

The traditional "Safety First" mindset has led to stagnation in safety innovation, an obsession with compliance, and the pursuit of zero-incident goals, which can inadvertently create a less safe work environment by discouraging the reporting of near-misses and minor accidents.

2. How does the industry benefit from moving beyond traditional safety metrics?

By focusing on innovative methods, such as utilising near-miss data and implementing Individual Coaching Action Plans (ICAPs), the industry can proactively address potential hazards, improve safety culture, and help workers develop safer habits and behaviours.

3. What is the difference between safety goals and safety strategies?

Safety goals are specific, measurable targets related to safety performance, while safety strategies are comprehensive plans outlining the methods, resources, and steps required to achieve those goals, including fostering a proactive safety culture and encouraging collaboration and continuous improvement.

4. What role do incentives, rewards, and recognition play in promoting a strong safety culture?

Incentives, rewards, and recognition can motivate workers to adopt safe work attitudes and behaviours, take ownership of their safety, and contribute to a collective commitment to creating a safer work environment for everyone.

5. How can Scratchie support a more holistic approach to safety in the construction industry?

Scratchie enables the recognising and rewarding of safe work, encourages collaboration and continuous improvement among workers, and supports the implementation of proactive safety measures, all of which contribute to a more comprehensive and effective approach to safety in the industry.

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