Matthew R. Hallowell is on the cutting edge of construction safety practices. Hallowell is an endowed professor of construction engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder and executive director of the Construction Safety Research Alliance (CSRA). He shared best practices from the latest scientific research.
What is the Construction Safety Research Alliance?
The CSRA has more than 80 companies and a dozen academic researchers collaborating across six research teams to eliminate serious injuries and fatalities in the construction industry through transformative research and defendable science.
The professionals bring lived experience, knowledge of problems and opportunities, and access to real work and data. The academic researchers are experts in the process and ensure that the design of the research yields results that are scientifically valid and defendable. Together, we can efficiently produce transformative results that are highly relevant to the real world.
What are some of the latest findings in safety research?
Perhaps our most sensational finding in recent years was that in almost every practical situation, total recordable injury rate (TRIR) is a statistically meaningless measure of safety performance. TRIR has been the dominant measure of safety performance for nearly 50 years and is used to make consequential business decisions such as prequalification of contractors and performance evaluations. The research yielded four key takeaways that challenge this historical practice:
- There is no discernible association between TRIR and fatalities;
- The occurrence of recordable injuries is almost entirely random;
- TRIR is not precise and should not be communicated to
multiple decimal points of precision; and
- In nearly every practical circumstance, it’s statistically invalid to use TRIR to compare companies, business units, projects or teams.
We need to create and test new metrics that align with modern principles, allow organizations to monitor, control and predict outcomes, and can be accepted by executives and board members. The CSRA has devoted a lot of time and energy to safety measurement, and it’s the topic of a book I am writing at the moment.
Another major set of research is aimed to improve safety measurement by developing quality-based leading indicators. The team showed how the quality of three key safety activities—prejob briefs, safety observations and leadership engagements—can be consistently measured and improved. The methods created can be used to help organizations improve the quality of their safety activities.
We also explored how company characteristics, project factors and crew demographics can be used to predict the safety of work-site conditions. By predicting conditions—safe work versus work at risk—instead of injuries, we were able to vastly improve the quality of our data and, consequently, the accuracy of the predictions.
One of our ongoing projects is on the topic of safety return on investment (ROI). For the first time, we are testing an experimental protocol to isolate and measure the impact of specific safety interventions. With this knowledge, we will be able to effectively measure the ROI of these investments to assist organizations as they allocate limited resources.
How can contractors minimize incidents by using methods based on defendable science, including the energy wheel, which calls out 10 sources of potential injury common on work sites?
I think the most powerful research-validated tool out there is the energy wheel. It’s for improving hazard recognition skills. We have run field and lab experiments and pilot-tested the energy wheel for more than a decade. The key takeaways from our work are:
- In prejob safety briefings, workers identify only about 45% of the hazards they face during the work period.
- Hazard-recognition blind spots are consistent and predictable, regardless of trade, experience or education.
- Hazards that are easily identified, such as gravity and motion, are recognized instinctually and require comparatively low cognitive effort. Hazards that are most often missed, [those that are] mechanical, pressure and chemical, are processed in the cerebrum and require relatively high cognitive effort.
- Field experiments showed that using the energy wheel improves hazard recognition by approximately 30%. The energy wheel is effective because it provides a simple set of reminders to search for commonly overlooked hazards.
The biggest proponents of the energy wheel are often the workers who use it because it makes the task of identifying hazards easier, faster and more enjoyable.