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Wednesday, 09 March 2011 20:25

Organizational Factors Affecting Health and Safety

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Diversity of Projects and Work Activities

Many people outside the construction industry are unaware of the diversity and degree of specialization of work undertaken by the industry, though they see portions of it every day. In addition to traffic delays caused by encroachments on roads and street excavations, the public is frequently exposed to buildings being erected, subdivisions being constructed and, occasionally, to the demolition of structures. What is hidden away from view, in most cases, is the large amount of specialized work done either as part of a “new” construction project or as part of the ongoing repairs maintenance associated with almost anything constructed in the past.

The list of activities is very diverse, ranging from electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilating, painting, roofing and flooring work to very specialized work such as installing or repairing overhead doors, setting heavy machinery, applying fireproofing, refrigeration work and installing or testing communications systems.

The value of construction can be partially measured by the value of building permits. Table 1 shows the value of construction in Canada in 1993.

Table 1.  Value of construction projects in Canada, 1993 (based on value of building permits issued in 1993).

Type of project

Value ($ Cdn)

% of total

Residential buildings (houses, apartments)



Industrial buildings (factories, mining plants)



Commercial buildings (offices, stores, shops etc.)



Institutional buildings (schools, hospitals)



Other buildings (airports, bus stations, farm buildings, etc.)



Marine facilities (wharves,dredging)



Roads and highways



Water and sewage systems



Dams and irrigation



Electric power (thermal/nuclear/hydro)



Railway, telephone and telegraph



Gas and oil (refineries, pipelines)



Other engineering construction (bridges, tunnels, etc.)






Source: Statistics Canada 1993.

The health and safety aspects of the work depend in large measure on the nature of the project. Each type of project and each work activity presents different hazards and solutions. Often, the severity, scope or size of the problem is related to the size of the project as well.

Client-Contractor Relationships

Clients are the individuals, partnerships, corporations or public authorities for whom construction is carried out. The vast majority of construction is done under contractual arrangements between clients and contractors. A client may select a contractor based on past performance or through an agent such as an architect or engineer. In other cases, it may decide to offer the project through advertising and tendering. The methods used and the client’s own attitude to health and safety can have a profound effect on the project’s health and safety performance.

For example, if a client chooses to “pre-qualify” contractors to ensure that they meet certain criteria, then this process excludes inexperienced contractors, those who may not have had satisfactory performance and those without qualified personnel required for the project. While health and safety performance has not previously been one of the common qualifications sought or considered by clients, it is gaining in usage, primarily with large industrial clients and with government agencies that purchase construction services.

Some clients promote safety much more than others. In some cases, this is due to the risk of damage to their existing facilities when contractors are brought in to perform maintenance or to expand the client’s facilities. Petrochemical companies in particular make it clear that contractor safety performance is a key condition of the contract.

Conversely, those firms who choose to offer their project through an unqualified open bidding process to obtain the lowest price often end up with contractors that may be unqualified to perform the work or who take short cuts to save on time and materials. This can have an adverse effect on health and safety performance.

Contractor-Contractor Relationships

Many people who are not familiar with the nature of the contractual arrangements common in construction presume that one contractor performs all or at least the major part of most building construction. For example, if a new office tower, sports complex or other high-visibility project is being constructed, the general contractor usually erects signs and often company flags to indicate its presence and to create the impression that this is “its project”. Years ago, this impression may have been relatively accurate, since some general contractors actually undertook to perform substantial parts of the project with their own direct-hire forces. However, since the mid-1970s, many, if not most, general contractors have assumed more of a project management role on large projects, with the vast majority of the work contracted out to a network of subcontractors, each of which has special skills in a particular aspect of the project. (See table 2)

Table 2. Contractors/subcontractors on typical industrial/commercial/institutional projects

Project manager/general contractor
Excavating contractor
Formwork contractor
Reinforcing steel contractor
Structural steel contractor
Electrical contractor
Plumbing contractor
Drywall contractor
Painting contractor
Glazing contractor
Masonry contractor
Finish carpentry/cabinet work contractor
Flooring contractor
Heating/ventilation/air conditioning contractor
Roofing contractor
Landscaping contractor

As a result, the general contractor could actually have fewer staff onsite than any of several subcontractors on the project. In some cases the main contractor has no workforce directly involved in construction activities, but manages the work of subcontractors. On most major projects in the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sector, there are several layers of subcontractors. Typically, the primary level of subcontractors have contracts with the general contractor. However, these subcontractors may contract part of their work out to other smaller or more specialized subcontractors.

The influence that this network of contractors may have on health and safety becomes fairly obvious when it is compared with a fixed worksite such as a factory or a mill. At a typical fixed-industry workplace, there is only one management entity, the employer. The employer has sole responsibility for the workplace, the lines of command and communication are simple and direct, and only one corporate philosophy applies. At a construction project, there may be ten or more employer entities (representing the general contractor and the usual subcontractors), and the lines of communication and authority tend to be more complex, indirect and often confused.

The attention given to health and safety by the person or company in charge can influence the health and safety performance of others. If the general contractor has attached a high degree of importance to health and safety, this can have a positive influence on the health and safety performance of the subcontractors on the project. The converse is also true.

Additionally, the overall health and safety performance of the site can be adversely affected by the performance of one subcontractor (e.g., if one subcontractor has poor housekeeping, leaving a mess behind as his or her forces move through the project, it can create problems for all of the other subcontractors onsite).

Regulatory efforts regarding health and safety are generally more difficult to introduce and administer in these multi-employer workplaces. It may be difficult to determine which employer has responsibility for which hazards or solutions, and any administrative controls which appear to be eminently workable in a single-employer workplace may need significant modification to be workable on a multi-employer construction project. For example, information regarding hazardous materials used on a construction project must be communicated to those who work with or near the materials, and workers must be adequately trained. At a fixed workplace with only one employer, all of the material and the information accompanying it is much more readily obtained, controlled and communicated, whereas on a construction project, any of the various subcontractors may be bringing in hazardous materials of which the general contractor has no knowledge. Additionally, workers employed by one subcontractor using a certain material may have been trained, but the crew working for another subcontractor in the same area but doing something entirely different may know nothing about the material and yet could be as much at risk as those using the material directly.

Another factor which emerges regarding contractor-contractor relationships relates to the bidding process. A subcontractor who bids too low may take short-cuts that compromise health and safety. In these cases, the general contractor must ensure that subcontractors adhere to the standards, specifications and statutes pertaining to health and safety. It is not uncommon on projects where everyone has bid very low to observe continuing health and safety problems coupled with excessive passing of responsibility, until regulatory authorities step in to impose a solution.

A further problem relates to the scheduling of work and the impact this can have on health and safety. With several different subcontractors on the site at one time, competing interests may create problems. Each contractor wants to get his or her work done as quickly as possible. When two or more contractors want to occupy the same space, or when one has to perform work overhead of another, problems can occur. This is typically a much more common problem in construction than in fixed industry, where the main competing interests tend to involve only operations versus maintenance.

Employer-Employee Relationships

The several employers on a particular project may have somewhat different relationships with their employees than those common at most fixed industrial workplaces. For example, unionized workers at a manufacturing facility tend to belong to one union. When the employer needs additional workers, it interviews and hires them and the new employees join the union. Where there are former unionized workers on layoff, they are re-hired generally on a seniority basis.

In the unionized part of the construction industry, a completely different system is used. Employers form collective associations which then enter into agreements with building and construction trade unions. The majority of the non-salaried direct-hire employees in the industry work through their union. When, for example, a contractor needs five additional carpenters at a project, he or she would call the local Carpenters’ Union and place a request for five carpenters to show up for work at the project on a certain day. The union would notify the five members at the top of the employment list that they are to report to the project to work for the particular firm. Depending on the provisions of the collective agreement between the employers and the union, the contractor may be able to “name hire” or select some of these workers. If there are no union members available to fill the employment call, the employer may be able to hire temporary workers who would join the union, or the union may bring in skilled workers from other locals to help fill the demand.

In non-unionized situations, employers use different processes to obtain additional staff. Prior employment lists, local employment centres, word of mouth and advertising in local newspapers are the principal methods used.

It is not uncommon for workers to be employed by several different employers in the course of a year. The employment duration varies with the nature of the project and the amount of work to be done. This places a large administrative load on the construction contractors compared with their fixed-industry counterparts (e.g., recordkeeping for income taxes, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, union dues, pensions, licensing and other regulatory or contractual issues).

This situation presents some unique challenges compared to the typical fixed-industry workplace. Training and qualifications must not only be standardized but portable from one job or sector to another. These important issues affect the construction industry much more profoundly than fixed industries. Construction employers expect workers to come to the project with certain skills and capabilities. In most trades, this is accomplished by a comprehensive apprenticeship programme. If a contractor places a call for five carpenters, he or she expects to see five qualified carpenters at the project on the day they are needed. If health and safety regulations require special training, the employer needs to be able to access a pool of workers with this training, since the training may not be readily available at the time the work is scheduled to start. An example of this is the Certified Worker Programme required at larger construction projects in Ontario, Canada, which involves having joint health and safety committees. Since this training is not currently part of the apprenticeship programme, alternative training systems had to be put in place to create a pool of trained workers.

With growing emphasis on specialized training or at least confirmation of skill level, training programmes conducted in conjunction with the building and construction trades unions will likely grow in importance, number and variety.

Inter-union Relationships

The structure of organized labour mirrors the way in which contractors have specialized within the industry. On a typical construction project, five or more trades may be represented onsite at any one time. This involves many of the same problems posed by multiple employers. Not only are there competing interests to deal with, but lines of authority and communication are more complex and sometimes blurred when compared with a single-employer, single-union workplace. This influences many aspects of health and safety. For example, which worker from which union will represent all workers on the project if there is a regulatory requirement for a health and safety representative? Who gets trained in what and by whom?

In the case of rehabilitation and reinstatement of injured workers, the options for skilled construction workers are much more limited than those of their fixed-industry counterparts. For example, an injured worker at a factory may be able to return to some other job at that workplace without crossing important jurisdictional boundaries between one union and another, because there is typically only one union in the factory. In construction, each trade has fairly clearly defined jurisdiction over the types of work its members can perform. This greatly limits the options for injured workers who may not be able to perform their normal pre-injury job functions but could none the less perform some other related work at that workplace.

Occasionally, jurisdictional disputes arise over which union should perform certain types of work which have health and safety implications. Examples include scaffold erection, boom truck operation, asbestos removal and rigging. Regulations in these areas need to consider jurisdictional concerns, especially with respect to licensing and training.

The Dynamic Nature of Construction

Construction workplaces are in many respects quite different from fixed industry. Not only are they different, they tend to be constantly changing. Unlike a factory which operates at a given location day after day, with the same equipment, the same workers, the same processes and generally the same conditions, construction projects evolve and change from day to day. Walls are erected, new workers from different trades arrive, materials change, employers change as they complete their portions of the work, and most projects are affected to some degree just by the changes in the weather.

When one project is completed, workers and employers move on to other projects to start all over again. This indicates the dynamic nature of the industry. Some employers work in several different cities, provinces, states or even countries. Similarly, many skilled construction workers move with the work. These factors influence many aspects of health and safety, including workers’ compensation, health and safety regulations, performance measurement and training.


The construction industry is presented with some very different conditions from those in fixed industry. These conditions must be considered when control strategies are being contemplated and may help to explain why things are done differently in the construction industry. Solutions developed with the input from both construction labour and construction management, who know these conditions and how to deal effectively with them, offer the best chance for improving health and safety performance.



Read 5211 times Last modified on Friday, 23 September 2011 19:22