Avoiding Friendly Fire on the Job: Understanding the Risks Posed by an Undertrained Workforce

When budgets get tight -and let’s face it, most of us have experienced that crunch at one point or another- we naturally start looking for ways to curtail our spending and to eliminate those expenses we deem non-essential, or, just unnecessary altogether.

Nothing triggers the need for a detailed analysis of a company’s finances quite like a blown budget, or, an unexpected loss of revenue / profit can. In construction, budgets are often tight; and, as a result, decisions have to be made frequently that force leaders to make difficult choices between multiple necessities that, of course, are not exactly budget-friendly.

So, what happens then?

Historically (in times of lesser economic prosperity), safety and training-related expenses have been among the first line items on a budget to undergo some type of change. Sometimes, those changes are small, insignificant… Other times, change can represent a total departure from the spending allocated to those expenses and expenditures which are generally considered essential to a construction company’s day-to-day operations. In an industry that suffers from hundreds of fatalities -and even more injuries- annually, can companies really afford to short-fund their budgets for safety and training? Well, surprisingly, the answer is yes; and, depending on who else you ask, the answer is also a resounding NO.

Training in the construction industry can be both economical and budget-friendly; but it is rarely inexpensive for companies to train their employees. When considering the cost of hiring a certified or credentialed trainer, productivity loss (from the workers being out of the office or field) and the cost of paying employees to physically attend training, a company sometimes has to decide whether that safety course is an immediate must-have; or, if maybe it can wait for a while. And, until disaster strikes, that’s (normally) a safe gamble. Until it isn’t…

An undertrained workforce is a potentially unsafe workforce.

In an economic climate where time equals money, construction companies have the exceedingly difficult challenge of meeting intense budget and scheduling demands, while keeping everyone safe; and, without cutting any corners on quality or compliance.

While many of the construction trades offer thorough and ongoing task training for their workforce -which includes some trade-specific safety- that training is often, unfortunately, not focused on compliance with the safety regulations applicable to our industry. This sometimes leads to companies adopting a false sense of security with regard to the training they offer to their personnel. Because turnover in the industry can often force the need for a new associate’s training to be fast-tracked, companies will often pair new laborers with technician or journey-level craftspeople to help those new associates get ‘up to speed’. A common result of crash-course training such as this, is that associates will learn the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their tasks and responsibilities; but will often neglect -until later- to learn the ‘why’. And, in construction, not knowing the ‘whys’ behind a task can be potentially dangerous; and sometimes, even fatal. The buddy system, while proven successful over time, does have limits to its effectiveness as it relates to educating around accident prevention. Quite simply, you can’t be effectively prepared to manage hazards that you haven’t been trained to recognize, avoid, or eliminate.

Ignorance of the rules is never an acceptable excuse.

While many knowledge gaps can be addressed for workers by spending time with and observing a skilled technician or journeyperson at work, there must be some formal, structured classroom training to supplement and reinforce the training offered on-the-job. As the old saying goes: if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.  In the case of unsafe acts / conditions that lead to injuries or fatalities on the job, a lack of job or task-specific knowledge resulting in the harm (or, death) of a worker can be ruinously expensive for a company that is otherwise financially healthy. As many companies are recognizing this and are starting to be proactive in providing essential training for their employees, many companies are still training their employees reactively; and, only when faced with suspended work or legal action, do they really start taking it seriously.

Beware of (and, supportive of) the Newly-Hired Employee

New employees -often being eager to please, and, to demonstrate their value to a company- can inadvertently help or harm a company with their individual level(s) of training (or, lack thereof). Most of us know what it feels like to be asked a question that we don’t know the answer to; but at the same time, not wanting to appear unknowledgeable in front of a group of our peers and/or superiors. And because of this fear, with the nod of a head, many of us at some point in life, have openly proclaimed our knowledge of an unfamiliar task, topic, or rule as if we’ve known it for years. It a bad habit that unfortunately can be exhibited by new employees and seasoned employees alike.

People seldom seek opportunities to be publicly identified as someone who doesn’t know what most everyone else in the room already knows. This can be tolerated somewhat in low-risk environments (take classrooms, for example) where the likelihood of danger to a person’s life or health is not high. In construction, there are potential dangers to life and health at seemingly every turn. Consider confined spaces in construction, which is largely considered a safety-sensitive topic. In a classroom, if an instructor asks a trainee if they know what constitutes oxygen-rich and oxygen-deficientin a confined space -and that trainee replied, “yes”, but truthfully, did not know- regardless of whether that trainee knew what those terms meant, there’s a good chance that their life or health wouldn’t be threatened in that classroom due to their lack of knowledge with regard to confined spaces. Now, let’s say that same trainee goes to work the next week, and is asked by his or her supervisor to enter a confined space on a job site. Let’s also assume that this trainee still does not have a clear understanding of how oxygen levels in a confined space affect entry requirements; but, being eager to please, jumps right in the confined space to perform his or her work without testing or ventilating the atmosphere prior. A traditional four-function calculator might be insufficient in helping your Safety Director compute the different ways things could go wrong in that scenario… See the difference?

In conclusion, untrained or undertrained workers can be as much of a danger to themselves, as they are to the people around them. New associates who learn things the wrong way, may end up becoming leaders in your company who teach others to do the same. The couple to few thousand dollars a company might save in foregoing training for their associates will pale in comparison to the potentially several thousand to millions of dollars a company may stand to pay out, in OSHA penalties and legal settlements following a major injury or fatality that occurred on their watch. Responses in a court case such as, “I didn’t know” or, “I was never told about that”, are more likely to significantly harm one’s legal defense, than they are to help it. Try seeing what reaction you might get from a compliance officer, prosecutor, judge, or parent of a child that died on your job, when you claim ignorance or attempt to rationalize why you never sufficiently trained your personnel. Or, you can choose to be proactive-

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