One of the common communication problems in construction involves the problem of workers getting quiet at the wrong time. Those with lower rank are often reluctant to speak up, especially when it comes to safety.  Most have heard the safety leader or the boss say “When you see something, say something.”  But on many jobsites workers see lots of things; many of them say nothing.

Unfortunately, sometimes those unspoken words allow accidents and even deaths to happen. I know the details of several such incidents. One happened on a jobsite where there was a 30-foot-deep trench. The job had multiple challenges—heavy traffic, electrical considerations and schedule pressures. The leaders did a good job of pre-planning and making sure the risks were identified and hazards mitigated. There was a lot of good communication beforehand.

As they were finishing, they had several trench boxes to retrieve from the hole. They agreed ahead of time to not go down into the trench to retrieve the trench boxes, but instead to use machinery to haul it up. At the last possible moment, a crew leader decided to go down and bring up the trench boxes by hand. Another worker went with him. At least ten workers were close enough to the situation that they could see what was happening. They all knew that what these two were doing was not according to plan and was a serious safety risk. No one spoke up.

As everyone in the business knows, it is not uncommon for leaders to change a project plan in the interest of budget constraints or other pressures.  Also, it is common for workers, in predominately male-cultures, to keep to themselves and not intervene in the tasks of others. These two factors can be like a match set to a keg of dynamite. Some men get into construction precisely because it is possible to work a full day and have very little conversation. And it is relatively rare for anyone to interrupt the work you are doing, especially if you are seasoned or have high status.

Shortly after the men went down in the trench there was a catastrophic collapse of earth. A single cubic yard of soil weighs an astounding 2,200 pounds—about the weight of a small car.  The leader was able to escape. The other worker was buried alive. They could not find him in time. He was crushed to death by the weight of the soil. Take a minute to let that one soak in. Never again will he see his kids, his wife, his friends. Gone. Permanently.

How did this happen?  The workers had identified the safety risks and had a clear plan.  But they changed the plan, and they were probably not aware that having a culture where lower ranked workers are afraid to speak up to the boss, in the interest of safety is a huge hazard.

When the workers who were at the site that day were interviewed, many said that they knew it was dangerous, but I didn’t say anything.  Can you imagine being the one who went to tell the wife of the worker who died that he would not be coming home? I know that man. It was a very difficult day for them all.

If the lower-ranked worker suggested going down into the trench, against the plan, would the superintendent have spoken up and stopped him? Quite possibly. If either had gone down into the trench at a company where workers had the tools and support to speak up, I believe that person would not have died that day.

Would any of your workers speak up when a leader made a risky decision?  What level of trust would you need to eliminate that rank-related hazard?  Where can you get the resources to build that kind of trust?

Tom Esch