Four Ideas to Make Your Projects Safer

A Six Minute Read.

I recently attended a meeting that became paralyzed, and its project nearly derailed; the scolds and ankle-biters attacked, alternately, the time and expense of “safety” projectsduring execution and their surprise at said time and expense. The poor contractors’ defense was simply, “We need to make sure the workers are being ‘safe.’”

It’s a perfectly reasonable-sounding response, but as the project was in Week 11 of a nine-week implementation phase, it was being offered at least 16 weeks too late.

I’ve worked with companies – mines, gas refineries, nuclear power plants, etc. – where industrial “safety” is a guiding 3f1f7365-36fc-4172-8409-b4d851dc23b3principle – and even more companies that treat the “Safety Committee” as a joke mandated by the insurance company (but at least an opportunity for cookies). Away from heavy machinery, it’s easy to forget how suddenly someone can get hurt, on any project. Whether the deliverable is a piece of capital equipment, a 26-story building, a new sales territory, or new backup servers, there are elements of risk that can – and should be – mitigated well in advance.

Still, the best project managers at safety-minded companies tend to make the same critical mistakes as this committee I watched last week. And, like those poor bureaucrats, their projects suffer.

Focus on the Project Not the Result

Project managers often focus their risk-management attention on the outcome of the project – the hazards of operating a new piece of equipment, fire suppression in a server room, smartphone batteries that don’t explode, that indexsort of thing. Engineers spend time preparing HazOps to accomplish this. The actual execution of the project, though, is frequently ignored.

Project managers should carefully review the project plan iteself, looking for work packages that have the most potential risk while the work is being completed. It’s easy to find “obvious” hazards such as working at heights or enclosed spaces. Literally going line-by-line through the work breakdown structure, though, can identify otherwise-missed areas.

To get the creative mind flowing, ask “When we’re doing [this piece of work], what can go wrong?” Homing in on the specific work, and asking that question, tends to get people thinking. “Specific” is key: yes, “people could get hurt”, but what specifically is the concern?  “Slipping and tripping” or “dirty/dusty air”? Or both? Visualize the work, including the location, potential weather conditions (“Opening a New Sales Territory” may seem a risk-free project, from a safety perspective, but… that recruiting trip in January? Has the HR director driven on snow before?), and what else is happening in the area.

Look for “collisions” between work packages. On one project, we discovered that two simultaneously-scheduled tasks were in direct conflict with each other; both could be done safely, but not at the same time.

It helps, too, to do some problem-solving in advance and get to the root cause of the concern. “It just is” isn’t good enough. We tend to be prescriptive in our solutions without fully understanding the hazard: Seeing “dirty/dusty air” immediately leads to the solution “wear a respirator”; first asking, “what is the cause of the dirty/dusty air” may lead to mitigations that are actually better solutions.

A recent project did just that, diving into the cause of potential slips and trips – which led us to discover not only that they would need auxiliary power to see where they were stepping, but underneath the top ground cover was broken glass, rusted metal, and other discarded construction materials. We were able to plan well in advance and prepare the crews.

If we hadn’t had done that, this would still have been discovered and managed – but probably not until the morning of implementation, which leads to…

It’s Never Too Early to Plan Appropriately

Toolbox Talks and pre-shift safety shares are great, and lots of organizations require a daily job-walk or certification process to refresh the safety-consciousness of the current_28446id_300_largecrew. All of that is effective, and should continue, but this should confirm and review conversations that have taken place much earlier in the process, not replace them. During project planning, time needs to be set aside to have those risk-based discussions, in sufficient detail that work teams can actually prepare.

On a recent demolition project, our risk analysis discovered concerns about the grounds’ ability to support weight; this meant that we had to stagger our equipment deliveries, and even limit the number of vehicles allowed to park onsite. No doubt the job’s supervisor would have seen this as work began… But hundreds of tons of machinery would already be lining up, and dozens of king cabs parked in the lot; this review allowed for a balancing of the equipment schedule and other precautionary moves.

Faced with information at the last minute, workers will debate whether to continue, versus incurring penalties and delays for making the correct, safe decision; don’t put them in that situation.

Good project managers know pre-emptive activities take time, and can lead to further preparations that consume project slack. That’s why they build these safety analysis discussions early in the planning process. Good project managers also know that there is a lot they don’t know, which is why it’s a great idea to…

Show Your Work

This entire process can feel like a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Any decent PM is thinking, “I do this already,” (and she likely does). It is a rare jobsite where I personally find concerns and the PM doesn’t reply, “What we do is…” or “If pen-writingthat happens, we will…” And it’s great that the PM has thought about it, but does everyone on site know, understand, and agree with that plan? Are they prepared? Having the safest solution in someone’s head does no one any good.

Safety planning benefits from groupthink, from brainstorming and other dynamic interactions that allow experts to riff off each others’ thinking. Designated facilitators can keep the discussion from getting bogged down. Get the discussions documented, build agreement, and share the information.

Fight the temptation to allow the bureaucracy to render visible thinking invisible. Risk Assessment forms, Management of Change orders, and the like quickly become just paper to shuffle – objects of administration rather than active planning documents. Remember, the objective is to keep people safe, not cover anyone’s ass.

Rebalance the Scope

Safety Planning is not the time to worry about Scope Creep.

During risk analysis discussions, the team will identify resources (human, material, equipment) neededtriangle to safeguard the project. These may range from getting people with certain skills, to renting a shuttle van from an assembly site, to adding entirely new work packages. This all needs to be added into the project plan, and scheduled, priced, and communicated thoroughly.

This is not “creep”; if it is necessary to ensure the safety of the team, it is part of the scope. Safety activities may increase the time required or the cost of the project: the conversation, then, is not “Do we blow the scope and do these safety activities” but rather, “Is it worth this time and cost to do this work? Or do we need to go back to the drawing board?” Which, incidentally, are the primary questions good project managers continue to ask about the scopes of their projects throughout.


All projects – not just major industrial construction jobs – face some level of risk; it pays to think through these points ahead of time.

During Planning, time needs to be set aside to have those risk-based discussions, both so the job can be appropriately resourced and workers prepared. Active project managers scour the project plan – in collaboration with experts – to find safety hotspots, complete root cause analyses, and build pre-corrections into the schedule. They ensure that this information is actively shared with everyone who relies on it, and test for understanding. And they make sure that the project scope accommodates what’s needed.

Being better prepared saves time, saves money, and (seriously) saves lives.