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The Safety Director’s Role is Changing, and Partner Elevation Is
Driving the Transformation

Construction projects are more complex than ever. The scope and size of projects are increasing, while delivery timelines are shrinking. The unprecedented shortage of skilled labor and supervisors in the industry only adds another layer of complication to these capital projects. In the face of this industry evolution, the safety director’s goals, activities, and their reliance on outdated tools must also evolve. 

The role of a safety professional must fundamentally change in order to deliver safe, profitable projects.

Fairly or unfairly, this person was traditionally seen more as a “safety cop,” monitoring the worksite, pointing out non-compliance, and reacting to issues the moment they came up.

The safety director’s job has evolved to become a proactive discipline. You’re not putting out fires anymore – you’re creating comprehensive policies that prevent them from ever happening in the first place. 

Today’s Safety Director is a proactive, policy-oriented professional with a mentorship role.

The Safety Director’s New Job Includes Dynamic Risk Mitigation Planning

Risk mitigation planning anticipates the potential risks each contracting partner might introduce into the project, and seeks to reduce the threats that could derail the project and cause harm to workers.  As the safety director’s responsibilities extend from policing on-site workers to creating robust risk mitigation plans, on-site safety becomes the product of a strategic partnership between contractors and safety team members. 

It’s not enough to visit the worksite and enforce safety standards with workers. The individual mitigation protocols and policies the safety director has overseen must be known and observed, whether safety team members are present or not.

While everyone has a role to play ensuring project risks are mitigated early on, the safety director acts as the quarterback. They ensure that these important strategic conversations about safety are happening from the very beginning, and safety directors are developing data-driven policies that mitigate risks while protecting workers from harm.

Externally, mitigation planning involves orchestrating foremen, supervisors, and workers on behalf of contractors. It means predicting the risks that come along with hazardous activities and complex tasks and addressing those potential risks in collaboration with contractors from start to finish. 

Internally, risk mitigation planning means the safety director acts as a mentor to others, helping them to observe construction safety policies, and building a safety-oriented culture that doesn’t require constant policing. The safety director must become the strategic safety champion, securing agreement from internal stakeholders on risks and mitigation plans and acting as the internal subject matter expert on all things safety for the project. 

It’s critical to understand that successful risk mitigation requires collaboration between the safety director and all of their contracting partners. When done correctly, all parties involved benefit. It’s not about pushing a top-down safety initiative on contractors. It’s about fostering a culture of safety through partner elevation.

The Old Prequalification Process Has to Change

In the past, the construction safety team would first interact with a contracting partner around the time on-site work began. There might have been a pre-construction meeting where a few project-specific requirements were laid out, but often, the first inspection would be the contractor’s first real interaction with the safety director.

This is not the best way to start a productive relationship. Nobody wants to collaborate with someone whose sole job is policing them into compliance. 

The key to realizing the full benefits of partner elevation lies in re-imagining contractor prequalification. Instead of treating the prequalification process as a mere formality, safety directors create a meaningful risk management exercise.  

By engaging with partners during the pre-bid phase to do a deep assessment into their areas of risk, you’re creating the foundation for a healthy long-term relationship based on a mutual understanding that safety is paramount.  

This level of engagement challenges the typical approach to contractor prequalification. It’s not simply a process of checking the appropriate boxes and telling the contractor whether they pass or fail the prequalification step. It’s an in-depth analysis of the risks that are unique to the construction project and the contractor in question.

The result of that analysis generates valuable insights that allows the safety director to apply strategic, proactive solutions to mitigate risk because these insights are specific and entirely unique to each individual contracting partner. It includes information about past incidents and a view into the management systems they use to prevent future incidents. 

When the safety director demonstrates a vested interest in the contractor’s success, establishing robust, situationally-specific construction safety protocols becomes possible. This positions the project safety team in a new, strategic role, helping contractors minimize their own exposure to risk while helping ensure the project as a whole goes smoothly.

When high-risk activities and complex tasks come up, the contractor sees the safety director as a valuable resource. This leads to a collaborative workflow where both contractors and safety teams are actively engaged in improving their processes, reducing their exposure to risk, and seeing the project through to successful completion.

Become a Strategic Resource for Your Organization and Your Associates Through Partner Elevation

Putting the safety director’s team in the position of enforcing compliance won’t help stakeholders, construction leaders, and contractors achieve dynamic risk mitigation the same way that partner elevation can. Partner elevation means that everyone owns and is accountable for a part of the safety puzzle. 

Ten years ago, the safety function was largely considered a tactical exercise. Now, safety has reached executive team-level importance. The safety director role has evolved from a mere “safety cop” who was dispensed to react to problems, to  a strategic asset who creates standards and practices that are strategically applied throughout the entire capital project lifecycle.  Safety directors are now the internal subject matter experts and the evangelist for all things safety; they are responsible for building the culture of safety and empowering others in the organization to follow.  

This strategic shift is even more critical than ever, as organizations are increasingly forced to turn to unknown contracting partners and to less experienced workers due to today’s labor-constrained market.

Ready to Take the Next Step in Becoming a Strategic Partner?

Join us on November 17 for the next event in our digital Partner Elevation series,                                         “How to Reduce Risk and Thrive in a Labor-Constrained Market.” This 30-minute webinar will explore how labor shortages impact safety and four other critical risk areas, and lay out a step-by-step formula to elevate a contracting partner of any experience level. Register today:

The Partner Elevation Webinar Series

In a market where contracting partners are in short supply, Partner Elevation is your secret weapon. Watch our recorded webinar series that explores the real-world application of the framework that the world’s most successful builders and operators use to elevate their partners.

Watch Now

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David Tibbetts

David Tibbetts is the Chief Safety Officer at Highwire. Prior to joining Highwire David managed the Construction Safety Program at Harvard University overseeing the implementation of the University's Construction EH&S Standard, Substance Abuse Prevention Program, and use of Highwire's Contractor Safety Assessment Program.

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