In a study by Clemson University researchers, when workers on an experimental roof were given harnesses and guardrails, they gravitated toward the edge of the roof more than when they didn’t have the safety equipment.
And it’s a type of behavior that goes to the heart of Clemson professor and chair of civil engineering Jesus de la Garza’s work in understanding construction safety.
The construction industry, de la Garza says, has always had an issue with maintaining a safety incident rate of zero. It’s an issue that costs companies both money and effort.
What the Clemson researchers found is traced back to the idea of “risk compensation theory,” or the way individual human beings gauge risk. “Each of us has a different target level of risk that makes us comfortable,” says de la Garza.
In this case, when construction workers were given protective equipment, their understanding of risk changed.
“When you feel safer, be it as a result of safety protection, that reduces your perception of risk. So just like the thermostat at home, the temperature lowers,” de la Garza explains. Humans then engage in risk-taking behaviors to get back to their target level of risk.
It’s not only in construction. Risk compensation is a part of our everyday lives, like when we’re driving our cars, de la Garza says.
But how can construction crews be safer while they work?
According to de la Garza, education is “the silver bullet.”
“We believe very strongly that one of the next steps, a very concrete action item from this research, is to not just protect the workers by making them safer and training them but also training them on this theory known as risk compensation,” de la Garza says. In doing so, he says, the workers would then be aware of what they may be unconsciously doing.
For de la Garza, this is only the beginning of research into risk compensation at the job site.
Comparing it to the Wright brother’s first flight, de la Garza says, “We believe that our research is analogous to that first flight in that if we are able to make progress in our safety practices, and safety, education and safety training, as much progress as the airline industry has made since that first flight, I believe we’ll be able to get to zero [safety incidents].”