Construction Site Safety Inspections – Is a Checklist Sufficient?

March 2015

Almost all safety inspections at construction sites use some form of a checklist. There are hundreds of them available and they can vary from a couple of pages to 20, 30, or more pages.

If carefully chosen to match the type of construction activity (roadway, high rise building, demolition, land clearing, bridges, tunnels, etc.) all have value—at least to identify the physical weaknesses related to worker safety on a construction project.

I can honestly say that I have never seen a construction site safety inspection checklist that was perfect for any project—even though I made up the checklist myself! The reason is simple. “A checklist will not a safe site make!”

Most safety inspections’ checklists suffer from some basic weaknesses.

  1. They are not specific for the type of construction project.
  2. Most safety checklists have only 3 choices: YES, NO, N/A. No ability to identify a quantity or frequency.
  3. No ability to judge the quantity, frequency, severity of an identified deficiency. Often, a checklist is used as an excuse to not make a professional judgment on whether this particular construction site is a safe place to work. Of course, you need to have some safety knowledge and experience in order to make a professional judgment in the first place.

The greatest weakness of a checklist is that there is no way to judge which checklist questions are most important, or more precisely, which safety deficiencies are most important.

For example:

  1. Poor housekeeping
  2. No convenient access to MSDS Notebook
  3. Color of Hard Hats is not consistent
  4. Tool Crib Security is lax
  5. Crane Booms in the vicinity of high tension wires—20,000 volts

All are treated with the same level of concern, but obviously that’s not true! The most important deficiency of a construction site safety inspection checklist is that they don’t address the relevant importance of a deficiency.

The most overlooked factor is SEVERITY.

It may be important that a step ladder is blocking access to a fire extinguisher but not when compared to a crane moving in the vicinity of high tension wires or someone in an abandoned oil tank without a confined space permit. The possible consequences of the last two conditions are death!

Here are some other essentials when using a checklist:

  1. Make sure the construction site safety checklist is for the specific type of construction project.
  2. The person performing the safety inspection must have some knowledge of the type of construction being performed.
  3. The safety inspector must judge the attitude and involvement of the site leadership and the organization’s overall commitment to worker safety. If you hear this from the site superintendent, beware: “I’m as much for safety as the next guy, but…”
  4. A severity assessment must be made of the safety deficiencies at every construction site. Don’t be goaded into the belief that “we have never had that type of accident here before” as a severity indicator. That’s a frequency indicator. Does such a statement mean that you won’t do anything until a crane touches a high tension wire and someone dies? The highest severity conditions are those that offer the potential for multiple injuries (a toxic chemical spill, scaffold collapse, lift truck hitting a full storage rack) or a fatality (explosion, gas leak, confined space entry, electrocution, fall from height.)
  5. A judgment must be made as to whether safety deficiencies from a checklist are followed up and corrected.
  6. A judgment must be made as to whether the persons responsible for safety also have the authority to take action. Who does the safety person report to? Do the supervisors, foreman, superintendents have responsibility for safety and the willingness and authority to take action to correct a safety hazard?

Checklists are readily available from a variety of sources. You can go to www.osha.gov and get 83,000 results for “safety inspection checklists” and many are construction site or equipment specific.

A general internet search will lead to many inexpensive or free checklists available both all-purpose and specific. Don’t forget the National Safety Council and professional groups like the American Society of Safety Engineers.

A checklist can be useful if it is recognized as only one element of a construction site safety program and the person using the checklist must have some knowledge of safety and the work being performed.

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Written by Robert E. Sheriff, CIH, CSP and Henry P. Shotwell, Ph.D., CIH

Robert E. Sheriff is the CEO of Atlantic Environmental. A Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Safety Professional, he has over thirty years of experience providing human health hazard assessments and safety consulting.   Dr. Shotwell has a Ph.D. in Safety Engineering with over 35 years of safety and Industrial Hygiene Consulting.  For more information and a free proposal, contact him at 800-344-4414 or email him at info@atlenv.com.