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Building Safety Culture: How Natalie Schwatka’s Research is Changing the Construction Industry

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Written by Avery Artman on February 1, 2018

Six years ago, Dr. Natalie Schwatka stepped onto a construction site for the first time. It would not be the last. In fact, this would be the first of countless visits that would lead her to help develop a training program reaching thousands of construction workers across the country.   

Natalie began her studies of safety culture in construction as a MAP ERC trainee in the ergonomics program at Colorado State University. Over the course of her graduate studies, she walked through dozens of construction sites — taking in the sights, smells, and hazards first-hand — and interviewed the managers and workers there. A clear picture emerged of what it is like to work in one of the most dangerous industries in America. 

“The interviews with construction leaders were eye-opening,” said Natalie. “The biggest theme I heard from them was that, two decades ago, if you weren’t doing a good job, you were yelled at. Someone told me that even if you were doing a good job, you still got yelled at! If someone yelled at me while I tried to work, it certainly would not help me do my job better or safer. Luckily, now the culture is starting to change.”   

As part of her dissertation, Natalie worked with researchers at NIOSH to design and pilot a safety leadership course for construction supervisors. Using data she collected through hours of interviews, she crafted key messages that would resonate with construction workers. The pilot was so successful that Natalie and her partners at CPWR — The Center for Construction Research and Training, the project’s funder, and the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business — refined the original training to share it broadly across the industry.   

In January 2017, that course, “Foundations for Safety Leadership” (FSL), was approved as an elective for OSHA’s 30-hour construction certification, one of the most widely recognized safety certificates in the industry.  More than 3,500 supervisors have taken the FSL course since it was approved, and the course materials, which are available for free online, have been downloaded thousands of times. The training reaches a national audience and is making a difference right here in Colorado.   

“It’s rare for construction leaders to thank us for a training, but that’s what we received from our supervisors after the FSL training,” said David Fiore, one of the owners of Fiore & Sons, a family-owned construction company in Colorado. “What’s even better is that they have been able to improve their communication and engagement with their team. This training was a key component of our safety program that earned us the AGC Construction Safety and Health Excellence Award in 2016.”   

The training covers five leadership skills that supervisors can use to improve safety on their job site, such as leading by example, recognizing employees for positive behaviors, and empowering employees to identify and address hazards. Unlike other leadership trainings, the FSL course uses animation to walk students through various construction-specific scenarios — based on real stories gleaned from workers’ experiences — that demonstrate how to use these skills on the job.

Leaders determine and demonstrate the values of their company, creating a healthy or harmful culture for their employees. Company culture affects whether workers feel that they can report safety violations without fear of losing their jobs, whether they wear proper protective equipment, and whether they feel empowered to find new ways to mitigate hazards they encounter. That is why Natalie and her co-investigators decided to home in on leaders as a target audience for safety training; changes in leadership have a ripple effect throughout a company.

“Sometimes companies assume that training workers to be safe and giving them the tools to do so is sufficient. But if leaders are not practicing safety themselves, the employees they manage will follow suit. That puts everyone at risk,” said Natalie. “Focusing on leadership is an effective way to ensure that safety becomes more than just policies and practices; it becomes part of the fabric of the organization — part of the culture. If we start at the top, chances are it will trickle down to the entire company.”   

Natalie has been a researcher in our center and an instructor in the Colorado School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health for the past three years. This course is just one of her many accomplishments. She is the lead investigator on multiple research projects and was recently promoted to a tenure-track assistant professor position. While these titles suit her job description, she would not describe herself as a typical researcher. Yes, she spends a good portion of her work day managing research grants, analyzing data, and writing scientific manuscripts. But she says applying her research out in the community and working with people are her favorite parts of the job.

“Interviewing workers helps me understand the people I’m studying. I don’t see them as research subjects. They are people, with families and friends that they want to go home to at the end of the day,” said Natalie. “Analyzing data and writing publications is an important part of what I do. But what is most meaningful to me is knowing that my research is being used to help people stay safe and be well.” 

This is an excerpt from the Center for Health, Work & Environment’s 2016–2017 Annual Report.