Grant will develop psychological safety training for construction workers

Construction workers and machinery on a construction site.
While the construction industry has focused on physical safety for more than 100 years, little effort has been put into improving how safe people feel psychologically, which ends up having a big impact on physical safety.

People often think of artificial intelligence as the frontier of science, but Hongtao Dang, assistant professor of construction management in the School of Design and Construction, is studying what might be considered a larger unknown frontier: emotional and social intelligence. 

“Those are the real frontiers because that is something that AI or a robot cannot replace — our distinction as human beings,” he said.

Dang recently received a grant to develop a training program to improve psychological safety for people in the construction industry. Funding and support for the project has been provided by the State of Washington, Department of Labor & Industries, Safety & Health Investment Projects. The grant builds upon his previous work on diversity, equity, and inclusion training for construction site safety management training case studies.  

While the industry has focused on physical safety for more than 100 years, little effort has been put into improving how safe people feel psychologically, which ends up having a big impact on physical safety, said Dang. So, for instance, a worker who isn’t comfortable in their workplace might not speak up to insist that their co-worker wear proper safety gear.

“I might be afraid that I will be punished or humiliated, or that someone will be angry with me, or I’ll be rejected, so I won’t share,” he said. “If we do root cause analysis, we can often attribute an accident to a human factor or to psychological safety.” 

The presence of fear in an organization is the first sign of weak leadership, said Dang. Interestingly, psychological safety can apply both to the worker and to the manager, he said. Workers oftentimes don’t feel safe, but a manager might also worry or fear that their employee is going to outperform them or take over their position, so they quash helpful feedback or contributions.

“When the manager doesn’t feel safe, it can create a toxic work environment where people don’t feel appreciated or valued,” he said. “On the other hand, if the manager empowers and supports his worker, the manager can do a great job as a mentor. That’s a healthy organization and a healthy place to stay.”

Dang, who is a minority, worked in the construction industry before becoming an academic. 

“I know what the job site culture looks like — how good or bad it can be,” he said. “From that experience, I think it’s important for me to be a catalyst to potentially transform the job site culture and to make it more inclusive and safer for people to work there.”

As part of the grant, Dang will work with construction companies to gather real-world workplace data and information for case studies and then will develop a set of student and instructor manuals that will eventually be used in training modules. Each manual includes a case study that will be based on real work scenarios with any identifying information about the project or people removed. The scenarios will be focused on inclusion, diversity, and equity; professional development and personal growth; mental health and team success; and active care and suicide prevention. After being presented with a case study, the workers will have the chance to think about, discuss, and share solutions in small groups. The trainer later helps the group understand what might be an optimal solution. 

“If we can improve psychological safety on the job site, we can improve productivity, safety, and project quality,” Dang said. “It’s not only about safety, but safety is our primary focus.”

“Every person who works on the job site deserves to be safe,” he added. “Their family expects them to come home safely every day to have dinner with them. We don’t want accidents or injuries, and we can start from psychological safety to influence and possibly change the job site culture to make it safer.”

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