Project Management Institute

Stressing safety

VOICES | In the Trenches

From simulations to walk-throughs, project safety should be front and center.

I once worked on a US$6 million project to remove a piece of highly contaminated equipment from a commercial nuclear plant, load it into a specially designed container and transport it over public roads for disposal. Understandably, safety was top of mind throughout the project

Yet it's not only nuclear projects that carry a sense of danger. Practitioners in sectors like infrastructure and energy also have a heightened responsibility to make sure work is accomplished safely. To get a handle on this, project managers divide worker safety into three phases: planning, executing and controlling.

During the planning phase, the project manager must ensure that a job safety analysis (JSA) is performed and approved. The JSA analyzes all tasks and activities in the work breakdown structure to look for potential hazards, and then identifies methods to eliminate or reduce those hazards. The methods should be easy for workers to understand and should strive first to eliminate the hazards, and second to minimize consequences to workers.

The project team should maintain a healthy questioning attitude during the planning phase, asking questions such as:

  • What are the critical activities?
  • What mistakes might be made?
  • What is the worst that could happen?
  • What defenses should we use?

Planning should include a review of previous similar jobs done by the team. The project manager also should double-check that an adequate emergency plan is developed and approved. This plan should include emergency contacts, directions to the nearest hospital and information on whether specialized training will be necessary for workers.

Some projects may require even more planning. For the nuclear project I worked on, our project team tested the maneuvers with simulated mock-ups, in addition to the steps detailed above. The result was that the project was completed safely and within the established constraints.


Make Yourself Visible

During the next phase, execution, the project manager should “manage by walking around”—by being a visible presence at the job site. Whenever the project manager is at the site, he or she should perform a quick review of the work location and the tasks to be performed. Are there visible hazards? Could workers get hurt? Are there different conditions than what were planned for?

Each day, the project manager or an appropriate team member should hold a pre-job briefing. This should include a team walk through the work area to review site-specific conditions. Workers should document their attendance at the pre-job briefing to establish accountability. This briefing will also:

  • Emphasize safety over urgency
  • Ensure each worker fully understands assigned tasks
  • Identify specific hazards and error-prone situations and how to avoid them
  • Review lessons learned

Part of the project manager's responsibility for safety includes making sure the team develops and maintains proper safety habits. Personnel should be encouraged to use the STAR technique (stop, think, act, review). Team members should not accept anything at face value but instead should challenge assumptions, confirm details when uncertainty exists and investigate conditions that don't appear to be correct. If a condition arises that is different than the one for which work steps were developed, stop immediately and place the work area in a safe configuration.

While safety begins with the individual, the project manager must use his or her planning, communication and leadership skills to instill a mindset that safety is paramount. PM


Raymond Jasniecki, PMP, is a project team leader at KBR in Circleville, Ohio, USA.

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