Feeling invincible and a need to prove themselves on worksites is putting construction workers at risk. Photo: Paul Rovere
As the wife of a Canberra construction worker, I have every hope that the ACT government inquiry into safety in the building industry will be successful in identifying causes and proposing implementable solutions. As someone who has worked in the health sector, however, I am not optimistic.
There is no simple or single underlying cause of the cavalier attitude towards occupational health and safety which is evident on many construction sites, and it will be the job of the inquiry to uncover as many of these causes as possible. While some attention has been given to issues such as the quality of training and workers being pushed to meet cost and time deadlines, the one aspect of the current culture which has remained unrecognised is gender.
We know that gender influences how men and women think about and behave in relation to health and health promotion. The role of gender in health is so intrinsic that it has even been said that ''the doing of health is the doing of gender''. Men have a concept of health which is similar to the holistic indigenous concept of overall physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Men also think of health in the sense of being in control and having power over their bodies.
The crucial fact borne out by Australian and international research is that the performance of health behaviours by men occurs within the context of masculinity - within the constant negotiation of what it means ''to be a man'' in today's society.
The problem is that we have not yet successfully integrated the idea of ''looking after yourself'' with masculine notions of strength, control and responsibility. In fact, the notions of ''health'' and ''health and safety'' promoted by health workers and health and safety officers tend to conflict with dominant notions of masculinity - and, even worse, are associated with feminine concerns.
Being asked to take OH&S issues seriously does not sit well with masculine norms of not expressing interest in, or concern about, physical vulnerabilities. A deliberate nonchalance towards such concerns is regarded as a source of masculine pride and self-confidence.
For many men - at all occupational levels and with all levels of education - health and safety choices involve issues of power, autonomy, and control. The findings of OH&S research have been consistent with those of wider men's health research in terms of confirming a generalised belief in personal invincibility, a desire to avoid anything that constitutes being seen as ''weak'' and inconsistent with a strong masculinity, and an unwillingness or inability to challenge ''environmental elements'' which downplay health and safety concerns.
Canadian OH&S authorities who have investigated these issues for construction workers found that these environmental elements include a desire to work faster and to avoid being thought of as wimps (by themselves or by co-workers). Men interviewed for various studies have revealed how they are challenged, or at least feel challenged, to ''prove'' themselves on a worksite.
Risky behaviours, then, become a way for young and not-so-young men to actively demonstrate masculinity. Combine this with the pressures from contractors to meet time and cost deadlines, often despite inadequate human and mechanical resources, and you have a situation in which OH&S becomes a discretionary add-on and worksite injuries are virtually inevitable.
Survey research in 2010 by SafeWork Australia into OH&S attitudes, perceptions and motivations across several sectors found construction industry workers were more likely than workers as a whole to agree that, when it comes to OH&S requirements, they will tick the boxes and complete paperwork but do no more than this. Younger workers were significantly more likely to agree that they resent dealing with OH&S requirements and were also more likely to agree that they get so involved with work that they forget about safety. They also admitted that they and others sometimes skylark at work and take risks that jeopardise each other's safety.
In her 2011 survey analysis for SafeWork Australia, the Australian National University's Professor Val Braithwaite reported that, overall, one-third of survey respondents said they did not think about safety when they were involved in what they were doing or trying to finish a job, and almost half of the respondents reported that they believed their bosses' main priority was not safety but making their own jobs easier. The wives of building workers could no doubt provide many disturbing examples of accidents and near-accidents that have gone unreported, and of worksite cultures which regard the involvement of WorkCover and the shutting down of a site as a worst-case scenario, to be avoided at all costs.
This is particularly the case where site workers have determined that either the accident could not have been avoided or that action by WorkCover would serve no useful purpose. This type of response, as Braithwaite notes, results in ''a game playing mode'' where the objective is to find pathways around the law. These attitudes, too, reflect research findings about men's attitudes towards authority - specifically, the response by many men to assert personal control in the face of advice or instructions from health authorities or OH&S authorities where that advice necessitates an acceptance of vulnerabilities and of preventive actions.
Indeed, it is not unusual to hear stories of OH&S-qualified senior site personnel who exempt themselves from the strict compliance with safety standards which they expect of their subordinates. This is of more than anecdotal interest, given the important role of workplace leaders in changing behaviour by example.
None of this is to suggest that the responsibility lies entirely with workers or with managers. The issues are also not fundamentally about ''blaming'' men for acting in accordance with masculine norms; after all, norms such as strength, control and responsibility can be - and should be - powerful forces in support of health and safety. It would be a mistake, however, to overlook the influence of gender at the corporate, worksite, and individual levels.
The construction industry, despite professional inroads by women, remains a male-dominated sector with the attitudes and values of traditional masculinity still dominating management and worksite cultures. This needs to be acknowledged if we are, in Braithwaite's words, to ''cultivate basic respect for safety consciousness in workplaces'' in a way which will ''permeate the organisational culture as well as the psyche of the individual''.
Karen Watkins is a pen name. The writer requested anonymity to ensure her husband's employment would not be adversely affected.