The construction industry is a high risk industry and is known for having high fatality rates worldwide. Safe Work Australia reported that from 2003 to 2015, the construction industry recorded a total of 469 fatalities, with a further 43 from 2016 to June 2017 [1
]. Similarly, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) of the United States of America reported that of 4379 workers fatalities in private industry in 2015, 937 occurred in construction [2
]. Construction accidents mostly result from interactions between the work team, workplace, equipment, and materials, which account for 70% of injuries and fatalities [3
]. Research also suggests that construction accidents occur due to multiple events such as the random interaction of hazards and other casual factors related to deficiencies in management, equipment problems, unsafe site conditions, workers actions, and conditions specific to construction activities. In managing construction activities, some safety management strategies have been implemented in order to minimise accidents and reduce fatality rates. These strategies and approaches improved construction safety to an extent, but accidents continue to occur, and fatality rates are still not acceptable; therefore, other alternatives and strategies are needed to improve the situation.
High reliability organisations (HROs) are known to operate nearly error-free in extremely challenging and uncertain environments, where complex procedures, technology, and guidelines are used to manage complex systems and conditions. The construction industry also operates in an uncertain environment due to changes in the work environment, unfavourable weather conditions, subcontractors, unskilled tradesmen, management issues, and logistics. However, construction activities are rarely error- or accident-free due to the strategies and procedures implemented in managing safety. HROs are able to attain high safety standards because they apply the principles of collective mindfulness in their daily operations. HRO principles have been mostly applied and investigated in the healthcare sector, but much has not been done in construction. Therefore, it is important to investigate the opportunities of applying the principles as a safety management strategy in construction.
A systematic review was carried out to summarise and critically analyse the body of evidence on HRO theory and its applicability as a safety management strategy in construction.
1.1. Current Safety Management Approaches in Construction
Accidents continue to occur in the construction industry worldwide [4
], due to the complexity and unpredictable nature of most construction activities [5
]. Managing safety in the construction industry involves dealing with accident prevention and conducting accident investigations [4
]. Accident prevention involves safety interventions such as design modifications, technical measures, and behavioural and organisational interventions [4
], which are used for hazard controls and accident prevention in managing safety. The analysis of accidents gives an in depth understanding of the hazards, and the what, how, and why of an accident [6
Over the past years, efforts have been made to improve construction safety management approaches, and there are now a number of recognised safety interventions and approaches. In this review we will focus on the most common safety improvement approaches evident in the literature and in the construction sector: (i) personnel selection, (ii) safety campaign, (iii) risk assessment, (iv) behaviour based safety programs, (v) safety regulations, (vi) safety climate, (vii) prevention through design, and (viii) near miss accident reporting.
1.1.1. Personnel Selection
Risk analysis carried out some years ago in the construction industry observed that most company accidents were caused by a small fraction of employees. The results from the analysis prompted the need for critical selection of personnel as a means to mitigate accidents [4
]. It was concluded that some employees were more susceptible to accidents than others [5
], so variables such as behavioural and workplace attitude, psychological problems, drug abuse, and alcohol use were identified by researchers for screening future employees [5
]. However, the personnel selection method turned out to be less effective for improving occupational safety when put into practice [5
], because individual behaviour of workers did not contribute significantly to construction accidents.
1.1.2. Safety Campaign
Research aimed at promoting health and safety in construction activities was conducted in the United States of America in 1990, and resulted in the inauguration of the Centre to Protect Worker’s Right (CPWR) [6
]. As a result of this national initiative, it was recorded that rates of absenteeism and lost-time injuries decreased by 20% [6
1.1.3. Risk Assessment
Risk assessment involves collecting information that provides an understanding of how to assess potential hazards [8
]. It takes into consideration how events occur and the probability of such events happening consistently, or a specific combination of events using fault tree analysis to estimate the severity and consequence of such events [8
]. Risk assessment makes use of three steps: identifying potential hazards, assessing the risk, and ranking the risk.
Risk assessment in construction is mostly carried out using the Preliminary Hazard Analysis (PHA) technique and check-lists [10
]. The PHA technique analyses sequences of events that have the potential to result in an accident. The check-list are designed for this specific task and is also used to control risk associated with a certain task, but it may not be suitable for other operating conditions and might become a potential safety issue [10
1.1.4. Behaviour-Based Safety Programs
Various behavioural-based safety programs have been implemented in various construction industries all over the world, and studies have been conducted to access the impact of the implemented programs. Urlings and Nijhuis [12
], in their study, tested workers views about safety by presenting slides with familiar scenarios on construction sites related to working at height incidents and machinery incidents [12
]. Construction workers recognised all scenarios as hazardous but gave different accounts to questions asked on responsibility and on matters about who was required to take certain actions. Their findings indicated that lack of concentration was given to safe behaviour when safety had to compete with production [12
]. Another study conducted in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom assessed two interventions implemented for safety management [13
]. The first intervention was the use of safety training, presenting slides of unsafe situations and demonstrating what amounts to desirable behaviour. The second intervention presented graphic representation of audit results feedback, showing the desired and actual safety scores [13
]. Their results identified clear positive effect in the United Kingdom and a less positive result in Hong Kong, and the effect rapidly disappeared after the intervention stopped. Limited support from management was identified by the authors as the major setback in the interventions [13
1.1.5. Safety Regulations
In the United States of America, a national study was carried out in 1996 to assess the influence of OSHA safety standards for scaffolding that were introduced in 1991 [15
]. These standards set requirements for the strength and dimensions of scaffolding and fall protection [7
]. Additionally, the policy involved more regular inspections and higher fines for defaulters [7
]. The study uncovered that the fatality level and lost time resulting from accidents decreased significantly within a period of five years of introducing the standards [15
1.1.6. Safety Climate
This is the perceived value placed on safety in an organisation, which reflects the employee’s conception about safety; it also predicts the way employees behave with respect to safety in the workplace [16
]. The safety climate highlights the existing situation and its impact on employees [17
]. A study by Dedobbeleer and Beland [18
] on workers perception of safety climate discovered that management approach towards safety and the involvement of workers were the main factors impacting the safety climate [4
1.1.7. Prevention through Design (PtD)
Prevention through design was first conceptualised in 1985 by the International Labour Office (ILO). It discovered that in designing construction projects, health and safety hazards could be eliminated or controlled from the design phase [4
]. The process takes into consideration how the project will be executed, the maintenance process, waste disposal and recycling, and the decommissioning of such projects [4
]. The ILO emphasised that the safety of construction workers should be incorporated by architects and engineers when designing projects [20
], as it is believed that 60% of accidents and fatalities happen due to choices made in the design stage [4
1.1.8. Near-Miss Accident Reporting
This is the reporting of events that would have caused an accident but did not. The information from the reports is used as lessons to prevent a repeat of such an occurrence. The information is analysed and the outcome used to improve safety supervision; the feedback is also given to workers to keep them informed of the safety issue [5
]. It is believed that for an accident to happen, close to ten near misses must have occurred [5
]. A study in Japan explored the quality of accident data of large construction companies, and it was discovered that the investigations could give detailed information on the nature of unsafe acts associated with different tasks, but the measurement of near misses was difficult due to higher levels of occurrences [22
1.1.9. Summary of Common Safety Improvement Approaches
The various safety management approaches discussed above have been implemented and assessed where construction activities take place, with most of the outcomes reducing lost time injuries and accidents on site. However, most of the approaches considered by the authors did not keep up with emerging theory on accident causation and safety management [23
], because they were developed and implemented over twenty years ago [15
]. More advanced approaches and methods are required to address the advancement of construction safety, and one such method is high reliability organisational theory.
1.2. High Reliability Organisations (HROs)
High reliability organisations (HROs) have been under investigation by organisational scholars for over twenty years to understand how they function at an exceptionally high level with little or no accidents under challenging circumstances [24
]. A high reliability organisation is one that engages in hazardous operations characterised by complexity and uncertainty, yet achieves relatively high levels of safety [25
]. The concept of HROs was developed by some researchers in the 1980s at the Berkely campus of the University of California [27
]; they came up with the concept while investigating why some organisations function in highly hazardous environment and technologies, almost accident and error-free [27
]. HROs original studies were based on three industries: nuclear power generation stations, air traffic controls, and aircraft carriers [28
]. Wieck et al. took a step further in their HROs research and developed the concept of collective mindfulness, which identified five aspects present in all HROs: (a) preoccupation with failure, (b) reluctance to simplify operations, (c) sensitivity to operations, (d) commitment to resilience, and (e) deference to expertise [29
There is little published research on HRO approaches in the construction industry, so the utility of HRO to improve construction safety is unknown. This article aims to investigate the utility of HRO as a safety management strategy in the construction industry. This will be achieved by investigating:
How HRO has been defined,
How HRO has been conceptualised,
The theoretical framework that HRO has been used in,
Dimensions and measures used to inform on HRO, and the
Level of analysis and industrial context of HRO.
2.1. Study Design
This article is a systematic review reported using the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) statement [31
] as a guideline. The initial results of our findings were presented and discussed through an oral poster presentation at the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work 2017 in Singapore.
2.2. Search Strategy
Six electronic databases (Cochrane library, Scopus, Google scholar, Science direct, EMBASE and PSYCINFO) were searched for peer-reviewed journal articles, from 1990 to 2017. The date 1990 was chosen as a starting date, because HROs were conceptualised early in the 1980s and most articles were published from 1990. The keywords used were: (high reliability organisational theory or high reliability organisations) and (high reliability theory or reliability theory) and (high risk industries or high risk construction work or high reliability safety management). At the conclusion of the search for keywords, we used EndNote referencing software to screen and record the titles, abstracts, and full text articles based on the inclusion/exclusion decisions.
2.3. Selection Process
Two reviewers, independently from each other, carried out the eligibility screening assessment for inclusion/exclusion of studies in EndNote using the set criteria. Studies were included if they contained:
Findings focused on HROs theory and application
HRO theoretical framework
High-risk industries such as (aerospace, health care, oil and gas, etc.)
High-risk construction activities
Level of analysis and industrial context.
Studies were excluded if they:
Had no abstract
Focused on HRO theory in non-high-risk industries (e.g., finance)
Were published prior to 1990
Were non-peer reviewed articles.
The final 15 studies were included after both reviewers had extensively screened and agreed on them based on the inclusion criteria. There were 48 initial, included full text studies, and 33 were excluded, as majority of them focused on HRO theory review and not application of the theory. The final 15 studies focused on review of HRO theory and application. Because of the low evidence of empirical studies on HRO, we had a small number of studies to systematically review. The list of included studies is provided in (Table A1
) in the appendix
, and the selection process is illustrated in the PRISMA diagram in Figure 1
2.4. Data Extraction
The data extracted from each article included author, year, country, industry, study design, outcomes, HRO principle of collective mindfulness discussed, and various definitions of HRO. Data was extracted from included studies by one author (A.E).
2.5. Quality Appraisal
The methodological quality of the eligible selected studies was critically appraised by two authors (A.E, M.P) using a set of screening questions adopted from the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) [32
]. The tool provides a guide for appraising qualitative research to consider if the results of the study are valid, what the results are, the benefits of the results, and the tool has been used in a range of reviews [33
]. The questions and appraisal summary are presented in (Table 1
) and (Table 2
2.6. Synthesis of Results
We undertook a narrative synthesis with guidance from Popay et al. [34
], because all the included studies were qualitative and used thick description of words and text to summarise and explain findings [34
]. This approach of narrative synthesis involved describing, exploring, and interpreting the study outcomes and the methodological adequacy [35
]. If possible similarities are to emerge from the findings, they will be presented as themes with explanations.
shows the selection process for the studies. The database search yielded 3311 records. After excluding duplicate studies, the titles and abstracts were screened for 2724 records, and after all inclusion and exclusion criteria were applied 15 studies were included in the qualitative synthesis using the CASP tool (Table 2
). Of the 15 studies, seven studies [23
] were identified through hand searching of the reference lists of all studies [23
2.7. Qualitative Synthesis
Six of the studies explored the application and benefits of HRO principles in construction and the barriers [23
]; four other studies [27
] were in general HRO research on origin of HRO, concepts, applicability, and benefits to reliability-seeking organisations. Three studies [36
] were from aerospace, nuclear, and oil and gas industries, and two studies [41
] were from the health care sector. For this review, our focus is on how HRO theory can improve safety management strategy in construction activities, so our analysis will be centred on studies from construction and general HRO research, while making reference to other industries (aerospace, nuclear and oil and gas). The characteristics and summary of all the studies is shown in (Table 3
This paper systematically reviewed previous literature on the applicability of HROs theory in construction as a safety management strategy. We aimed to investigate how HROs have been defined, how they have been conceptualised, and what theoretical framework and measures were used to inform on HRO. We found that there are various definitions of HRO by different authors, but there is no consensus definition, although they all have things in common. The lack of a unified definition makes it difficult to some extent to understand HROs and their principles.
The construction industry operates in conditions that are similar to that of HROs, but the difference is that construction activities are rarely error-free. HROs have stringent procedures that they use to manage safety, because they function in a tightly coupled system, tightly coupled meaning that all their procedures and activities function simultaneously, and any error from one section will affect total system performance [30
]. However, in the event of an uncertainty, there is a collapse in hierarchy and the most experienced personnel resolves the situation [58
]. The construction industry, on the other hand, is loosely coupled, and activities mostly do not depend on each other for overall safety performance. Accidents and near misses are managed using safety management procedures such as permit-to-work, job safety analysis (JSA), safe work method statements (SWMS), incident and near miss reporting, and risk assessment. This system of safety management in construction can be linked to HROs principles of preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify, and sensitivity to operations [30
Despite the fact that HROs operates mostly error-free in their daily activities, they can also make mistakes but recover quickly from such mistakes and carry on with their operations [39
]. Therefore other organisations like construction industry that operate in environments that are not error-free can learn from HROs [39
Panagiotis et al. [38
] in their investigation on the practices of high reliability framing crews, found that the production practices of high reliability crew showed a clear guiding principle and a set of specific strategies that focused on preventing errors and rework [23
], compared to the average crew. This discovery indicates that some of the principles of HROs are practiced in some construction activities, but they need to be empirically investigated in order to validate them. They also found out that the strategies used to prevent production errors minimised the likelihood of accidents, restricting work interruptions and control of production pressures; using skilled personnel for specific task played a vital role in managing safety and productivity [38
]. Saunders [40
], in her study on safety critical projects, observed that they are similarities between safety critical projects and HROs, and lessons can be learnt to improve the management of safety critical projects [40
]. Management plays a key role in safety management; therefore, for project management practitioners to succeed, they need to be trained to maintain an attitude of mindfulness and conscious deliberation, and be flexible while maintaining focus on project goals [40
]. She proposed an assessment tool to test “Hypotheses about observable practices in high reliability project organising”, which needs validation on a set of case study projects in safety critical industries [40
The low number of studies of HROs research from construction indicates that much has not been done in investigating the applicability of HROs principles as an opportunity to improve safety management strategies. HROs research in general has a wide gap between the levels of knowledge published and argued in academic circle [42
]. There is also the problem of transferring knowledge and lesson learnt from HROs into other sectors such as construction, and other organisations that are not error-free [42
In this review we discovered that construction industry functions in environments that can be compared to HROs. However, because of the complex organisational setup in construction due to multiple contractors, changing work environments, cost cutting, and project deadlines [45
], some of the HROs principles can be implemented, and others may be difficult to fully implement. Preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify , and sensitivity to operations have attributes that can be linked to risk assessment, incident and near miss reporting, permit-to-work, job safety analysis (JSA), and safe work method statements (SWMS) [59
], which are construction safety management tools and procedures. Commitment to resilience and deference to expertise is linked to management responsibility, as it deals with maintaining the overall safety performance of an organisation, ability to recover from unexpected events, and training of personnel to be competent in all aspects of their jobs. HROs principles can be grouped into two categories: operation management (preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify and sensitivity to operations) and management resilience (commitment to resilience and deference to expertise). These categories can be used to empirically investigate how these principles can be integrated and implemented as safety management strategies in construction.
5. Implication for Practice and Research
The main aim of this study was to systematically review available research evidence on HROs theory as a safety management strategy, which can be used to improve construction safety. This we have done by reviewing 15 studies identified in our literature search.
The first practical contribution of our present research is to identify the knowledge gap due to the scanty literature in the field, and it also impacted on the number of studies in our review. The gaps are in relation to how HROs principles can be transferred into other organisations, the lack of understanding about HROs due to the absence of a unified definition, and how reliability-seeking organisations can accesses the potentials of becoming HROs.
Secondly, we discovered that HROs and construction industry have similarities in their mode of operations, but HROs have unique safety management principles that enables them to function nearly error and accident-free. We have identified some of those principles that can be implemented in construction safety management, and we have grouped them into two categories: operation management and management resilience.
Finally, there is an absence of empirical quantitative studies, theoretical framework, or guidelines demonstrating how HROs principles can be distilled to improve construction safety management. There are indicators and assessment tools to investigate the characteristics of HROs present in high reliability project organising and to assess an organisations potential to become HROs [40
]. While there are opportunities to implement some of the principles, the primary research question for this study is: How can high reliability organisational theory as a safety management strategy hinder or enhance construction safety? A first step to answer this will be to test and validate the available indicators and assessment tools [40