Planning for a Safe Project

by Jul 1, 2017

by | Jul 1, 2017

Safety on megaprojects does not come easily, or cheaply.  It requires intensive preparation, dedicated focus from all parties involved, a willingness to learn and a good portion of luck.


Safety on megaprojects does not come easily, or cheaply.  It requires intensive preparation, dedicated focus from all parties involved, a willingness to learn and a good portion of luck.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), project safety management includes all activities of the project sponsor/owner and the managing contractor which determine safety policies, objectives and responsibilities so the project is planned and executed in a manner that prevents accidents which cause or have the potential to cause personal injury, fatalities or property damages (PMI, 2016).

So, the project owner and the project sponsor has a definitive role to play in ensuring a safe project.  It is not a matter of sitting back and threatening the managing contractor when things go wrong.  In this article, we’ll look at some of the actions that the owner and sponsor can take to plan for a safe project.

The owner’s role in perspective

The project owner, or owner organisation, is that entity who will own and operate a new facility resulting from a project for economic gain.  The project sponsor is a senior member of the owner organisation with ultimate responsibility for the safe completion of a project and the achievement of specific business objectives.

An owner organisation implements projects to achieve business objectives, such as greater production capacity, new products, geographical expansion and product quality.  The owner will have in place a portfolio of projects, suitably prioritised, with which to meet its objectives.  These projects will be implemented as resources allow.  Ideally, every project should have a project sponsor who reports to the appropriate decision-making body in the organisation.

The bottom line is, the project owner is intimately involved with the project during the initiation, concept development and basic engineering stages, long before a managing contractor is appointed.  The owner therefore has a direct input in the inherent safety of a project.  For the construction stage of a project, the managing contractor will be responsible for safe construction of the facility, with input from the owner’s project management team.

From the owner’s perspective, four aspects require attention to elevate a project’s safety performance during implementation and operation.  These aspects are reflected in Figure 1, and can be summarised as follows:

  • Get the owner’s house in order regarding safety;
  • Set up the project for safety performance;
  • Monitor and control project safety performance; and
  • Celebrate safety achievements fairly.

Figure 1:  Owner’s safety role in perspective

Each of these aspects will be discussed in more detail in the following paragraphs.

Owner’s in-house approach to safety

A prerequisite for planning for a safe project is that the owner organisation must already have an established safety culture.  This means that top management must understand that they alone are responsible for safety in the organisation.  The safety manager is there to assist with the task and is responsible for safety system management and safety procedures. Any organisation with a high turnover in safety managers can be regarded with suspicion; this is an indication that the chief executive officer puts the blame for poor safety performance on the safety manager. 

An established safety culture also implies that a safety policy is available and understood by all employees and that clear safety objectives exist.  Ideally, a formalised safety management system should be in place, although, for start-up companies, this could follow later.  Safety meetings and discussions should be a regular occurrence.

Senior managers of the owner organisation should practice visible safety leadership and be consistent in their safety behaviours and safety inspections.  Safe work procedures should be in place for all tasks.  A formal change management procedure should be in place and diligently followed whenever a change in a safe work procedure is considered.

A clear approach to project safety is definitely advantageous.  Is it the standard to use inherently safer design principles and process automation, even if more expensive than the alternative?  Are individual safety targets set per project? This is recommended for larger projects, and more so for megaprojects with a timeline of several years.  For megaprojects on remote sites, a unique safety policy for the project is recommended.  Clarity is also required on the leading and lagging indicators of safety performance that are to be used.  Statistics of incidents and accidents is easy to understand, but it is impossible to manage safety using only lagging indicators.

The issues relating to the owner’s approach to safety, in general, and project safety are summarised in Figure 2.

Figure 2:  Owner’s in-house approach to safety

Set up the project for safety

Setting up the project for good safety performance means getting the right contractors on board, using the appropriate contracting strategy, and engineering in safety as far as possible.

Contractors, and especially the managing contractor, should be selected based on a set of decision criteria which includes safety performance measures.  Of importance is the contractor’s familiarity with the nature of the project and the location of the proposed project site, a good safety performance record, knowledgeable safety personnel and a formal project safety management system.  Regarding appropriate contracting, clearly state what is required in terms of safety, how it will be measured, and what leading and lagging indicators will be used.  Insist on an effective incident reporting and management system, safe work procedures for every task and proof that the artisans have been trained in these procedures.  I am not a supporter of contractually incentivising safety, or paying a performance bonus, based on lagging safety indicators, at the end of a project.  Often, this is an incentive for the contractor not to report incidents and accidents, with the consequence that opportunities to learn and correct problematic behaviour are missed.  Not taking corrective action in time means that the incident will repeat itself, with perhaps more devastating consequences.  Note that the more safety requirements are listed, the higher the contract price will be.

Engineered-in safety implies inherently safer process designs, as well as the use of safety studies at the right time.  Studies considered include hazard and operability studies (HAZOP), constructability and maintainability studies.  Concepts such as design for the environment can also reduce emissions and waste products, resulting in a cleaner and healthier environment for workers and the community.  Consider modularisation, where plant modules are constructed under ideal conditions and by experienced artisans in the contractor’s workshop.  Modularisation of the plant reduces construction time on the project site and thereby the likelihood of injuries.

The issues relating to setting up a project for good safety performance are summarised in Figure 3.

Figure 3:  Owner’s actions in setting up for project safety

Monitor and control project safety performance

Monitoring and controlling the project’s safety performance implies participation in the project by the owner project management team, a willingness to learn from accidents and incidents and reinforcing positive safety behaviours.

For proper participation by the owner, a strong owner project team and knowledgeable project sponsor is required.  Everyone should be well versed in all safety requirements.  Involve specialists and follow the management of change procedure for any deviation from standard methodologies.  Get involved in basic safety practises such as safety inspections and discussions; this is not only the responsibility of the project safety officer.  Understand that members of the owner project team are subject to all safety procedures and practices put in place by the managing contractor on the construction site, irrespective of their seniority.

The impact of a senior official ignoring site safety rules is far-reaching.  I know of an owner project manager on a megaproject who refused to follow the basic requirement of backing into site parking spaces for safe and quick departure in case of an emergency.  The message to all his team members is that safety rules are not applicable to everyone, or, only follow those safety rules that you like… 

Incidents and accidents will happen.  How you choose to deal with them is what is important.  The emphasis should be on determining the root cause of all incidents and accidents to prevent reoccurrences.  Take preventive actions as required and communicate lessons learnt to all teams.  Revise the safe work procedures, if necessary.  I know I’m stating the obvious, but the emphasis of an investigation should not be on punishing the guilty or determining where to reflect the safety statistic, as is so often the case.

Safety officers tend to focus on the negative: what is out of place and who is doing something wrong.  I believe that more can be achieved by reinforcing the positive.  Make it an objective to catch at least one person, or team, doing something right every day.  Immediate and positive feedback will reinforce the positive behaviours.  This does not mean that one should overlook unsafe behaviours.  However, the message is that the owner project team, in their interaction with the managing contractor and construction contractors, should be consistent in their behaviour.

The issues relating to monitoring and controlling the project’s safety performance are summarised in Figure 4.

Figure 4:  Monitor and control project safety performance

Celebrate project safety performance

When projects are successfully completed with a good safety performance record, as measured by lagging indicators, it is proper to celebrate.  However, refrain from becoming arrogant and bragging about it.  Remain humble, be thankful, and recognise that good fortune also played a part in your success…

It is important to recognise everyone’s contribution to a safe project; safety is a team effort.  However, if individuals are singled out for their specific contributions to project safety, take care to be fair and consistent and give credit where it is due.  Giving recognition to undeserving individuals can do more harm than good in the long term.  Celebrate small victories, for instance the completion of a difficult equipment lift or the achievement of specific project milestones, during a large project to keep the safety momentum high. 

Again, focus on the positive and learn from what went well.  Share best practices with other project teams for maximum synergy.  The issues around celebrating the project’s safety performance are summarised in Figure 5.

Figure 5:   Celebrate project safety performance

Concluding remarks

Project safety is a complex field and covers a great many aspects.  We’ve not touched upon matters such as treacherous terrain, language problems, religious beliefs, social problems, project delays and natural disasters.  These can all contribute to making project safety more difficult to manage.

The primary learnings from this article are:

  • The owner organisation is primarily responsible for safety on its project sites;
  • Appropriate contractor selection and contract wording is essential;
  • Safe work procedures and a change management procedure are required;
  • Engineer in safety as far as is practically possible;
  • Maximise preconstruction to minimise site construction;
  • Learn from accidents and focus on preventing reoccurrences;
  • Reinforce the positive and catch people doing things right; and
  • Remain humble and recognise that safety is a team effort.

I’ve not really shared anything new.   However, when it comes to safety, some matters deserve repeating.  Owners, get your own houses in order and set your projects up for safety performance!


PMI (Project Management Institute), 2016, Construction extension to the PMBOK® Guide, 3rd edition. Project Management Institute, Inc., Newtown square, Pennsylvania.

Jurie Steyn

Consulting Partner, Director

Jurie holds a BEng(Chem)Hons and an MBA. He has more than 37 years of engineering, operations management and functional management experience. He started, developed and managed the Environmental & Risk Engineering group in Sasol Technology for more than 14 years. More...


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