By Dr. Jesus M. de la Garza

Safety experts have failed to eliminate injuries and fatalities from construction projects after decades of effort. That could be because workers are unintentionally offsetting their efforts.

de la Garza

This “risk compensation” effect is analogous to a thermostat, which activates when the temperature deviates from the target. Workers also maintain a target level of risk by adjusting their safe-versus-at-risk behaviors to achieve a balance between potential risks and benefits, according to earlier research studies.

Our research examined whether the concept of risk compensation could offset some safety benefits of protective equipment in the construction industry. First, an immersive virtual reality environment was developed to simulate a roofing activity. Then, we combined real-time location-tracking and psychophysiological sensors with qualitative sources of data. We monitored the reactionary behavioral responses of participants while they completed roofing tasks on a 27-degree physical roof section located at a virtual height of 20 feet under three, randomly ordered, levels of fall safety protection.

The results yielded unequivocal evidence of risk compensation. Participants responded to more fall protection by showing more reckless and at-risk behaviors, even a sense of invulnerability. Participants stepped closer to the roof edge, leaned over the edge, and spent more time exposing themselves to fall risk. This false sense of security increased their risk-taking behavior by up to 55 percent.

These findings could significantly influence how the construction industry approaches the development and implementation of more effective safety interventions to offset the influence of risk compensation. It is crucial to spread awareness about this phenomenon among safety professionals and workers in the construction industry. While this research focused on the risk compensation effect in the residential roofing industry, it lays the foundation for further investigations in transportation construction and other industry sectors.

Designing an evidence-based intervention to effectively mitigate the negative impact of risk compensation is a critical next step in the decades-long effort to reach zero safety incidents.

Jesus M. de la Garza, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering at Clemson University. He is also a subject matter expert for ARTBA’s Safety Certification for Transportation Project Professionals (SCTPP) program.