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Behavioural change: The next safety step

We’ve put up barriers; we’ve told people what not to do. Now where we do we look for the next step change in improving health and safety performance? We must shake up the way we behave. NCE reports.

Looking at statistics for fatal injuries in the 35 years since the Health & Safety at Work Act came in, it’s clear that we have come a long way. Across all industries (excluding the education, health and public service sectors),
there has been an average 2% per annum reduction in deaths at work, from 651 in 1974 to 166 in 2008.

In construction it is a similar picture, with an underlying downward trend showing the number killed per 100,000 workers falling from 5.9 in 2000/01 to 2.2 in 2009/10. That this increased to 2.4 last year is stark warning against complacency, and it goes without saying that all the rules, regulations and education that has gone in over the last 25 years must remain, and be enforced.

Accident reports

A glance through the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) latest announcements hammers home that point, with headlines such as “Liverpool boss in court over workers’ facial burns”, “National power firm fined after employee electrocuted”, “Two firms prosecuted for dangerous building site”, “Glasgow demolition worker fatally injured”, and “Worker crushed between two skips” proving that there is still much to be done, particularly among small and medium sized enterprises.

“Achieving further reductions in the industry’s accident rate requires us to go beyond physical intervention”

Laura Hague, Mott MacDonald

As HSE chief construction inspector Philip White says: “The construction industry continues to see more deaths than any other industrial sector. We must not lose sight of the fact that 50 construction workers failed to come home last year, and that will have devastated those they leave behind.

“The majority of deaths continue to be on small construction sites. Big construction companies have shown steady improvements over the last decade, and we want to see smaller firms take a similar lead,” he says.
White’s organisation is concerned that the construction industry has reached the bottom of the downward trend.

Certainly the rate has shown little change in recent years.

Bursts of improvement

The fall in the number of accidents has not been steady and uniform; it has gone in bursts, with plateaus in between. Mott MacDonald group safety manager Laura Hague has a good theory why. “First safety successes resulted from physical measures - fitting guards and rails to protect people from danger,” she explains. “Next came training - instructing people to avoid danger by following prescribed methods to create a safe system of work.

“More recently, we’ve had safety management systems, developing and focusing in on procedures and processes,” she continues. “And here we are, then, at the latest plateau. Is there anything more in the risk reduction armoury, or is our industry about as safe as it’s going to get?”

For Hague, the solution, the “lead”, is coming in the form of a “hearts and minds” approach.

“Achieving further reductions in the industry’s accident rate requires us to go beyond physical intervention, training and management systems,” she argues. “We must shake up the way we behave.”

Gaps in compliance

Skanska UK health and safety director Dylan Roberts is in full accord. “When we had accidents and incidents 10 years ago it was because there gaps in compliance or equipment or training. Those gaps don’t appear any more.

Now we are still having accidents and incidents but now it’s because people are making the wrong choices.

“So now it’s about thinking through the choices we make and what the consequences could be on ourselves and our colleagues,” he says.

“We must not lose sight of the fact that 50 construction workers failed to come home last year”

Philip White, Health & Safety Executive


“People need to be made responsible for spotting unsafe situations or acts, and taking steps to remove them or prevent them recurring,” agrees Hague.

“They need to be given the authority to challenge the behaviour of others, including their superiors, without fear of recrimination.”

Skanska is leading the way with its award winning Incident Free Environment (IFE) programme.

“We have made a commitment to be completely injury free. Our IFE is programme is key to achieving that and it is very much about leadership and personal responsibility - at work, on the way to work and at home,” says Roberts.

“We encourage everyone to challenge anyone that they think is doing something unsafe - which is a brave step - and then we encourage those challenged to thank them for it. It is very powerful.”

Attitude change

It also demands a real change in attitude throughout the workforce. At Skanska this is achieved by putting all employees through a four-hour orientation session led by two of Skanska’s 240 orientation leaders. Employees are encouraged to talk about their family, personal life, cares and concerns. “Once you start to get relationships forming, you start to get people caring about people,” says Roberts, “so that when it comes to having that tough conversation with a colleague over safety it is easier.” All 5,000 of Skanska’s directly employed staff have now taken part in an orientation session, and the process is being rolled out to its supply chain.

The message is reinforced through morning “stretch and flex” sessions on worksites where groups from all disciplines and companies get together to do some light exercises while talking about that day’s work. “The point is not for it to be a warm-up, but for people to have a conversation about what’s going on,” says Roberts.

Global safety shutdowns

Further reinforcement of the message comes from an annual health and safety week, family days on sites and, poignantly, through Global Safety Shut Downs. ” If a fatality occurs on a Skanska site anywhere in the world we pick a time to shut down all sites and offices at the same time to discuss what happened,” explains Roberts.

“Everyone takes part - suppliers, designers, clients - multiple teams unite and what happened is read out, there is a one minute silence to think about the individual and his or her family, and then there is an open discussion to see what can be done to prevent a similar incident happening again.

“It is clearly a brave thing to do but we believe there is far more value to be had in terms of trying to learn from the incident than trying to conceal it,” he says.

Thorough approach

It’s a really thorough approach and its working, with near miss reporting up.

And it’s a similar story at Mott MacDonald which has been developing its own behavioural approach to safety management for a number of years now, with reporting of near misses up more than 800% in three years.

“This is not a replacement for good planning, procedures and processes,” stresses Roberts. “There are organisations that have lost their focus because they have gone towards the behavioural approach. You absolutely cannot stop all the other safety-related training; that’s got us to where we are now. This is an additional piece.

The HSE is fully on board. “Improving health and safety is not about money, it’s about mindset. Planning jobs properly, thinking before you act and taking basic steps to protect yourself and your friends,” says White.

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