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Champions for change

Your career: Health and safety

Designers need to be more aware of health and safety issues. Properly trained 'safety champions' can show them the way, says John Carpenter, director of health and safety at Symonds Group.

The 'Revitalising health and safety in construction' conference held recently in London highlighted progress made since the watershed Prescott Summit in February, and aired views from delegates on key issues. It was very successful.

Much is happening and the industry is poised for fundamental change.

The action plans put in place by the industry's umbrella bodies, however, tend to concentrate on the construction phase.

Important though this is, we must not forget the essential need to raise the standard and competence of designers. After all, it is reported that a high percentage of site accidents and ill health are caused as a consequence of decisions made in the design office.

The Construction Industry Council represents designers in this regard and has its own action plan. Notwithstanding, more needs to be addressed.

Significant client bodies such as those signed up to the Clients' Charter - involving both the public and private sectors - have made it clear that they expect contractors' standards to rise.

We should anticipate similar improvements from designers.

The first signs of this are apparent in the Office for Government Commerce publication Achieving excellence through health and safety and should surface also in the new ACOP for the CDM regulations.

In addition to the general obligations on designers via the Health & Safety at Work Act, and the particular needs of the CDM regulations, anecdotal evidence suggests that designers have not yet fully signed up to the overall aims.

Many designers still lack an understanding of the process.

The contractor does not always benefit from appropriate designer input to the early stages of a project.

In part this is due to a lack of expertise and drive within design organisations, both at managerial and operational levels. Lip service prevails. Most do not have staff qualified in health and safety, or if they do, they tend not to interact with designers as an integral part of the project process. The 'competent advice' that all organisations are obliged to have access to tends to be separated from construction related matters, preferring to stick to general occupational issues.

What we need are 'champions for change'. This concept was first mooted at a conference on undergraduate health and safety teaching in 1999. There it was recognised that in university departments lacking wide knowledge on health and safety, one member of staff should be nominated as the co-ordinator, growing to be the acknowledged expert.

Of course, sufficient investment in training and time needs to be made available to the nominated individual to allow this to be effective.

A recent report to HSE on the subject of the teaching of health and safety at universities has recommended that this concept be pursued. The model lends itself well to design organisations, which often have no comprehensive knowledge or power to raise the standard of health and safety risk management to construction projects within the firm.

Such a person, while remaining a designer, would be invested with the time to acquire a recognised qualification - perhaps the NEBOSH certificate in the first instance, maybe moving on to a diploma in the longer term.

They would also be knowledgeable about current initiatives such as M4i and the Construction Best Practice Programme, keep track of relevant trends and issues and have a belief in the ability of health and safety risk management to raise project standards overall.

This approach also helps to reinforce the key importance of designers - as noted in the new ACOP - and the fact that health and safety risk management is an integral part of all designers' input to a project.

Thus the health and safety champion will not detract from the responsibilities of individual designers any more than a nominated health and safety director removes the need for fellow managers to discharge their responsibilities.

Nor should it suggest that designers do not need to acquire formal knowledge in this area.

On the contrary, the champion will make colleagues aware of these opportunities and urge them to better both themselves and the prospects for their organisation.

Key points

Health and safety professionals have a growing role in business

Construction firms often lack specialist health and safety knowledge

Health and safety risk management is integral to design

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