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Designing for safety: the buck stops where?

Health & Safety

Over 200 people will attend NCE's conference on designing for safety today, underlining how seriously the industry takes health and safety . But as new research by NCE shows, there is still a great deal of confusion, or complacency, over what can be achieved and who is responsible for taking the lead. Jackie Whitelaw reports.

Eighty seven percent of you say designers can do more to boost safety; but only 8% believe most accidents on site are down to poor design. 72% think the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) should do more to help designers understand their responsibilities yet 71% of you believe you get all the safety training the need.

The picture from NCE's latest research on health and safety attitudes in the industry - carried out to coincide with our conference today (Thursday) on CDM Regulations: designing for safety - reveals a confused or even complacent industry.

Close questioning of a 120 strong sample of construction professionals, split evenly between designers, contractors and clients, was intended to find out more about attitudes towards health and safety and followed a general survey in the magazine earlier this year (NCE 23 September).

This initial straw poll showed general agreement that designers could do more to design out health and safety risks during construction, but also revealed that they needed to be told how to achieve this by someone else.

Our latest research underlines those points and reveals that the 'someone else' should be either HSE (72%) or the professional institutions (76%). And the people who needed to be taught were not working designers - 65% of whom said they fully understood their responsibilities under health and safety legislation, but 'young engineers' (53%).

All of which demonstrates a rather wimpy, hand washing attitude by designers, according to Keith Clarke, the head of the UK's largest consulting engineer Atkins. 'It's sad to hear designers say its up to someone else to tell us what to do, ' he says.

'And it's not reasonable of us to expect guidance from the client; we are meant to be advising them!'

His disappointment was echoed rather more strongly by Strategic Forum chairman and construction director at client Stanhope, Peter Rogers. 'There's a lot of arrogance revealed in these results, ' he says.

''I know what I need to know and it's not my problem' is what these results appear to be saying.'

Rogers was particularly surprised by the fact that 70% of respondents said they were aware of the latest techniques and construction methods available to use on site. 'That's just not right and it's what I mean about arrogance. People don't know how much they don't know.'

Rogers was encouraged, however, by the fact that 86% of respondents believed that more input from the contractor made designs easier to construct.

It points to the power of the integrated team - something the Strategic Forum is strongly promoting. 'Maximum value in efficiency, and safety, is at the start of design - in the first six to nine months of a project.

You need input from the contractor up front.'

Latest death and injury figures for construction were published last week by the HSE. They show that 70 people were killed by the industry in 2003/4, a rate of 3.55 deaths per hundred thousand workers. Although down just one from last year, the figures show the lowest death rate in the last 12 years and a 6% reduction in major injuries to workers.

'We made it socially unacceptable to drink and drive, ' says Clarke.

'We have to do the same for killing and injuring people in construction.'

Atkins' health and safety figures are reported to the board quarterly. People can lose their bonuses over them and their attitude to safety, Clarke says.

It is something the company takes seriously because it makes moral sense, not because it is driven to do so by the share price.

'Your share price is immune to death, unless it on the railways. Construction deaths make no difference, ' he says.

'If we can make deaths in construction socially unacceptable then the legislation will only reflect that belief and our behaviour will change.'

Clarke believes legislation will have to be used to encourage the industry to accept its moral responsibilities. 'I do think severe punishment for when we go wrong is an option.'

Draconian perhaps, but 49% of respondents agree. The survey results show the industry is certainly aware of the consequences of things going wrong. And 42% of designers go further and say there is an atmosphere of fear being created within the design community by the HSE's recent prosecutions of designers, notably consultant Andrew Allan (NCE 13 May).

So what does the HSE make of the results? Well, its chief inspector for construction Kevin Myers was quite encouraged.

'The construction health and safety summit in 2001 was all about turning concern into action - getting the people who create the risks to take responsibility for that, ' he says. 'These figures show there is a raised awareness about the risks but that people are not clear about what they are supposed to be doing.

Myers says he believes things have moved on in construction as we begin to see the benefits of investment. The fatality rate, he points out, is the lowest on record, despite the industry being busy and the number of skills available continuously low.

NCE's research showed that 79% wanted more information to help designers to do their jobs better - with 72% asking for the HSE to spend more time with them and 76% wanting the institutions to do more to tackle safety problems in construction.

'Improvement is a long slow process however, ' says Myers.

'It is good to see that cost is not an issue in safe design [only 17% of people think it is].'

The research also highlighted that only 8% of construction professionals felt most accidents were solely down to poor design.

Myers agreed that most accidents could not be put down to a single cause, and were usually a combination of design, site issues, and bad luck.

However, he added: 'Our research shows though that in up to 40% of accidents design is a contributory factor.'

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