Unless it is 'absolutely chucking down' with rain, the Health & Safety Executive's (HSE) new chief inspector for construction Stephen Williams whizzes around London on a folding bike. Dodging buses, taxis and white vans on the capital's streets is, in most people's eyes, a pretty unsafe thing to do. But 'it's the best way of getting about'.
Williams' approach to personal transport is similar to his approach to construction health and safety: with due care, well tuned brakes, a fluorescent bib and a crash helmet, the dangers of cycling can be brought within very acceptable limits.
He stepped into the role of construction chief inspector three weeks ago from the HSE's rail division, where he was head of policy. 'Changes in the rail industry [absorption of the health and safety inspection role into the Office of Rail Regulation] meant I would have had to move anyway - there were a number of jobs I could have applied for within the HSE. But when I heard [former chief inspector] Kevin Myers was being promoted I jumped to apply for the post. This is way beyond the standard day job - I'm very excited, ' Williams enthuses.
The chief inspector's job marks Williams' return to construction. During the early 1990s he was HSE lead inspector for construction in Kent, keeping an eye on delivery of the QEII Dartford Bridge and the Channel Tunnel, among many other projects.
'The Dartford Crossing was an exemplary project - in many ways ahead of its time, ' Williams notes. 'Nobody died on it, and it was delivered to budget and on schedule.' Ten years ago, much of the construction industry did not measure up so well, he notes, and he takes some pride in having drafted the Construction (Design & Management) - or CDM - Regulations in 1994.
'At the time the CDM Regs were hugely important - and although the construction industry is far better at health and safety today, they remain so. In 1994 construction was sticking out like a sore thumb for accidents, injuries, ill health and occupational hygiene. Safety has improved markedly, but it's still an issue, and ill health and hygiene have not changed greatly.' Because trips, slips and falls can be easily tallied, the focus in the last decade has been on eliminating safety hazards, Williams observes.
Williams was tempted back to construction by its challenge relative to other industries: 'I'm motivated because I believe there's still a lot to be done in construction. The work's inherently more difficult [than factory work]. Sites - and the nature of the work on them - are far more complicated. Less is fixed; there's less repetition.' Construction does not lend itself so obviously to a prescribed set of safety rules, Williams summarises.
He commends the major contractors for having implemented strategies that have dramatically reduced site accidents. 'My objective is to drive that improvement down to smaller sites.' He sees this as a decade-long process.
Squeezing unsafe practices out of the construction industry and improving occupational health is '95% about persuasion - showing managers the business case for doing things better and holding up a mirror to the industry'. Incessant, gentle but firm pressure will be applied by Williams' 210 staff, he says.
The remaining 5% of the battle will be fought using the HSE's prosecuting powers. 'Where people are putting others' lives at risk for their own commercial gain, stiff penalties need to apply. Everybody needs to play their role - clients and designers as well as contractors.' Williams is coming up for his 30th year with the HSE. He admits to having felt a calling to health and safety, and has never wavered from his chosen path. He studied industrial technology and management at Bradford University, a course designed to prepare bright students for leadership roles in British business. But by the time he graduated Williams had become disillusioned with the money grabbing mentality of some of his peers.
He happened on the HSE when his father, who ran a large electronics factory, was visited by factory inspectors following an industrial accident, and joined the then new body in 1977 as an inspector, doing rounds of factories housed under the railway arches of south London. 'That was a very interesting and informative period. It showed me that there really was a job to be done - that although there were some perfectly good employers, others were scoundrels.' He graduated to inspecting print works, then spent a brief spell behind a desk at HSE headquarters before being assigned to inspect factories in Kent. This led to his role as inspector for construction in Kent, and his last job as head of rail policy 'drawing up regulations and advising ministers on railway safety'.
'Working directly for ministers was extremely interesting and a challenging period in my life.
It helped me to understand the wider workings of the government.
'And at each stage I could see why my particular job was needed, ' Williams adds.
Williams says his first month as construction chief inspector has been a whirlwind of meetings, in which he has been reaquainting himself with the industry and its issues by talking to the people most directly involved - contractors, consultants and clients. He reckons he will be properly on top of his brief by Christmas.